A couple of days ago, I returned to Odisha after ten years. It was my first time seeing Bhubaneswar beyond supermarkets and airport. In 2011, I went on from there to Jajpur Road, where my parents lived then. And even though this latest trip of mine lasted only two days, I can tell you that I’ve wholeheartedly fallen in love with Bhubaneswar.
It is very easy to feel at home in Bhubaneswar, especially if you are from Vizag. The coast is not far, coconut trees grow in abundance, and blue-green hills border the city. As the plane descends, the thin grey clouds parted to reveal a vivid green landscape — I want to say English landscapes, but then who gave them the monopoly? A sinuous river appears on the horizon, a sand bank rising from it, and I wish that the plane would just stay suspended up there for a while. Soon, houses dot the expanse, and a few clusters of highrise buildings appear in my window. Forests, river, fields, then a little city — I could move here. (This is also a throwback to my first domestic flight ever, and I’ve tried to be a little self-conscious in taking pictures of things I enjoy.)
I take a cab to my hotel and keep my nose pressed to the window (or whatever the COVID-19 version of that is). I fail miserably when I try to decipher the beautiful curves of the Odiya script; it is not close to anything I can read. The unique images of Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra are on various walls and in shop windows — in appliqué, wood, paintings, print, what have you. But though these images (and Puri and Konark) are perhaps the first thing you think of when you hear of Odisha, there is more. Like a happy parent, Odisha celebrates the men’s and women’s hockey teams that went to the Olympics and did India proud — hoardings and posters are everywhere. Occasionally, advertisements announcing Durga Puja sales appear. Celebration is in the air.
I feel nostalgic for some places I once knew, Vizag and Jamshedpur and Durgapur, different towns coming together, their mini-buses, hills, planned townships, and friendly people mingling in my head. Bhubaneswar seems to have them all. The driver takes me through lanes that remind me of quiet government colonies, residents huddled in their houses built decades ago, stained compound walls shutting them away from the bustle. But they are also the lucky ones, with their little gardens and independent open spaces. This is like the places I grew up in — but before we know it, we are back in the stream of the present.
While this is a work trip, we hope to squeeze in some sight-seeing and shopping. There are a few things I’m looking forward to: in a way, this is a sequel to my 2011 trip, when my parents and I went to Puri, Konark, and Dhauli. Besides the temples, we saw the now-serene battlefields that our history textbooks told us changed Ashoka’s mind and led to his conversion to Buddhism. We saw Ashoka’s edict at the base of the hill. This year, I plan to learn more about Kharavela, the Jain king of the Mahameghavahana dynasty, which succeeded Ashoka’s Mauryas.
Most of what is known about Kharavela comes from the Hathigumpha inscription in Brahmi. I first heard of Kharavela from Sanjeev Sanyal’s work, and my next encounter with the name occurred only when I passed the government building called ‘Kharavel Bhavan’. Who is this king who is spoken so little of in our textbooks, but is said to have avenged some of the injustices that Ashoka perpetrated on Kalinga during his bloody conquest? What does the inscription say, and where does Kharavela stand in popular imagination today, or even Ashoka? What happened to all the other rulers who came later? Why did they not feature as much in our textbooks (this one is a little easier to answer if you’re looking for information on about any empire outside the Mughal)? But my thoughts are running away with me.
Too many questions, too little time. Temples, caves, museums, shops, an ancient capital. We have to choose judiciously. I know where I want to go.