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India's Odisha gradually opens up to hardy globe-trotters

A wooden chariot pulled by thousands makes its way down Grand Road in Puri, during the Rath Yatra festival in July. (Photo by Tom Vater)

PURI, India "Jay Jagannath! Jay Jagannath!" A sea of people chants the sacred mantra while pulling on thick ropes hauling three massive, 14-meter-high wooden carts decorated in red and gold. The carts, loaded with dozens of priests, carry statues of Jagannath, the Hindu lord of the universe, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra.

There are almost no foreigners among the 700,000 visitors who have made the pilgrimage to Puri, this coastal city in India's eastern state of Odisha, formerly Orissa -- even though the Ratha Yatra, as the cart festival is called, is one of the larger and most colorful religious events in India.

Ken Ishikawa, a Japanese doctoral student who researches India's ancient dynasties, is a rare exception. "I came to 'see' Jagannath in the sense of darshan," he said, referring to the auspicious sighting of a deity or a holy person.

For non-Hindus, the festival is the only opportunity to see the triad of Hindu gods as they make their summer trip between temples. The rest of the year, the statues are located in Puri's Jagannath temple, closed to non-Hindu communities. Now, the easing of official restrictions at least partly opens the way for adventurous and hardy tourists.

For a while, in the 1980s and 1990s, Puri looked set to become an escape for hippies fed up with the commercialization of Goa on India's west coast. But since then, visitor numbers have dwindled. The town remains popular with Japanese visitors, who stay in a cluster of Japanese-owned guesthouses to the north of the city and take part in activities organized by the Japan Foundation, which focuses on intercultural programs. The trend is such that many of the locals have taken to calling all foreigners "Japanese."

The people behind Grass Routes Journeys -- Claire Prest and Pulak Mohanty (Photo by Tom Vater)

Today, Puri is disfigured by a few hundred hastily constructed concrete-box hotels for domestic tourists. For the past 10 years, India's burgeoning middle class has been spending its disposable income here, taking camel rides on the beach and eating the sacred food from the Jagannath temple. Beyond Puri, only Bhubaneswar, the state capital, which offers temple ruins and museums, and Konark, home to the Sun Temple, famed for its erotic carvings, attract regular visitors.

Pulak Mohanty and Claire Prest, who run Grass Routes Journeys -- a high-end travel agency specializing in trips around Odisha state -- bemoan the lack of official involvement.

The Odisha tourism department started a rural travel program in the 1990s, but many of its properties have not been maintained, Mohanty said. "As a result, the state government recently announced it is looking to operate some panthikas, panthasalas and panthanivases [government-run accommodations] in public-private partnerships to save them from collapse." Out in the countryside, there is almost no accommodation that meets international tourism standards.

Odisha's soil contains vast amounts of mineral resources and its exploitation has long been the state's top economic priority. According to Odisha's department of steel and mines, the state provides a quarter of India's coal, a third of its iron ore, more than half its bauxite reserves and most of the country's deposits of chromite. As a result, Odisha receives significant investment to produce steel and aluminum, and to build refineries and ports.

The two biggest cultural gems in Odisha hail from the 12th and 13th centuries. While the older Jagannath temple in Puri has been saved by pilgrims' donations, the Konark temple, further north along the coast, does not get the same attention. Despite being Odisha's most important monument and the state's only UNESCO World Heritage site, the Sun temple is endangered by neglect and has been covered in scaffolding for years.

In 2015, foreign tourists in Odisha accounted for a minuscule 0.83% of India's relatively modest tourism economy. According to Odisha's tourism department, just 66,971 foreign visitors set foot in the state that year. Local tour operators have long maintained that foreigners are keen to explore Odisha's more remote areas, which host 62 ethnic minority communities known as Adivasi, or tribal people. But foreign access has been a highly sensitive issue.

A Desia Kondh woman attends church in the village of Kurtamgarh. (Photo by Tom Vater)

In March 2012, Paolo Bosusco and Claudio Colangelo, two Italian tourists, were abducted and held for several weeks by Naxalites -- Maoist guerrillas who have been fighting the governments of some of India's eastern states for decades over land rights and jobs for disenfranchised farmers.

At the same time, some websites of local tour operators published seminude photographs of minority women, triggering public outrage. In response, the government imposed heavy restrictions on foreign visitors to areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, and banned photography of some of the more vulnerable communities.

BUILDING TRUST In May 2016, the state government decided that, after several years of intense conflict and crackdowns, Maoist activities were more or less under control and proclaimed the end of restrictions.

Tour operators are now expecting a modest influx of visitors in the state's tribal-dominated districts, such as Koraput, Rayagada and Kandhamal. But with their strong sense of having been exploited by various groups for centuries -- the colonial British, the Indian government, zealous missionaries, greedy mining companies and middlemen who cheat them in trade at local markets -- the tribal communities view outsiders with suspicion.

