Footprints on sand

Quaint Retreat

Weary after a hectic time at Puri and Konark, I wanted to chill out at a quiet place and when my hotel manager mentioned Gopalpur-on-Sea, I knew that it was the place I wanted to visit.

A beach buff, I am always game for a piece of sun and sand. “Not many people venture out to that place,” the manager said. “It is a small town — laid back and quiet,” he added. That statement strengthened my resolve to undertake the almost four-hour journey by road to this beach destination.

Panoramic surroundings

An hour later, I was on board a rickety bus. A steady flow of conversation from the garrulous co-passenger in the local language kept me awake through the journey. We drove past eye-soothing pastoral areas with coconut and palm laden trees swaying mesmerisingly amidst acres of paddy fields and quaint thatched huts. We saw beaten tracks that went winding past emerald patches and tiny ponds hidden from curious eyes by thickly foliated trees. This is where people bathed and gossiped. The bucolic picture was something that gladdened the eye and soothed the soul of jaded travellers and city slickers like me.

Despite the urge to nod off, I kept my eyes peeled on the countryside, not willing to miss the beauty. A while later, the bus screeched to a halt before a railway crossing. It was time to stretch my legs and sip on the sweet and cool tender coconut that was being sold for a pittance.

It seemed hours before the train chugged past languorously and the gates opened to allow the traffic to begin moving. Bullock carts with huge wooden wheels blocked our way. Roads were blocked and diverted by farmers, who had spread tonnes of paddy on the road and were busy de-husking it. It was a different world — a world where time was not at a premium and thankfully so.

We trundled past distant mountains that suddenly gave way to a shimmering lake that stretched far beyond the scope of our vision. This, I learnt, was the huge brackish water lagoon, Chilika, on the eastern coast of the country.

The lagoon is also the largest winter capital of migratory birds and a habitat of some rare, vulnerable and endangered species. Flocks and flocks of avian friends arrive from as far as the distant parts of Russia and the steppes of Mongolia, the Aral Sea, Caspian Sea, Lake Baikal as well as the Himalayas, to spend the freezing winter in the waters of Chilika. An average of two million birds fly to the lake each year.

Making a mental note to make a day trip to Chilika, I focused my attention on the panoramic surroundings. Gopalpur was called Poloura during the reign of the Kalingas and it served as a busy port that saw prolific business activity, I had read in a travel book while researching on the place. It was the British who named it Gopalpur after an old Krishna temple in the area.

It remained a busy port during the British East India Company days, carrying trade with Sumatra, Burma and Bali. Rice and silk formed the bulk of that trade. With prosperity came the wealthy Indians to enjoy the tranquil seaside. Some of them constructed sprawling houses to spend their summers in and it became the playground of the rich and influential.

What the prime spot Gopalpur earned during the British rule, faded away with their departure. Trade shifted from here to other ports and the place took on the avatar of a laid back fishing village. That is what I found when I stepped out of the bus, thankful that the bone rattling and teeth chattering journey had come to an end.

Miles of azure water, rolling waves and golden sands greeted my eager eyes. On one end of the beach stood an ancient lighthouse that spoke of the past glory of the place. A tantalising aroma of fried fish led me to the line of shops that stood at a distance. It was almost lunch time, I realised.

Sitting on a wooden bench, I relished the mackerel fry and fragrant rice heaped on my platter by a smiling boy. It all came for a song, literally. Fish had never tasted so good. A curry of fresh prawns swimming in a tongue tickling gravy was an over indulgence I couldn’t resist.

Scouting for a hotel, I came across one that stood right on the beach and provided me ample opportunity to step out and tread on sand, whenever I wished. From the window of my room, I could hear the roaring sea and see the swaying fronds of coconut trees. The line of casuarinas on the sea front lent an artistic touch to the landscape.

I made my way to the beach. Dotted against the azure sky, the boats of local fishermen looked enchantingly lyrical. The seaside eateries awaited the day’s haul. Come evening and the tantalising aroma of fish fry would lure people like me to the stalls. Tripping over a sand castle made by someone, I made my way to an isolated spot. I sat amidst the crabs crawling in and out of their holes in the sand, watching the sun set over the Bay of Bengal.

As the last rays of the sun hit the waves, I was rewarded with a sight so beautiful that it made my heart ache. Not willing to miss out on the grandeur of the canvas, I sat there till the full moon beamed its cool, silvery rays on earth and the sand turned cold.

The silvery beams of the moon coupled with the rhythmic roar of the waves wove a magical web around me. I forgot all about the fried fish that lay waiting for me at the tiny eatery run by a cheerful lad and continued to listen to the music of the swelling waves.
I could have lived here forever.

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