16-Feb-2009 -- The appeal of this Confluence was the possibility of several interesting stops along the way. From Bhubaneswar we would have to travel parallel to the coastline going south, touching Chilika lake and Gopalpur Beach. Gumma is on the extreme western side of Orissa, on the border with Andhra Pradesh. We would have to traverse the Mahendragiri Hills of the eastern ghats and would pass thru the hot springs of Taptapani, the Tibetan settlement of Chandragiri and the ancient town of Paralakhamendi. The diversity of nature in its geographical abundance and the social cultural milieu that we would encounter on this trip filled us with eager anticipation.
We left Bhubaneswar early on the morning of the 15th of February 2009. There were four of us, me, Kashi, Narayan and our new member Rabi. The Confluence hunting syndrome is very infectious, and Rabi had too been struck. He is a co-worker in the finance company we work in, and had always been puzzled when we pored over maps and made our strategies for the various CP’s we had visited.
We took the National Highway No 5. driving south and soon reached our first stop of the day. Barkul, on Chilika lake is just about 110 Kms from Bhubaneswar. We took a left turn from the highway to reach Tourism Department’s Panthanivas. Over breakfast, plans were made to have a short island hopping trip on the Lake.
Swarming with bird life, thick with fish and dotted with lush green wetlands along its shores, the Chilika Lake seems like a vision crafted by some imaginative artist in the mists of prehistory. In truth, Chilika is one of Asia's largest lagoons. Arguably the finest wetland on the Indian subcontinent, it sustains over 25,000 small fishermen and is a declared international Ramsar Site attracting large numbers of aquatic birds, the migrants among which are the focus of an intense on-going ornithological study.
During the monsoon, the waters cover about 1,000 sq. km. and shrink to 750 sq. km in the summer. Chilika Lake was declared a sanctuary in 1972 and later, in 1981, declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. In December 1987, 15.53 sq.km. of the Nalabana island was also declared a sanctuary. Years ago, when Chilika was a deep and open bay, merchant ships used to drop anchor en route to Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra and Khamboj (Cambodia) - the fabled spice lands of the East. There is a rich maritime tradition in Orissa’s past, and Chilika figures importantly in it.
The relatively new sandy ridges that now give Chilika its unique pear shape prevent it from being used as a deep draft harbour any longer. An interesting 4th century tale told to explain the birth of Chilika goes like this - Raktavahu (Red Arm) was believed to have travelled across the seas in an armada to plunder the rich and holy town of Puri. But the citizens of Puri deserted the town in anticipation of the attack. Raktavahu was enraged that his approach had proved futile and therefore directed his fury towards the sea that had betrayed him. The sea parted to let the army march in before the waves turned in and smothered the entire army in its tides. At the point where the sea parted, lies Chilika Lake.
Chilika is home to the only known population of Irrawaddy dolphins in India and one of only two lagoons in the world that are home to this species. Interestingly, a recent study has conformed that the population of the species on the rise, a fact that has made many conservationists happy.
Containing a large variety of fish, the lake provides a livelihood to thousands of fisherman. Hundreds of boats sail out daily on the lake’s blue expanse in search of mackerel, prawn and crabs- the sight providing an insight into the pageant of rural India at its colorful best. Most of the boats are primitive dugouts, with small canvas sails. Many fishermen can also be seen delicately perched on bamboo poles, patiently angling for fish with their fishing rods.
After a lazy breakfast, we hired a motorboat and put-putted our way out of the small harbour. The lake is encircled by the hills of the Eastern Ghats all along its arched shape shores. Chilika Lake has distinct moods, and this is reflected in the colour which changes with the passing clouds and the shifting sun. The water ripples languidly, occasionally dancing with a gentle breeze from across the Bay of Bengal. The lake was shallow at this time of the year and the water so clear that we could see the sea weeds growing on the lake bed.
We passed small islands, which were bleached while by the guano of the migratory birds. The islands were agog with the myriad hues of the Pink Flamingos, the Grey and Purple Herons, Egrets, Storks, Plovers, Sandpipers and Black Headed Ibises. White Bellied Eagles and Kites flew low, occasionally sweeping down on the surface of the water and then rising with a wriggling fish in their talons. This was the end of the migratory season which usually lasts from October to February, and most of the feathered friends and flown back to as far away as Ladakh, Tibet, Mongolia, Mansarovar, the Caspian Sea, Siberia and Northern & Central Asia.
