TRAVEL NEWS: Odisha – Urban Renewal in Ancient India

Bhubaneswar – the largest city in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa) – is the second “planned” city of independent India after Chandigarh.  Its total area of 135 sq km includes the 25 sq km or so of the Old Town that dates back more than a 1,000 years, with glorious temple structures that had dotted the area then, many of which are there today as well. Left in disrepair for decades, the temples and surrounding area are now considered to be a shining example of urban renewal.

Ekramvan Headstone

Ekamravan Headstone

Under The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the first project to have been taken up under the Old Town Revitalisation Project was the Bindu Sagar Periphery Development project.  That building, along the largest river in the region, includes a medicinal plant garden called the Ekamravan Medical Plant Garden.  The project is being implemented by the Forest Department under the guidance of A HeritageLab, a heritage conservation firm. It provided design inputs, and training and direction to the stoneworkers.

The name Ekamravan means “one mango tree forest”. Old Hindu scriptures say that Bhubaneshwar was one of Lord Shiva’s favorite places, where he liked to spend time meditating under a huge mango tree.

Ekamravan Medical Garden in Orissa, India
Ekamravan Medical Garden in Odisha, India

There are more than 200 varieties of plants in the Ekamravan Medicinal Plant Garden. But that’s not all that’s remarkable about it.  Until 2007, the area was an unattractive disused space, with crumbing walls and areas of toxic waste build-up from unmonitored public usage.   Then, government of Odisha decided to revitalize it, turning it into this magnificent garden. (The government is now focusing on the east bank of the lake and planting medicinal trees there).

The feature points of the garden are raised platforms dedicated to Lords Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesha. It was created by artisans from Raghurajpur handicrafts village and the historical Buddhist site Lalitgiri. If you’re interested in Ayurveda, the garden is a must-visit. However, it’s so beautifully landscaped (resplendent with lotus pond and stone sculptures) and relaxing, I’m sure most people would enjoy it.

The project includes architectural restoration, environmental clean-up and city planning to open up the old temples, for easier access and better appreciation of their splendour. It also revitalises the living culture of the Old Town, say by way of a medicinal plants garden on the west bank of Bindu Sagar and the Lingaraj Haat.

Bindu Sagar, a sacred water body that finds mention in the “puranas” and other ancient texts is a stone’s throw from the Lingaraj temple. It is said that when Bindu Sagar was formed, all the river goddesses were invited to bless it by pouring into it some drops of water from their rivers. This is also where Parvati is supposed to have herded cows and Shiva is supposed to have meditated under a huge mango tree, as large as a forest.

Crocodile Statue in the Garden

Crocodile Statue in the Garden

As recently as 2008, Bindu Sagar was neither visually nor physically connected to the Lingaraj temple (except from some view points along the main road), thanks to all the man-made obstructions. Of course, having lost its past glory and beauty, it was not much of a sight to want to look at. Its periphery was in an advanced state of disrepair, with retaining walls that were crumbling. Its waters were sullied by leaking sewage, open defecation, ritual offerings by hundreds of pilgrims, and chemicals from washing clothes.

The project has a strong component of capacity-building, following the successful experiment of training in lime plaster for local craftsmen in Raghurajpur in a pilot project. The Bindu Sagar periphery wall is being built by local sculptors who are being trained in the art of stone carving by the accomplished skilled craftsmen of the area. “This not only creates a resource for the future conservation of heritage but it also visibly and positively impacts the lives of the rural craftsmen and their children”, said Anupam Shah of A Heritage, proudly.

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Editor’s Note: Original World Tours offers 15-day cultural immersion tours to Odisha that begin and end in Calcutta, including Villages, Culture and Crafts of Tribal Odisha, which departs February and November (the Feb. tour includes Konark Dance Festival).

 

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