– By Sunita Pattnaik
Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon Chilika is recognized as one of the most important wetlands in the world because it is home to a phenomenal variety of birds. Chilika Lake offers visitors a spectacular display of its colorful avian charms in a thousand different hues presented by over 160 species in the peak season between November and February. The lake and its reed islands teem with nesting birds-white bellied sea eagles, ospreys, golden plovers, sand pipers, flamingos, pelicans; gulls include migratory ones flying great distances from Iran, Central Asia and Siberia.
Chilika Lake is spread over Khurda, Ganjam and Puri districts of Odisha. Balugaon and Rambha are two major towns serving as entry points for the lake. This water lagoon is separated from the Bay of Bengal by a sandy ridge. The pear-shaped lake spreads across 1,100 sq km, and has a unique ecosystem with a range of aquatic flora and fauna found in and around its brackish waters. An impressive array of bird life, both native and migrant, makes Chilka one of the best places in India for bird-watching, splashing around in the water and quiet relaxation.
Some of the prominent islands like Nalabana, Kalijai, Somolo, Break-fast, Birds and Rajahansa inhabited by small subsistence fishermen families, are popular destinations for daily boat trips.
Over 5,000 years old, Chilika has had a long history of sustainable fishing practices. The world’s second largest lake, a rare mix of estuarine, marine and freshwater ecosystems, Chilika is also the largest brackish water lake in Asia, which makes it particularly conducive to prawn fishing.
Today, however, this lagoon that has long been the pride of Odisha, is facing a serious environmental crisis thanks to rapid siltation, decreasing salinity of the lake’s waters and a gradual lowering of depth.
A fourth century legend, often told to explain the birth of Chilika, states that the pirate king, Raktabahhu, planned to attack Puri with a huge fleet of ships. To avoid detection, he stealthily anchored out of sight, off the mouth to the sea. The deception was revealed by the ships’ refuse floating to the shore, thus warning the town’s people, who escaped with all their possessions. Raktabahu felt betrayed when he found an abandoned town and directed his fury towards the sea that had betrayed him. The sea parted to let the army march in, then surged back, drowned the army and formed the present lake.
Archeological excavations discovered Seventh century ship anchors and stone memoirs dedicated to battle heroes at a village named Kanas, about 25 km (16 miles) north of Chilika on the banks of Nuna river, which flows into the lake. This gives evidence of an historic naval engagement off the coast.
A 10th-century text, the Brahmanda Purana, mentions Chilika Lake as an important centre of trade and commerce, and a shelter for ships sailing to Java, Malaya, Singhala, China and other countries. The villagers around Chilika Lake still observe an annual festival called “Bali Yatra“.
Chillka Lake is an important habitat and breeding ground for both resident and migratory and aquatic birds, most notably flamingos. It is the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in the Indian subcontinent. Migratory birds arrive in October from as far away as Siberia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Himalayas and generally stay until March. Part of the lake is protected by the Chilka Lake Bird Sanctuary, which harbors over 150 migratory and resident species of birds. The Nalaban Island within the lagoon is classified as a Bird Sanctuary under the wildlife protection act. The lake is also home to a diverse range of aquatic life, including 225 species of fish and the Irrawaddy dolphin.
Goddess Kalijai is actually Kali, the source and the first ‘Mahavidya’ of ‘Dasmahavidyas’. Every year in January, a huge gala fair is held during the festival of Makar Sankranti. A newly married girl (named Jaai) along with her father was going to meet with her husband. As her in-law’s house was on an island in Chilika Lake they had to take a boat to ferry them across the lake. Orissa’s coast is very prone to cyclones and during this boat trip they encountered a severe cyclone, as a result their boat capsized in the lake. All the boatmen and her father survived this event except for the girl Jaai. They searched for her but were unable to locate her. After this accidental death of the newlywed girl, she became the Goddess of people residing nearby and till now, she is worshiped as an Amsa (part) of Kali. And, this is how the place got its name.
Kalijai Temple is located on an island in the Chilika Lake. The temple worships Goddess Kalijai. The deity is highly revered among the locals as well as in their folklores and fables. The island is also a mesmerizing destination for pilgrims as well as tourists and can be reached via a boat from Chilika Lake. Makar Sankranti is celebrated with great pomp and cheer at the temple that attracts numerous travelers & devotees.
The large Nalabana Island covering about 16 sq km in the lagoon area was declared a bird sanctuary in 1987. The core area of about 9 sq km attracts around 400,000 waterfowls of different species. Often underwater, the island gradually emerges with the outset of summer. It is literally a paradise for bird-watchers.
Another major attraction at Chilika is dolphins which are often spotted off Satpada. Satpada, bounded by the lagoon on three sides, offers an excellent view and attracts the visitors to its entire 30 km stretch of sand bar. Boats arranged by OTDC are available for both areas. The lake also supports the local fisherman in earning their living from Chilika’s prawn, mackerel and crabs.
How to get there:
By plane – the nearest airport is Bhubaneswar, about 120 km away from where taxis, trains and buses are available to the lake.
By rail – the nearest rail stations is at Balugaon, on the Howrah-Chennai track. From Balugaon, buses are available to the lake.
By road – many buses ply from Bhubaneswar (Baramunda Bus Station) and Cuttack (Badambadi Bus Station) to Balugaon throughout the day, OSRTC buses ( i.e. state run buses) being the best ones. From there, one has to hire a taxi or an auto-ricksaw to reach Barkul or Rambha. (In case of Rambha, passengers can alight at Keshpur, which is further ahead Balugaon, and from there hire an auto-ricksaw). Satapada is well connected by daily local buses from Puri. Visitors can take an OTDC day tour from Puri to see Satapada. A boat journey from Rambha to Satapada takes about 2 1/2 hours.
Best Time To Visit:
The best time to visit Chilka is in the winter months, when migratory birds arrive there. Especially in the month of December, January and February. Oriya people consider it to be lucky if the Kalijai, Bhagwati and Narayani temples are visited on the same day.