Our first destination was the Kalijai Temple which is located on a small hillock near Barkul. The many folklores and legends that surround Chilika refer to goddess as the reigning deity of the lagoon. She is the guardian angel and no boatman ventures out without invoking her blessings for a safe passage. According to the legend, Kalijai, a poor girl, was to be married to a man from the Parikud Island. She was not happy as the island was distant and it would have meant long separation form her parents and siblings. The reluctant bride was put on a boat to go her father in-law's house. The young girl left her place with a heavy heart. A little while later, a sudden storm brewed and the sky became dark. The lake waters turned ferocious in the wind and the boat soon overturned. Everyone in the boat except the bride-to-be survived in the storm which lasted for a short while. A temple was built in a nearby hillock in her memory and many myths now surround it.
We reached the Kalijai Island and hurried on to pay our obeisance to the Goddess. Locals bring sacrificial goats and other livestock to this island in the belief that the goddess Kali will grant them their wishes. We saw quite a few rams and cockerels having a nice time on the Island, nibbling at the small offerings being made by the devotees. During the festival of Makar Sankranti in January, the island hosts tens of thousands of devotees in one of the largest festivals of the region. We too muttered a silent prayer for the success of this Confluence Hunt.
We made the boatman take us to two more Islands before we returned to the Panthanivas for a sumptuous lunch of crabs, prawns and the local khainga fish. We packed up soon after lunch and proceeded on our way South. There were many intermittent stops that we had planned on the way. Just about ten kilometres after Barkul we ascended the steep hills of Khallikote. A new bypass has been carved out of the hill, and the sight of the Lake from the height was spectacular- the waters stretching right unto the horizon and then vanishing into the blue haze. I had on an earlier trip encountered the scene during a full moon night- it was breathtaking.
We made a short pit stop at the temple of Nirmaljhara (meaning 'pure stream'), and had a drink of the sweet mineral water that emerges from the feet of an image of Vishnu. Another few kilometres downhill, we took a right turn from the highway and arrived at the temple dedicated to Goddess Narayani . The Temple is situated atop a hill with a very picturesque view of the plains. Huge teak trees towered on both sided of the short drive, and here too a mountain stream gurgled its way down.
We passed the small town of Ganjam and then crossed the salt pans where the locals still make salt like has been done for centuries. The sea water is canalized into the clayey soil and nature in the form of the sun does the rest. The salt was piled in high heaps and glistened in the afternoon heat.
Our going was slowed due to the construction work going on the Highway. The NH 5 is now a part of the destined Golden Quadrilateral Highway network connecting Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkatta and Chennai- thus forming a quadrilateral of sorts. The largest highway project in India, initiated by the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it is the first phase of the National Highways Development Project , and consists of building 5,846 kilometers of six lane express highways at a cost of Rs. 60,000 Crores.
The National Highways Authority of India has produced statistics to indicate that, as of December 2008, 98% of the entire work has been completed. However, these statistics appear misleading: in practice, roadwork is still a major feature of certain sections of the Golden Quadrilateral. The whole project is a few years behind schedule, due mainly to issues with the various states about giving up land for the national highway. From Balugaon to Berhampur, it seemed that we had encountered the unfinished 2% of the highway, as there were numerous diversions and most of the stretch was unfinished.
We reached the old city of Chattrapur by 4 P.M. and were soon on the outskirts of Berhampur. Rabi wanted us to visit the sea beach at Gopalpur as he had never seen it before. This would have meant a short detour of 20 Kms, and we were in two minds, but finally decided to do it. We turned left from the highway and drove on the narrow road. The nearly deserted road was lined on both sided with Casuarina, Coconut and Cashew nut trees.
Gopalpur was an ancient, commercial port of South Orissa. From an obscure little fishing village, Gopalpur became a prominent trading port during the days of British East India Company. The East India Company built large warehouses and godowns because the trade with Burma had picked up and it had become a trading point for rice from Rangoon. Many indentured laborers too were shipped from here to the rubber plantations of Burma and South East Asia. There was an overlaying vague sense of decay and abandonment all around.