Additionally, travel agents have to choose carefully where they work, as sporadic violence in Odisha's south continues. In July, five tribal people were killed by police as they returned home from a market. State violence against the Naxalites has been reported in areas largely populated by Adivasi; sometimes, innocent bystanders have been caught in the crossfire.

Travel agents Mohanty and Prest emphasize cultural sensitivity as the best antidote to these troubling stories. "Until recently, outsiders told the minorities that their culture was backward. They are tired of this. The last thing these people need is mass tourism corrupting their villages," Mohanty told the Nikkei Asian Review. "We set the expectations of our clients straight from the booking stage. We never take them to a village where we haven't explained to the inhabitants why we come with strangers. The element of trust enables them to welcome the foreigners. In turn, the visitors who discover the diverse ethnicity of Odisha come away with the feeling they have met 'real' people."

To help bridge the communication gap, the government recently launched a program to train students from tribal communities in south Odisha to become guides. Jitu Jakeskia, a young activist from the Dongria Kondh tribe who has been involved in protests against the mining industry, will be the first of his community to receive a guide license. "I want to show travelers around my villages. I want to tell them stories about the social and traditional values of my people."

Among the most notable recent initiatives is a project by expat Leon Mahoney. With the help of YouTube video tutorials, the 62-year-old Australian built a lodge in the Koraput jungle, next to the pottery village of Goudaguda. Mahoney saw the potential for high-quality sustainable tourism on his first visit.

"After touring the south of India I happened on the southern highlands of Odisha and discovered it was a tribal-dominated area with a beauty and charm unlike anywhere else I had ever been, blissfully ignorant of the outside world," Mahoney said.

Chandoori Sai Lodge (Photo by Laure Siegel)

OFFERING OPPORTUNITIES Chandoori Sai Lodge was built with the help of local tribal residents. "We didn't use any machines, in order to create the maximum number of jobs," Mahoney explained. "I employed 80 men and women, including more than 60 potters to make the floor, the roof tiles and the decorative urns and pots on the property."

The opportunity to experience a culture that has not been touched by tourism is becoming increasingly rare worldwide. The pursuit of that experience also can be expensive and time-consuming.

"We are only a few hours away from Visakhapatnam, which now has direct flights from Asia," Mahoney said. "And yet our guests get to experience an unpolluted, quiet, peaceful life. It's not much different from my childhood in Australia, before the advent of television."

Preservation of and respect for his adopted culture is at the forefront of Mahoney's thoughts: "I want to leave as small a footprint as possible by blending in with the community. As my business grows, I can instigate more village projects to improve local health and lifestyles." He is optimistic about the future. "The number of tourists will increase, but it will not be overnight, not least because there is not much in the way of infrastructure for tourism."

Dharakote Palace in Dharakote, Ganjam District (Photo by Laure Siegel)

Besides the ethnic minority villages, a number of crumbling old palaces, some of which can be visited, are scattered across the state. Rani Sulakhyana Gitanjali Devi, the young queen of Dharakote Palace, stands in the courtyard of her sprawling property. A couple of wings of the 15th-century building have fallen into disrepair. "I remember my grandmother living in those rooms, but now it's all gone," she said.

While most local former royal families have turned to real estate or politics to maintain their lifestyles since Indian independence, some owners of Odisha's fading palaces have gained inspiration from the heritage hotel boom enjoyed by the former kings and queens of Rajasthan, the northwestern state that is firmly on the tourist map.

The 20-year-old queen is studying law, but her eyes are set on the hotel business despite daunting challenges. "It would be nice to bring back life into these amazing places," she said. "But there are not many tourists and there's not much help from the authorities so people don't really want to invest. ... Without investment in infrastructure, the tourists won't come."

Mohanty and Prest are working on another project. They have built an eco-retreat on an island in Chilika Lake, India's largest body of brackish water, home to rare pink Irrawaddy dolphins. Like Mahoney, they support the local economy. "We offer jobs to the villagers so they don't have to migrate to neighboring states to undertake low-paid, exploitative jobs," Prest said. "Fish stocks in the lake are dwindling due to the increasing population and illegal prawn farms that change the ecology of the lake. For the locals, tourism can be an opportunity to stay home and preserve the environment."

For the time being, Odisha will remain a beautiful insider tip for experienced globe-trotters. Prest is not unhappy about this. "People who come to Odisha have already ticked off the Kerala backwaters and the Taj Mahal," she said. "They want something off the beaten track. Odisha is for India-lovers who understand that everything is difficult here. There will never be any mass tourism in the state, but that's fine with the locals."

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