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The best exotic Orissa guesthouse

Travel |

Josceline Dimbleby had a happy time in one of India’s most colourful tribal states

India has the largest population of different tribes in the world, making up 8.6 per cent of its population. Last February, the day before we flew to the east coast of India followed by a long drive to the south of the state of Orissa, an area populated entirely by indigenous people from many tribes, I received an unlikely email. It was from the Australian owner of Chandoori Sai, the guesthouse where we were to stay beside a remote highland village: ‘Before starting your drive could you go to Spencer’s supermarket in town and get me 10 kilos of Chinese pears for the apple pies. Cheers, Leon.’

Orissa, now renamed Odisha, has much to offer the tourist with its history and culture, temples and places of pilgrimage. To me the tribal hills of the south are particularly fascinating, with beautiful landscape, colourful tribal markets, brightly painted village houses and the tribal people themselves in their traditional dress, which varies greatly, like their physical appearance, from tribe to tribe. Odisha has the largest number of tribes of any of the Indian states, about 62, and their culture remains rich and distinctive. We were heading for the Koraput district, home to a mixture of Paraja and Kondh tribes.

Signs on the empty road reminded our driver that ‘Driving Faster Can Cause Disaster’ and on a half-built and now decaying building a notice read ‘Construction work in full swing’. The road became bumpier and we were relieved when we finally reached Chandoori Sai and found Leon there to greet us with six beautiful Paraja girls who help him run his guesthouse, and whom he treats affectionately as if they were his family. I liked Leon at once and as we handed over the Chinese pears it seemed even stranger that he lives alone in such an out-of-the way place, the only foreigner for miles, and for much of the year with no foreign visitors. Very soon he told us his unusual story. In the 1980s, when he was married and still in Australia, his wife suggested a trip to India, as it had been her childhood dream to go there. However, the Indian experience proved more than she had bargained for; ‘Singapore was more her style,’ said Leon. But he was hooked. He returned to India again and again and in 2001, long divorced and retired from his job, he visited India for the fiftieth time. He has not left since.

Leon’s first few years of living in India were spent ‘wandering aimlessly round the country’ and this was when, by misreading maps, he ended up one day 100 kilometres from where he meant to go and found himself in the tribal highlands of southern Orissa. He was immediately captured by ‘the beauty and serenity of the scenery and its enchanting inhabitants’. Before long, he realised that unless tourists were young enough to endure extremely basic accommodation there was no way, in this remote area, they could experience the charm of tribal village life. He bought some land on the edge of a village of potters: ‘I thought why not make a place where us oldies can experience village life first hand in comfort and safety and eat home cooking that they know or Indian dishes spiced as they like.’ Hence the apple pies – and Leon has taught the girls to make ravioli and pizzas too. So began the building of the five-bedroom Chandoori Sai and the creation of its lovely garden overlooking the rolling hills.

We stayed at Chandoori Sai for five days, walking each morning to different villages along an age-old network of paths, skirting rice fields and sometimes paddling through small rivers. The villages, each with a different character, were all quiet and incredibly clean and tidy – none of the plastic that litters most of India – because the tribals are self-
sufficient, growing their own vegetables and keeping animals, and simply don’t have plastic. Their animist god, represented by a large stone, is prominent in most villages. The low houses are freshly painted every year in brilliant, clear colours which would delight interior decorators and artists, and the clothes worn by the women often match the houses exactly, adding a sense of real style. Rooms have no furniture except bedrolls, with perhaps one wooden bedstead, and are swept scrupulously every day. Cooking is done on an open fire in the ground, usually just outside the house. What pleased us most was the extreme friendliness of the villagers, with welcoming smiles and often laughter wherever we went.

The tribals are talented artists and their village schools, usually just one room, are decorated with lively scenes painted in terracotta and white – everyday life, farming with implements (no machines), hunting, music-making, dancing, weddings and eating. Children up to the age of ten go to school only once a week on Saturdays while those aged ten to fourteen attend every day.

Back to lunch at Chandoori Sai, where we loved the home-grown fresh peas, root fennel, herbs and salad leaves. Afterwards we sat and read in Leon’s two-acre garden with its large mango tree at one end (the name chandoori means mango): extremely peaceful and other-worldly, with crystal clarity of air and light, the only sounds birdsong and occasionally a distant train. Leon’s girls had done the day’s washing in a circular stone washing fountain in the middle of the garden and laid all the sheets and our clothes to dry on the extensive lawn. Later we often went for a shorter walk on our own without the local man who takes the guests on all morning walks through villages. The liveliest guest was Kitty, an American aged 85, who gamely came on all the
walks. Leon said he was in love with her.

The social occasion of the week for the tribals is a market in the small town near Chandoori Sai. They walk from villages all around with their vegetables and animals to sell. The potters from Leon’s village bring their pots strung from bamboo poles over their shoulders. Women sit with their babies and gossip, or choose brilliant new cotton saris. As we walked back across the fields we felt sad that our time at Chandoori Sai was coming to an end; we had become fond of endearing, eccentric Leon, who has created such a peaceful haven, rare in India. When he and his pretty Paraja girls gathered to say goodbye, I told him I hoped we would come back. Leon replied in his incongruously broad Australian accent: ‘Yes you must, you’ve got plenty of life left, Jossy – and you’re still good looking!’ An encouraging farewell.

www.grassroutesjourneys.com will arrange a trip to Odisha including a few days at Chandoori Sai. You can also book with Leon direct: chandoorisai@gmail.com; +91 9443 342 241. He also has a website: www.chandoorisai.com.

Josceline Dimbleby is the author of ‘Orchards in the Oasis: Recipes, Travels and Memories’ published by Quadrille.

This story was from May 2015 issue. Subscribe Now