However this also gives the place a distinct charm of its own. It is a quiet and relaxed place, with the languorous beach and gentle sand dunes. The officers of the East India Company and the subsequent Railway men found the place charming and used to frequent it for the rest and recreation that was necessary after the travails of administering this part of India. The was a big sea facing building which was the favorite watering hole of the British and this was later on acquired by Mr. Oberoi of the famous Oberoi hotels group for his first hotel.
We drove right up to the beach and watched a glorious sunset. The fishing boats had returned and their catch was being segregated by the womenfolk. For most of these fisher folk, it was subsistence from their daily catch. A lot of haggling was going on and it was a sort of a mini auction. The prawns, crabs, pomfets were at a premium, and were soon sold off. The small fry would be dried and sold of as poultry feed. Sea gulls soared in the sky, using the breeze to keep them nearly stationery in the blue sky. In fact they seemed as if they had been painted on the blue canvas of the sky. We all wanted to stay longer, but there were still miles to go. We had planned a night stay at Taptapani and had booked a tree house at the government run Panthanivas.
We had to drive thru the town of Berhampur and it took us a good hour as the traffic was thick. Taptapani is about 55 Kms from Berhampur and the road soon becomes mountainous. We zigzagged our way through and reached Taptapani at 10 P.M. The Panthanivas and our tree house were just great, surrounded by a cluster of hills and thick forests. The serenity of nature was heightened by wonderful sight of the moon lit night, the chirps of birds, the buzzing of the crickets and the noises of the animals of the forest.
Taptapani as the name suggests, is a hot water sulfur spring in Orissa. Set amidst the greenery of a lush forest, the sulfur spring is situated on the top of a hill. The hot water spring is attributed with religious virtues and therefore a temple has also been built near the spring.
The people of this small hamlet worship Kandimata Goddess and nearby a Shiva Temple too exists. The hot waters erupt in bubbles in two specific places inside the temple complex, and the temperature of this hot water varies between 90 degree to 100 degree Fahrenheit. Many come here for the curative and medicinal powers which are attributed to the springs.
Dog tired as we all were, we had a hurried supper after which we all kipped down for the night. The broad trunk of a huge banyan tree speared the tree house from the floor to the roof. We all slept soundly, the lullabies of the forest were soothing.
We woke up next morning to the chirping of birds. We opened the windows of the tree house, and found that we were overlooking a pristine valley replete with various shades of green. There was a small balcony where dozens of raucous ravens were crowing away to the morning’s glory. We could have spent hours just sitting here, but the call of the confluence hunt made us hurry. It was decided that we would visit the hot springs and have our bath before breakfast and then we would leave for Gumma.
The temple complex where the hot springs are is just five minutes walk from the Panthanivas. The hot sulfurous water is channelized into a nearby pond which is open to the public for bathing. The water of the Taptapani spring is believed to have medical properties that can cure diseases of skin and body. I was initially very skeptical when I was told that a sulfur bath miraculously reduces all types of muscle aches and joint pains. Surely, I could see the bubbles in the water and the smoky layer around it but the smell was a bit too much. The mild odor of rotting eggs engulfed the atmosphere and I found it a bit difficult to breathe. Rabi was petrified of the water, the rising steam and the odor. Somehow each one of made our way into the small stepped pond. Initially the heat and smell was a bit discomforting, but soon we were accustomed and started to enjoy the experience.
It took us a few seconds to get used to the naturally heated liquid. Soon my aching joints seem to respond to it. The heat of the spring water reversed the effects of slouching endlessly at my work desk. Over the years, I have experimented with alternate therapies like Aromatherapy, Ayurvedic massages and Reflexology etc. but nothing comes closer to bathing in natural sulfur spring water. There is scientific basis of both the folklore and the claimed medical values of sulfur springs. Because heated water can hold more dissolved solids, hot springs also often have a very high mineral content, containing everything from simple calcium to lithium, and even radium.
Immersion in the hot spring makes the blood vessels widen, thus increasing the pulse and metabolic rate. Blood flow to the skin increases, which leads to an improvement in the absorption of oxygen and minerals. Sulfides, which have proven antiseptic and therapeutic values, enter the blood through the skin, and where needed, contribute to the healing process. This inhibits some joint inflammation and helps in the reconstruction of articular cartilage. Thermal sulfur baths are well-suited for the treatment of illnesses of the musculoskeletal system. Bathing in such water causes the muscles throughout the entire body to relax. This makes the body’s connective tissue become more flexible.
