Orissa, hugging the Bay of Bengal south of Kolkata, may only be India's ninth largest state, but its numerous attractions and oddities seem to come supersize.
It is only now beginning to brand its name on world tourist maps. Too bad the Indian government has just gone and changed that name, approving an official return to the more traditional and accurate spelling of Odisha. But by whatever name, the formless if pleasant state capital of Bhubaneswar boasts the subcontinent's largest number of species of cactus (1,050 in all) in the monsoon-proof greenhouses of a Regional Plant Resource Centre within the main city park. Orissa is also home to the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, which bills itself as the "world's biggest school for tribal children." It's 15,000-plus pupils come from the state's 22% indigenous population also India's highest number.
Then there's one of the world's largest kitchens. You might expect it to be found in a restaurant or barracks, but in a place as culturally rich as it is poor in resources, the real whoppers come in the spiritual realm. And every day since the 12th century, the wood-burning steamers in the kitchens that take up much of the sanctified Shree Jagannath Temple compound, set in the aptly purified beach town of Puri, have produced some 64 designated offerings to the gods. According to temple officials, up to 30 kinds of dishes, from rice and dal to sweets, curries and so on, are likewise gobbled down by more than 20,000 devotees daily in a constant interplay of real and symbolic hunger. It's all cooked in steaming vats in which plates are stacked 10 treats high.
A visit during the temple's annual summer festival of Rath Yatra, a chariot procession, puts you amid crowds immeasurably huge even by India's crores and lakhs. But on normal days, and with non-Hindus barred from the inner kitchen sanctums, a stroll to the gates of the temple, past the hordes of penitents and performers, souvenir peddlers and sellers of fly-swarmed sweets, still makes clear why Jagannath is the real-life origin of the word juggernaut.