Kila Dalijoda: Exploring Rural Odisha from a Royal Castle
The sprawling mansion looked like a medieval European castle with its arched bay windows and turrets in each corners, the dark red laterite façade gleaming in the morning sun. We got down from our car, and were immediately greeted by Debjit Singh Deo, who owns and runs this heritage building amid the bucolic settings of rural Odisha in eastern part of India. Debjit’s great grandfather King Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo of Panchkote had built this two-storeyed mansion in 1933 as a royal hunting lodge.
After serving as the hunting lodge for the royal family for a few decades, it lay abandoned for years when Debjit and his wife, Namrata decided to move into this house. The enterprising couple painstakingly restored it, carefully retaining the authenticity and regal charm with period furniture and many of the original props, before opening a few of the rooms for intrepid guests travelling to this part of the world.
Early next morning, Debjit led us through a trail in the forest that rings Kila Dalijoda. The jungle is part of the famed Kapilas Elephant Sanctuary and pachyderms often veer off close to the mansion. We were not lucky to spot any elephant though, but the lush green stretch is an ornithologist’s delight with its pack of parakeets, jungle fowls, black-headed oreoles and Indian roller birds. A kingfisher dazzled us with its mélange of hues as itflew from an Arjuna tree to a solitary pole on a small water body. “It’s their nesting time,” – Debjit informed me. A keen naturalist, Debjit has been organizing immersive tours for school children in these forests and also in nearby Bhittarkanika National Park for a better understanding of forest management and conservation of wildlife and biodiversity.
And immersive it is! Soon, we reached a tribal hamlet of Shabor community. A hunter-gatherer tribe, the Shabors are some of the earliest inhabitants of the plateaus and plains of Eastern India, and it was wonderful to have an intimate glimpse into their quiet, unhurried flow of life, as we wandered through the cluster of humble mud-and-straw homesteads. It was heartening to note that the village is free from the overarching urban trend of “tribal tourism” that often disrupts the natural rhythm of indigenous lifestyle, with minimal benefits to them. Kunti, a middle-aged Shabor lady, enlightened us with ways of making rice-beer and its health benefits. “We don’t want to project our villages as showpieces, and let our guests interact with the residents of these hamlets as acquaintances, and not intruders,” – Debjit said.
A sumptuous lunch awaited us at our base – a delectable mix of Odishi cuisine and old favourites from the Panchkote royal kitchen. With dainty pancakes encased in turmeric leaves as starters, a tangy and spicy mutton dish served with soft pies for mains and the proverbial Odishi chhenapoda (a burnt cheese cake with sweet notes) as dessert, it was a delicious and exotic treat for the famished souls after a hard morning’s work!
Our post-lunch session was reserved for two very well-maintained museums in Cuttack. Odisha State Maritime Museum chronicles ancient Odisha’s fabled maritime trade through exquisite exhibits from the early medieval period to the colonial era. The museum stands on the site of the Maritime Engineering Workshop established by the British on the banks of River Mahanadi and has meticulously recreated the workshop through life-sized sculptures, machines and naval apparatus that were used back in those days.
Our next pit stop was the great Indian freedom fighter Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s ancestral house in Cuttack – a rambling mansion where the legendary hero was born and spent his early years. Now converted into a museum, the rooms are choc-a-block with Netaji memorabilia, family furniture and personal artefacts.
The next day’s excursion was to the craft villages near Kila Dalijoda. After a 60-km drive through leafy countryside, we rolled into the weavers’ hamlet of Nuapatna, where the traditional craft of handloom weaving dates back centuries. The village street is entangled with lengths of colourful warp thread tied between poles and wefts stretched on frames. A whirring buzz of spinning wheels wafted in from the humble homesteads as we walked the streets of the non-descript village. Debjit took us to the workshop of Sarat Kumar Patra, a master weaver in the trade for more than 50 years. A multi-award winner artisan, Patra demonstrated the painstaking process of Ikat weaving – from the painted designs, their translations on to graph papers and finally the evolution into meticulous patterns woven into the textiles around spiritual, religious and aesthetic motifs.
We drove next to Sadaiberini – a tribal village in Dhenkanal district, home to about 50 families with 140-odd artisans who have solidly placed this remote hamlet into the world map with their ancient Dokra or bell metal craft that dates back to the period of Indus Valley Civilization. We were shown the intricacies of this metal casting art that uses brass and bees-wax and brings out wispy mesh-like threads that lends a distinctive beauty to the dainty ensemble of tribal figurines, animal sculptures, deities and sundry decorative pieces such as vases, door handles, and photo-frames.
The trip finale would be a surprise, Debjit had promised us. It was late afternoon when we arrived in Joranda at the rainbow-coloured gate of the headquarters of Alekh Mahima Dharma, a religious order that worships an omnipresent, formless god and shuns conventional strictures, including, most importantly, the caste system. This little-known Hindu cult dates back to the latter half of the 19th century. The monks lead a simple life of asceticism, celibacy and meditation. Evening prayers had started when we reached the monastery. Clad in saffron loin-clothes, a motley squadron of dreadlocked sadhus held up their bare hands and chanted in unison “Alekh Mahima” repeatedly, as we, along with a band of fascinated spectators, watched in silence. Dusk descended gently on the vast monastic complex, where the idol-less temples were now being lighted with lamps. In the gathering darkness we turned back towards Kila Dalijoda, our home away from home for these three days with its beautiful stained-glass windows, royal bedchambers and a dark red façade that reminds one of a European castle.
Cover: Sadhus praying at the monastery. Photo by Sugato Mukherjee
Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer based in Calcutta with bylines in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, Nat Geo Traveller, Atlas Obscura and Discovery, among others. While documenting humanitarian stories remains his priority, he equally loves to explore new destinations and write about them. Sugato’s coffee table book on Ladakh has been published from Delhi, and his work on sulphur miners of East Java has been awarded by UNESCO.