My regimen came to an end after an hour after which I decided to face the real world again feeling lighter, my skin glowing with a pink hue. The others were reluctant to leave; in fact Kashi was so relaxed that he went off to sleep, half immersed in the hot water. The place was crowding up, and soon the small pond was choc a block full of bathers. The small boys from a nearby tribal school had all come for their baths; hence we decided to end out therapy.
After offering small prayers to the Goddess we returned to the tree house to pack up. We loaded up the gear, and then went for our breakfast. The Dining Hall is strategically placed in between two crests of mountain fold. The hot spring bath seemed to have whetted up huge appetites in all of us and breakfast was an hour long affair. It was a pity to leave so early, but the call of the confluences was stronger. We all made promises to come back another day, and then have at least half a dozen rejuvenating dips.
From Taptapani we drove further west towards Paralakhamendi. The air was crisp, the scenery so green, so clean, the hills were beautiful and serene. On a hilltop, we could see a small church with the holy cross made of whitened stones. I zoomed in my camera’s telephoto lens and found that XMAS had been written in whitewash on a rocky outcrop. It must have been sheer faith which must have made the climb possible. This area of Orissa is an intricate web of thousands of tiny roads going everywhere and nowhere as they wind along the hills and valleys and cling to steep mountain sides.
The narrow road was rough and potholed and we had to make our way carefully. We saw many small hamlets on the way, wisps of smoke coming out of the small huts. Goats and oxen were tied to posts outside these huts. But for these small places, the drive was thru forests. Occasionally the forest would thin out and we’d cross sunlit clearings where every inch had been transformed by the traditional podu or jhoom or slash and burn cultivation. There were patch works of yellow, green and purple fields of maize, tobacco, rice and ginger.
The road suddenly became smooth surfaced again, and we seemed to glide thru a Garden of Eden. It was so green and empty. I wound down the window. The air was deliciously pure, scented by the foliage that surrounded us as we sped down a long green tunnel under a canopy of soaring bamboo groves.
Thirty-five kilometers after Taptapani we reached a unique place which has been termed as Little Tibet. Chandragiri is a Tibetan village inside the heart of Orissa. During the Chinese Aggression of Tibet in 1959, many Tibetan refugees crossed over to India along with the Dalai Lama and were allotted land spread all over the country for their stay. The initial thought was that they were guests for a little while, as the aggression issue would have been settled and they would return to their homes. The resettlement places were selected with the thought that they should be given places that are similar to the homeland that they had left behind. Prime Minister Nehru had asked the States of the Union to designate suitable sites where camps could be established for these refugees. The Chief Minister of Orissa agreed to take a thousand refugees and allotted the lands around the Chandragiri hills.
The settlers built cottages and camps and a monastery resembling what they had left in Tibet. It is sheer zeal and hard work that has transformed this jungle into crop growing fields. Maize and corn is everywhere to be seen. The beautiful small houses and well maintained gardens reflected the economic independence of the residents. Colorful prayer flags decorated with dragons and inscribed with prayers welcomed us. We saw many young people zipping about on fast motorcycles. We passed a couple of big schools, the school buildings were white washed and the schools grounds neat and tidy. There was a large monastery, a replica of the one that they had left in Tibet. The Dalai Lama had paid a visit here, and the place where he had spent the night was now a monastery. Here between the mountain cliffs you can almost breathe Tibet! Young lamas jostle around while the elders rotate the “chakra” drum humming prayers, like gentle apostles of nonviolence.
We befriended one of the locals who took us on a guided tour of the settlement. Tserhing Lampa took us to Lobersing to see the co-operative crafts centre where gown clad women produce exquisite Tibetan wall mats, carpets, woolen and leather wear. The workers were so engrossed in the work that they hardly looked up. Kashi and Rabi both bought colorful cardigans. We were invited by Tserhing to visit his house which was just a few hundred metres away. We reached Camp No 4; there were neat row houses with small gardens in the front. Maize lay stacked in neat conical mounds, and prayer flags hung over most of the houses. The houses were all painted in bright colors, pretty curtains billowing at the windows. There were many red cheeked children and pretty girls. Over tea, our host told us the story of the early years of their struggles. Even though most of the present generation had only heard of Tibet, they still yearned for the distant homeland. There are very few of the original refugees left, the ones who had made the great march over the Himalayas.
