Long ago, when angels and demons inhabited the earth as freely as humans, an evil pirate king named Raktabahu decided to raid Puri with his navy. The ships anchored offshore to avoid detection so that the pirates could launch a surprise attack. However, the sea gave their secret away, the townsfolk senses trouble and fled away, leaving an abandoned city to the pirates. The failure of the raid filled Raktabahu with rage and he marched to the sea, intending to punish it for the ‘betrayal’. The clever sea dutifully parted to let the pirates march in, and surged back as soon as they entered, drowning everyone and forming a large lake in the process.
This is how popular folklores of Odisha describe the birth of the Chilika Lake. I will not question your scientific bent of mind if you consider it very improbable; there must be a more plausible (and geological) explanation to explain the lake came into existence, but we can just play along. Anyway…
Opposition parties had conveniently declared a Bharat Bandh (general strike) on the very day when we had plans to visit Chilika Lake. However, the hotel staff in Puri guessed that any trouble was unlikely as the bandh was led by Congress, especially if we left early. That’s what we did.
Chilika is a brackish water lake, a huge lagoon, touching at least three districts of Odisha. It happens to be one of the largest such lakes in the world, and certainly without peer in India, covering an area of over 1100 sq km. It is an integral part of the local culture and economy; more than 1.5 people live in the 132 villages settled near its shores and depend on its waters for their livelihood. The lagoon is also a favourite of migratory birds with nearly 225 species flocking to it during the winters, some covering as much as 12000 km to reach here.
Coming back to the trip, so we respected the sentiments of the politicians and reached the tourist centre at Satapada by avoiding major roads after a rather uneventful journey.
The tourist centre was a disappointment, there are hardly any facilities like clean toilets or sitting area. The boat charges were on a higher side, but since that was the very intent of our visit, we took a package and walked to the jetty with our boatman. He was a middle-aged smiling fellow who took good care of us and showed us around leisurely. The boats are mostly wooden with a shade above and had nominal safety standards. Similar boats are used to ferry villagers from one station to another and since the lake is mostly very shallow, the risk is apparently lesser.
If Chilika has to be described in one word, it has to be serene. Do not go there expecting adventure or many activities; all you can do is – relax, soak in the beauty of nature, and live the moment. This is what we did for most of the time, bask in the quaint beauty of the lake, interrupted only by occasion annoyance of unscrupulous hustlers trying to pass on fake pieces of glass and plastic as gems and pearls.
Chilika and the humans living on its shores have developed a close symbiotic relationship for centuries. We see this connection unravel itself once we are in its waters, watching the lives of the people who live there, lives that depend on the lake in more than one ways. There are fishermen setting their nets for the daily harvest, children going to school, hawkers selling their wares on boats and many such glimpses of the life in the region.
Dolphins of Chilika
Irrawaddy Dolphins are to Chilika, what Tigers are to the jungles of Central India. These intelligent mammals are the star of Chilika and cause as much clamour among tourists when sighted, as does the king of the Jungle in the forests. There are regulations stating that the boats must maintain a distance of 50 m from the dolphins, but in the rush to sight them (in expectation of tips), I am not sure if the rules were being followed all the time.
Fortunately, our boatman was careful enough to silence the engines every time a dolphin came near our boat. We saw these beautiful creatures jumping in and out of the water. Let me tell you, it was incredible!
We were also able to spot many migratory birds in the area; however, my knowledge of birds is not good yet and I did not recognize many of them. Guess we will have to visit it again in the winters, and with reference books, for a better-informed birding experience. Nalaban Bird Sanctuary will be the place to be at then.
Crab Island and Sea Mouth
Towards the mouth of the lake, where it meets the sea, there is an uninhabited island known as the Crab Island, primarily because of an abundance of red crabs on its beach. The face of the island facing the sea has a beautiful and almost virginal white sand beach, with sand dunes on one side and a forest on the other. We spent some time there just getting our feet wet and watched a fisherman as he proceeded to catch some fish for the evening.
The other side of the island, facing the jetty has some shanties selling cold drinks, water and seafood, which tasted great. I just hope that they are taking care of a proper disposal of waste. It would be a shame if this beautiful island were spoiled because of unchecked commercialization as it happened to numerous tourist places across India.
Chilika was a good experience, a day spent close to nature and its people. I hope the authorities take some steps to improve the tourist facilities and control the use of plastics in the area, but the place is relatively uncommercialized till now and a good place to visit. We will go again, this time for the birds.