Palm trees swaying in the breeze, sea lapping on white deserted sands, fresh coconut milk by the roadside. Orissa was felt worlds away from Kolkata! My first night was spent in a mosquito filled guest house in Puri, Orissa's backpacker hangout. Full of hairy travellers, drugs hawkers and cafes with names like 'Harry's Place' Puri is pure hippy throwback territory. It was nice to see the sun set over the sea but unlike most tourists that visit Orissa I wasn't there to spend a week as a beach bum, I was there to visit Ekta Parishad (the same AVI partner that organised Janadesh, the land rights march I attended in October). Ekta Parishad is involved in protecting the traditional rights of the fishing communities that live around Lake Chilika about an hours drive down the coast from Puri. Lake Chilika is Asia's largest Brackish lagoon and is separated from the Bay of Bengal by just a thin band of sand that at one point opens up to the sea.A mixture of lake and sea water Chilika Lake supports a unique ecosystem and many local fishing communities that have relied on the lake for their livelihood for hundreds of years. The lake is especially noted for the millions of migratory birds that flock there every year during the winter.(November to Jan). Generally I am not a bird fan, an early exposure to a 3D version of Hitchcock's 'The Birds' kind of ruined them for me, but I did get a birdwatchers guide (I know, I know, you don't have to say it I have reached new levels of geekdom since being away!) because you can't really get away from them in Chilika. I was staying at a resort on the lake called Satapada and had a lovely balcony overlooking the lake where I drank my chai every morning. It was a beautiful spot and I could see so many different varieties of birds from where I sat that I was curious to know what some of them were. The pigeons that insisted on sitting on my balcony and repeatedly tried to get into my room didn't interest me so much but the little water waders in the lake and kestral type thing nesting in the nearby tree did. They were Little Egrets and a Brahnimy Kite. The other unique wildlife attraction of the lake is the Irrawady dolphin, I was lucky enough to see them playing amongst the waters a few times whilst out on the lake.As with many places of natural beauty Chilika Lake is suffering from the negative effects of tourism and problems such as silting and intensive prawn farming that are threatening the lake's unique eco-system and also the traditional livelihood of the local fishing communities.I stayed at Satapada for six days and was taken to visit several villages in the surrounding area. Thanks to Ekta Parishad all the villagers were very aware of their traditional fishing rights and were all motivated to fight for them. To explain a bit of background, Chilika has always had one mouth out to the sea but in the past this was a smaller mouth at the nothern most point of where the lake lies next to the Bay of Bengal. In 2000 the government opened a new bigger mouth further down the coast and due to water movement and silting this caused the old mouth close up. The closure of the old mouth has meant that fish that used to come into the northern waters of the lake no longer do and the fishing communities that live around this area are struggling to make a living. From talking to villagers in this area of Chilika they sight the cause of all their problems and poverty as the closure of the old sea mouth; they want their traditional fishing rights recognised to stop other people coming in and taking the fish from Chilika and they want the new sea mouth closed so the old one can be re-opened.I think it is great that Ekta Parishad help to get the voices of minority communities heard but on visiting Lake Chilika I really didn't feel like this was helping the plight of the villagers. Of course in an ideal world fishing in Chilika Lake would only be open to the traditional fishing communities surrounding it but Ekta Parishad have been campaigning for a few years now and the government don't seem to be taking any notice. On staying in Satapada it became quite clear that the government's key policy for Chilika is to develop tourism not protect its poorer communities. Also, traditionally fishing was just a form of subsistance for these villagers but now it is being taken over by companies and individuals that want to develop profit-making businesses from the industry. This may not be right but it seems naive to think that the government would consider stopping these practices if they are going to profit from them? In addition to these larger scale fishing operations the size of the villages around Chilika have naturally grown over the years and so there are more people than ever trying to scrape a livelihood and survive from the resources of the lake. Maybe I am being too cynical but the situation of the lake can't realistically remain as it was in the past and I felt that the villagers, who were clearly struggling to survive, were resting all their hopes and futures on decisions the government is unlikely to make.It seemed to me as though what the communities around Chilika really needed was some positive energy and motivation and some help to try to change their lives for the better. It is not a 'fair' situation but Chilika is developing and the nature of the lake and the surrounding villages is going to have to develop alongside it. This means that communities that have traditionally relied on fishing may have to look to alternative sources of income. Rather than being stubborn to change, that is going to happen whether they like it or not, I felt like villagers needed help to develop themselves and improve their situation alongside the changes happening. Alternative income generation projects and training, the strengthening of women's self help groups and education were all areas that could be developed. I came away from Orissa feeling a little confused. At every other project place I have visited I was shown problems and then the solutions and what is being done to combat them. At Chilika I was just shown problems and a lot of people resting their hopes on a government that doesn't have their best interests at heart. I always feel a little uncomfortable saying that 'these peopleneed this' or 'they need that' - who am I to say what they need? But it was sad that these villagers who were living in palm roofed huts and struggling to get enough food to feed their families were not being given any means to help themselves. They all held a lot of faith in Ekta Parishad and looked to the organisation to solve all their problems but at the end of the day Ekta Parishad only work in advocacy and if the government doesn't respond to their demands then the situation of the villagers will not change. It wasn't all depressing....Despite the above I did have a good time in Orissa. I feel lucky to have had the chance to interact with the fishing communities on their level and I saw a side of Chilika that not many people get the chance to experience. Waking up each morning to a glorious view of Lake Chilika was also quite special! I got some good practice in the virtue of patience as well beacuse my two guides must have been the most disorganised men I've ever met! Every decision took at least half an hour of discussion in Oriyan to reach a conclusion and our plans were always delayed and changed several times a day. By the end of my stay I had got quite used to all this palava and just sat back and ignored it. What I couldn't get used to was the fact that my guides also seemed to think I was incapable of doing anything! Phone credit - we'll get it for you, dinner - tell us what you want we'll get it for you. I know they were just trying to be incredibly hospitable but at the end of the day watching them procrastinate over each thing was a much more lengthy and painful process than just going out and doing it myself! I experienced a unique sense of relief and pleasure at my own independance when I finally got on the train and purchased my own bottle of water and bag of crisps!
Before I left Orissa I was lucky enough to get the chance to see another of its famous landmarks, the sun temple at Konark. Originally the temple was very close to the seashore and was known by sailors as 'the black Pagoda' - I thought that sounded suitably dark and over-dramatic, like something from a Du Maurier novel! Now, thanks to natural land accumulation the temple sits about 3km from the coastline but hasn't lost any of its impact. The temple was first built in the 13th century by an Orissan king to celebrate his military victory over the Muslims. It had lots of knocks, blows and lootings in the years after this but since the early 20th century the temple has been under constant excavation and restoration which has left the site in the immaculate state it is in today.The temple itself is based on the cosmic chariot of the sun god Surya, there are huge wheels carved at its sides and at the front it is pulled by prancing horses. The whole temple is covered with intricately carved scenes of love and life that are particularly famous for their erotic style. As I walked around the site I was struck by the contradictions before me.India is so conservative, as a women you can't so much as show your ankles without a man glaring at you, but here were whole families walking around a temple emblazoned with images of the art of sexual pleasure and they weren't even blinking an eye! I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to take photos but I did anyway so look at the photos I post and you will get an idea of just how explicit some of the carvings are!