We were invited to stay over for lunch, and in spite of our telling no we were soon handed bowls of a deliciously thick noodle soup. Tibetan food is unique; they are all vegetarian but eat eggs. Kashi enquired about the availability of Chaang, the rice beer which is quite prevalent in Tibetan settlements .Chaang is beer made by fermenting rice. Surprisingly, Chaang is actually pretty delicious. Many Tibetans have taken a vow with His Holiness the Dalai Lama not to drink alcohol, however they take chaang as it is imbibed during religious practices in the monasteries. Tserhing sent his wife to a neighbor and Kashi had soon scoffed down a jugful of the golden brew.
Just when we were leaving the village, an old man with Tibetan features wearing a bright red woolen coat, his neck circled by a necklace of turquoise stones and puffing on a bamboo pipe with a silver bowl, blocked our way and bowed to me quickly three or four times. Taken aback, we bowed back. He then bowed back again. And so it went on. The scene was ridiculous; we were bowing up and down like two flamingos disputing their respective territories. Tserhing patted the old man, and he gave way, and then followed us to our car. We said our goodbyes to our new found friend and promises were exchanged, he promised to call on us on his next trip to Bhubaneswar, and we promised to come again and stay for a couple of days.
The drive further on to Paralakhamendi was uneventful. Most of the road was hilly terrain, and we cruised along slowly. The toddy tappers and fixed up their earthen pots on the palm trees that lined the road. A cut was made in the top of the tree and a pot placed strategically to catch the steadily dripping sap. The pots were fixed at dawn as the sap rises with the heat of the day, and gathered by the toddy tappers at least once a day. Where the trees are tall, this requires the tapper to shimmy up the trunk with the aid of a flimsy hemp rope. Palm sap begins fermenting immediately after collection, due to natural yeasts in the air (often spurred by yesterday’s residual yeast left in the collecting container). Within a few hours, fermentation yields an aromatic wine of up to 8% alcohol content, mildly intoxicating and sweet.
Some of the pots were placed on dwarf palm trees, which could be easily accessed by climbing on top of our van. Kashi practically drooled at the sight of the heady brew which lay at an arms length, and his insistence made us stop near a very small tree. Soon the pot was lowered and the foaming liquid was decanted into an empty bottle. We looked around for the owner of the pot and even yelled out, but there was no sign of anyone around. I made Kasi drop two five rupees coins into the pot, and we replaced it in its original position. There was sure going to be one surprised toddy tapper that evening ! Kashi soon had knocked down the bottle and then dozed off.
We reached Paralakhamendi at noon and drove thru the small town. It was like stepping back into time, we could have been back in the early part of the last century. Expect for the Cell Phone towers, everything in the town had an archaic look.
Paralakhamendi was once an ancient Zamindari lying in the western corner of the Southern portion of the Ganjam district of Orissa. Krushna Chandra Gajapati Narayan Deo, Maharaja of Paralakhamendi was the direct descendant of the historic dynasty of the Gajapati kings who ruled Orissa for more than seven centuries. During the regime of these kings, the boundaries of Orissa extended from the Ganga in the North to Udayagiri in Nellore district in the South. Kolahomee, one of the sons of Gajapati Kapilendra Dev, the mighty Gajapati king of Orissa in the later half of the 15th Century came to this part of Paralakhamendi (then in Ganjam district) and founded the Raj family of Paralakhamendi.
Gajapati district has been named after Maharaja Sri Krushna Chandra Gajapati Narayan Dev, the Ex-Raja Sahib of Paralakhamendi estate (the 1st Prime Minister of Orissa State), who is remembered for his contribution in formation of a separate Orissa province and inclusion of Paralakhamendi estate in Orissa. Gajapati district came into being with effect from 2nd October 1992.
