Wednesday, November 18, 2015

ORISSA (India)

Travel date: November 2014

INDIA: Encounters in Rural Orissa
by Jim Johnston (

The Rajah of Panchkote's tiger-hunting lodge has seen better days. But as his great grandson Debjit Singh Deo relates the story of the family estate, the opulence of that bygone era springs to life.

"Our family palace in West Bengal had the largest chandelier in Asia at the time--it took three elephants to hoist it into place. There was a customized Rolls Royce, several houses by the sea, and this," he says with a sweep of his hand. "Once the largest private game reserve in the whole state of Orissa."

The lodge, built in the 1930's and known as Kila Dalijoda (Fort in the Forest), was the family's summer home, an escape from the stifling heat of West Bengal. Back then, the rajah traveled with more than fifty servants at his command, including cooks, priests, doctors, musicians and dancing girls, flower arrangers, masseurs, car mechanics, a technician to maintain his collection of clocks, a specialist to prepare his hookah, and of course, someone to skin the tigers. The queen and her entourage had their own staff.

"Our ancestry goes back to 81 A.D.," Debjit states proudly. "But after Independence, the family's fortune declined."

Coal mines, the rajah's main source of wealth, were nationalized, and land was expropriated for an elephant sanctuary (the tigers had been hunted to near extinction), reducing the family holdings from 11,000 acres to 80. The Rolls Royce and the chandelier were auctioned off. Most of the land is now devoted to rice paddies, cultivated by local villagers, who pay a small tax to the estate.

The house was abandoned for more than thirty years when Debjit arrived in 2005 with his new bride Namrata. "There were trees growing on the roof," she recalls, laughing. "And roots were dangling down into the dining room." Rats, bats, pigeons and lizards inhabited the upper floors, and the ground floor was taken over by the local land revenue office--it's still there.

"In a way it was a blessing that the tax men came," Debjit explains. "Otherwise the whole house would have been taken away, stone by stone--anything portable was carted off by the villagers long ago."

The house, made of local volcanic stone, was designed in the somber European style fashionable at the time, with none of the ornate Mughal details often associated with India. Debjit and Namrata made part of the upstairs into an apartment for themselves and their 6-year old daughter, decorating it with period furniture. Two guest rooms are simply furnished with antique beds and old photographs. What looks like a fireplace is actually an old safe, where the raja stashed his jewels.

"We aim to keep the estate self-sustaining, as it was in the old days," Debjit states proudly. All of the gas for cooking comes from methane, produced in a simple cistern utilizing cow manure. The cows also provide milk, cheese and yogurt, made fresh daily. Most of the vegetables and rice are grown within view of the kitchen.

Rooms are cooled in summer by thick curtains fashioned from aromatic twigs of the khus tree. Through a network of small tubes, water drips down the curtains, cooling and scenting the air as it passes through. 

Although Namrata claims not to be a great cook, the food she serves from her simple kitchen is superb. "We eat mostly vegetarian," she explains, "and occasionally lamb and quail." Chicken is not permitted in the house because the property is dedicated to the Hindu deity Bagalamata, in whose presence chickens are not allowed. "We can eat chicken outside of the house if we want, but never inside."

Debjit is keen to show the traditional life of rural Orissa, so after touring the estate we head off to some surrounding tribal villages. As we walk down the lane away from his house, something incredible occurs. Gone is the familiar cacophony of India. As far as one can see in either direction there is neither a vehicle nor a person, not a sound to be heard except the chirping of a few birds.

Orissa, one of the poorest states in India, is home to many indigenous tribes, each with its own customs, languages and religious beliefs (most are animists who worship nature). We visit the village of Kuchila Nuagon, inhabited by the Munda tribe. A scraggly tulsi tree, sacred to the Munda, guards the entrance of the compound. The mud-brick houses have thatched roofs and walls painted with geometric and floral designs. Floors are recovered weekly with a thin layer of fine mud that is burnished to a smooth, clean surface. With the exception of a few plastic buckets, almost every object in sight is hand made. Most villagers are off in the fields, but a few are busy husking rice or collecting firewood to sell in the weekly market. A team of oxen yoked to an old millstone grinds wheat.

We visit the local goshala, a combination orphanage/old age home for cows. Young cows from families too poor to feed them, or old bulls beyond breeding age, are sent here. The place is luxurious by village standards, and spotlessly clean.

The remote Sabar tribe village of Banjhiama is an hour's walk through the jungle foothills of an elephant reserve. Debjit had mentioned recent rampages that destroyed some local rice paddies, so the occasional elephant droppings cause a bit of alarm. What would happen if one showed up? "Don't worry, he says reassuringly, "They only come out at night."

As we emerge from the forest, a serene view of rice paddies appears before us. A few women are harvesting rice, the thatched roofs of their village visible in the distance. Suddenly one woman starts screaming, racing to the edge of the paddy, waving her arms frantically. "Monkeys," Debjit explains. "They're a real nuisance here. They just tear up the rice plants, and don't even eat them."

A few dusty children and an old woman crouching on the ground, her black wrinkled skin gleaming in the sunlight, greet us as we enter the village. Seeing Debjit her face lights up in a broad smile, exposing a mouthful of teeth stained red from chewing betel nuts.

"Her husband was a guide for my grandfather when he came to hunt tigers. I represent the family to them. Nobody else from the outside world comes here. There is no medical care, no help from the government. So they consider my presence a great honor."

With Debjit as interpreter, I ask how old she is; she has no idea. "When will you come back to visit us?" she asks. "Next year," I answer hopefully. "I'll probably be dead by then," she says with a big grin.

On the way home, we pass a simple roadside hut selling vegetables and  paan, a pungent mixture of spices wrapped in a leaf, used by locals much like chewing tobacco. A few men greet us in a surprisingly friendly manner, and offer a taste of rassi, the local liquor made from rice. "An Australian woman who was here recently insisted on trying it and was sick for days," Debjit warns. "It's a real problem with the local men. It's one of their few entertainments, but it wrecks their bodies and causes all kinds of problems at home with their wives."

Another day we visit the Alekh Mahima Dharma temple in the town of Joranda to witness a fire ceremony. Founded in 1876 by Mahima Gosain, this monotheistic sect attracts followers from poorer classes of society, and is particularly strong in tribal areas of Orissa. Sadhus, holy men who renounce worldly goods (including most of their clothing), oversee the temple complex and tend the eternal flame, which has been maintained for nearly 150 years. Unusual for India, no idols are found in the Mahima temple, as they believe there is no possible visual representation of God.

In spite of their otherworldly looks, the sadhus turned out to be a funny bunch of guys, eager to have their picture taken, showing off their long hair, smiling and laughing amongst themselves and with us, clearly expressing their teachings, which stress peace and brotherly love.

During the final meal with the Deo family, the couple tells of their arranged marriage. "We can only marry within the royal Rajput lineage, and astrology is very important," Namrata explains as she serves steaming, hand rolled chapati. "I had a very unusual chart, so it took a long time to find someone like Debjit. I tell people he's one in a million. "

According to one popular guidebook, the state of Orissa receives only about 1000 western visitors each year. Aside from the temple at Konark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it lacks high profile tourist destinations. The real treasures here are memories of the people  encountered in this remote corner of Orissa.  

To arrange to stay at Kila Dalijoda, contact Debjit by email at

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