The main street of the town ends in the palace of the previous king. The palace is a classic example of the Indo-Sarascenic architecture with two tall minarets, other buildings lined up on both sides of the road, most of them dating back to the princely days. The palace complex and the major buildings were designed by the British architect Chisholm in the early 1900’s. We went up to the gate of the Palace but the guards did not allow us inside as the Raja was not there. It was rumored that the palace had a lot of antiquities, which were lying around in utter neglect. We saw an old hand operated printing press lying just beyond the gate. The Palace gates had the crest and emblem of the Paralakhamendi State, an elephant with a turreted howdah and the words “Strong & Faithful” inscribed on it. We took a short walk on the main street, stopping for some luscious water melon being sold by the roadside vendors.
I soon spotted a soda water seller, his cart with the inverted bottles covered with a wet sack. The Soda was called “Bati Soda” in the local parlance, “bati” meaning the marble in the bottle. They are only a few places in India where you can still get to see these bottles. The bottles are actually called Codds Bottles, as they were invented and patented by a British Soda maker Hiram Codd in 1872. Also termed as the Codd-neck bottle; it encloses a marble and a rubber washer in the neck. The bottle is filled upside down, and pressure of the gas in the bottle forces the marble against the washer, sealing in the carbonation. Pinched into a special shape, it has a chamber that prevents the marble from blocking the neck as the drink is poured. Cleverly tipping the bottle to the other side allows the marble to re-seat itself after only a measured amount of fluid passes, limiting the drinker to one swig. The bottle could easily be re-sealed by shaking it vigorously, and then tilting it upside down to cause the marble to re-seat itself over the mouth of the bottle. This was a trick that I had tried many times, and even the old soda sellers were taken by surprise. So reliable and efficient is the method, that some of these bottles have remained sealed for more than 100 years.
The soda, priced at just two rupees was sweet sour with a tinge of ginger. The seller opened the bottle with his finger, pushing the marble down the neck , the popping sound and the small wisps of the carbonated gas thrilled us. We each had three bottles, not because we were thirsty, but to see the way the bottles were popped open.
Just a few metres away from the palace, we saw a group of shops selling horn crafts. There were half a dozen shops, all displaying an array of shiny black horn ware. The craftsmen were all at work in their small work places, carving stylized birds and animals which seemed so alive, cranes for instance, look as though if they opened their beaks, they could talk; or the birds appear to be twittering; or the tiger that seems just about to jump on you.
The horns, which are mostly from buffaloes and cows, require a high degree of skill and imagination in application. The artisans who excel in this art have used the specific texture of this material to mold all sorts of objects with a marvelous degree of fluidity in movement. The horn is polished smooth, and then shaped into various forms. Cranes, lobsters, scorpions, birds, back scratchers, combs and walking sticks made of horn are finished to a nicety. Their surface throws off a dark somber sheen and the catch the attention of all art-lovers. Horn craft is a part of the rich cultural heritage of the artisans of Paralakhamendi. Originally they were ivory carvers, but since trade in ivory has been banned, the craft people have shifted to horn crafts.
We were invited by Biswanath Maharana, one of the master craftsmen inside his workshop. He showed us his tools of the trade, and described the complicated and tedious process of horn carving. The horns are immersed in water for days to soften them up and at times even heated to mold them into desired shape. A lot of scraping and sand papering is required and finally the finished work is polished in coconut oil to get the sheen. Maharana lamented that it was a dying art, as there were hardly any takers. The patronage of the kings of yore had kept them going, but now these craftsmen were a poor neglected lot. I purchased a back scratcher and a few combs, and wished the man all luck.
It was past noon, and we were still a good twenty kilometres away from Gumma, where 19 N 84 E was to be conquered. We had lunch at a small hotel on the outskirts of the town and then switched on the Garmin. It indicated the CP to be 17 Kms to the North of the town. We made inquiries about the directions and took the road out of town. Soon the terrain became very hilly and the road became a narrow black ribbon winding its way us the slopes. We met up with a small rock fall and had to edge our way thru the small gap that had been widened. However the scenery was breath taking. Rice paddies were on every available bit of flat land and the color was a psychedelic green. And if the land wasn't flat of its own accord, the people had made it flat by terracing . It seemed every bit of rock and earth was covered in lush growth. It was drizzling a little from time to time and we saw one lady covering her head and shoulders with one large leaf.
We were driving at a meandering pace, each turn revealed more beauty. I was filled with trepidation as the CP could have been on any one of the undulating hills, maybe high up, and this would have required at least a full day’s climb. Suddenly weariness overcame me; we had been driving since morning and had covered nearly 250 kms. Just the thought that the Confluence Point was located in such a terrain filled us with dread. I recollected that the topo map had indicated the point to be at the base of a fairly steep hill, but from the experience of the dozen confluence hunts that we had already conducted, I was aware how misleading the maps could be.
To our relief there was a steep descent after which the road once again was a flat surface. We reached the outskirts of the fairly large village. There was a church nearby and I recollected that Wikimapia had a tag which said that there was a Christian Colony near to the CP point. The Garmin indicated the CP to be 2 Kms from the outskirts of the village. There was a road which forked left from the entrance of the village and we followed the nav and soon reached another small hamlet of Ashrayagarh.
After about eight hundred metres, the concrete road dead ended near a small group of row houses and we very soon had a sizable audience. There was a vast stretch of rice fields behind the houses, and the CP lay 1.5 kms past the fields. We explained the purpose of our visit, though most of it went over their heads. We wanted to unload our gear and traverse the fields to reach the base of the fairly big hill where the Garmin indicated the CP.
One young boy from the crown volunteered to help us carry our gear. We were about to start, when one of the old gent advised us to go back to the tri junction from where we had turned and then enter the village of Gumma and drive thru the village. He told us that there was a motorable road which would take us to the place where we had pointed to on the horizon. Our new found friend, Anutap Singh readily agreed to guide us to the spot and soon we had reversed and started back for Gumma.
We passed thru the village, there was a huge crowd as a famous Christian faith healers was camping there. We crossed the village and reached a small rivulet where a bridge was under construction. We had to disembark and do a recce before driving down the temporary bypass. The water of the small stream was nearly one foot deep but our SUV made it thru easily, though the steep ascent on the other side was difficult to negotiate. The wheels skidded on the dry sand, and we all had to give a heave ho to get across.
The Garmin was indicating the CP to be in the vicinity and soon we were into the three digit distance mark. The Confluence Gods were certainly shinning on us, as the confluence turned out to be just fifty metres or so from the road. We parked the vehicle under a huge tamarind tree and as soon as we stopped, I jumped out, Garmin in hand and scampered to the point to get the necessary zeroes in place.
The CP lay across an uncultivated field. The short stubs of the previous crop struck up from the dried and cracked earth like stubbles. The others were chasing me as I went about trying to locate the exact spot. A few goats standing in the stubble eyed our progress with indifference. They clearly have no idea of the significance of grazing near a confluence. We were getting closer and closer but the exact point was still elusive. An impatient Kasi took the Garmin from me and started the characteristic confluence conga - three steps forward, five steps back, turn 90 degrees to the right another few steps, turn again and again and again. Rabi, our newest member was highly amused at the craziness that was happening but he too soon became a part of it. We were keenly following the Garmin Nav pointer trying to get the perfect zeroes. We were nearly there, but the overhead branch of a fairly large cashew tree was hindering us. I decided to go round the tree, and took the Garmin from Kashi. There were some dried thorny branches that had been put up as a fence and I made my way gently around them.
And then, I got the biggest surprise that had ever been on my confluence hunts. In fact, I can correctly say that no Confluence hunter must have till now come across a CP which lay on a grave. Just beneath the tree was a freshly white washed grave. It way concealed under the low branches of the cashew tree. The white cross, with the headstone on which a small marble plaque was a simple village grave. It then dawned to me why this was the only field that had no crops sown. There were teak saplings planted all around the grave. The headstone was in oriya and read as follows :
Born August 1947
Died on 6-9-2005
Baptised in the year 1978
Resident of Village Balakalakot, District Gajapati.
I could gather from the headstone that Dicon Gomango was a tribal whose birth had coincided with India’s Independence. He had converted to Christianity in 1978. He had died four years earlier, and the grave must have been freshly whitewashed just five months ago, on his death anniversary. He was surely resting in peace, being buried on a confluence point, under a shady cashew tree. The cashew tree was just starting to bloom, and a sweet smell was there in the air. There could not have been a more serene and quiet place around. 19 N 84 E was certainly a wonderful site to be buried at.
I picked up a few sprigs of wild flowers, Kashi snapped of a few Cashew blooms and Rabi watched in confused bewilderment as we put them on the grave and I then recited the Lord’s prayer.
The discovery of the grave and thrown all our regulated drill of trying to locate the perfect zeroes asunder. I once again switched my attention to the Garmin and we located the exact point just about 5 metres away from the headstone of the grave. Given the accuracy of the reading at 7 metres, it was a certainty that the grave was on point zero. I would be very interested to know if any other CP had yet been discovered that was marked by a grave. There may have been CP’s located in graveyards, but here we had a CP bang on a grave in the middle of nowhere, and not another grave for miles around. Even our guide Anutap was as surprised and confirmed that graves in private plots were rare in these parts.
The exhilaration that we got after every CP discovery was strangely missing here. I felt that we were violating the privacy of the dead and photographing and tramping around the grave seemed sacrilegious. The grave proper had been demarcated by small bricks that had been struck all around. I tried to visualise how it must have been when Dicon Gomango was buried there. They must have carried the coffin in a bullock cart as the village was at quite a distance. The spot must have been selected earlier, and the burial service must have had quite a big attendance. The plot of land was fairly big; Dicon must have been quite well off, to have such a big resting place.
East of the grave (read confluence point) was the base of the sugar loaf hill that we had used for identifying the CP. The hill was just across the road and about 100 metres from the CP.
West to the CP, there was an uncultivated field, with dried stalks if tall sun flower plants that had been grown in the earlier harvest. In the distance beyond a fence, there was a thick copse of trees.
North of the CP was the cashew tree which sheltered the grave. The village of Gumma lay on the distance.
South of the CP. The horizon was a scene of undulating hills. There was a lone palm tree with other small saplings planted.
The Confluence Point itself was on a dry cracked earth, about 5 metres away from the headstone. Teak saplings, with there broad leaves were already six feet high, they must have been planted after Dicon was laid to rest here. We took the photographs and then once again held a small prayer. This time each one of the Confluence hunt team joined in, and we begged forgiveness is we had desecrated the grave.
Sunset was fast approaching, and I wanted to do the return journey by daylight. The road had been quite dangerous, and the thought of night time driving on the hairpin bends made me uneasy. We packed up our gear and came to the main road. Kasi flagged down a passing motorcyclist and made inquires about the grave. We were told that son of Dicon was the school master in the Gumma High School. I had half am mind to meet him and tell him the significance of the spot where his father lay buried. (I was also curious to ascertain if he had a GPS). We drove back to Ashrayagarh and dropped Anutap off. The return trip to Paralakhamendi was uneventful. We had stopped at the crest of one steep hill to watch the sun setting behind the hills. Darkness was very sudden in the hills, there was no twilight zone.
Without a doubt this had been the best Confluence hunt till date. The drive down the coast, then along the quiet hilly roads through spectacular scenery, the boat ride on the lake, natural hot springs, Tibetan settlement and a historic town. We had now one land based CP left to conquer and Orissa would be ours.
Rating of this hunt:
Degree of Challenge:
1 – A pleasant drive in some of the most interesting and picturesque region of Orissa and then a short walk to the point.
(1= very easy - drive to the point; to 5= a death march –
glad it is over)
4 – Pleasant hilly area, great views, (Scale: 1= not interesting
at all; 5= take your breath away)
4– Rural hill country, very friendly people (Scale: 1=dull; 5= most stimulating.
CP visit details:
- Distance to a road: 50 metres
- Distance to a track: 50 metres
- Distance to houses: 4.00 km ( the village of Gumma)
- Duration: Two days from start until we were back to base.
- Time (distance) for the hike from Base: 5 minutes
- Time at the CP: 3.00 p.m. on 12th February 2009
- Measured height: 285 m
- Position accuracy at the CP: 7 m
- Topography: the CP is situated on the base of a hill 4 kilometres east of Gumma. The CP is located in a dry field marked by a grave.
- Vegetation: Teak Saplings and a few Cashew Trees planted in and around the CP.
- Weather: Mild 22 C (felt temperature)
- Description of the CP: A grave on a private land.
- Given Name: Dicon Gomango’s Confluence.