I started the day early at Chandikhol but not as early as I had wished. I boarded a bus to Baripada at 7.30 am. I reached only at 1.30 pm. It feels like a whole day has been wasted. The bus was packed and I had to stand a good part of the journey. Worst of all, I was dropped off at Balasore, a place not listed on my map. I had specifically asked for Baripada and purchased a ticket for it. I felt shortchanged and cheated. I had to change to another bus to reach Baripada.
Baripada is definitely not on the well-trodden tourist trail. I was tempted by a few words in my guidebook, which is more a collection road maps of different states than a guidebook. It says,
Baripada: Ancient Forts,
Temples, Tribals. Haripur
(15 kms): Ruins of Palaces and
‘Which Haripur?’ was the first question that I was asked when I made some enquiries. Apparently, there was more than one with that name.
‘It is about 15 kilometers from here,’ I pointed out in Hindi.
This seemed to narrow the scope but still the local auto-rickshaw drivers couldn’t settle the doubt. Some felt it was more than that distance.
‘Where there are ruins of palaces and temples,’ I added as an extra hint.
This seemed to settle the matter. There are no buses to this place. I would have to hire a vehicle for Rs. 250 to get there and back. It was above my budget. I decided to give it a miss. Having come so far, I later felt I should have gone to Haripur after all.
I asked a policewoman directions to the palace in Baripada. She replied sweetly in Oriya that she did not understand Hindi.
‘Raja Mahal?’ I pursued. She understood, replied something in Oriya and pointed down the road going left.
After a long walk I reached a pair of closed gates. I asked around. One shopkeeper informed that the place was closed and visitors are not allowed. I was beginning to feel that my trip so far into Northern Orissa has been a waste.
‘Is there anything to see in Baripada?’ I asked the shopkeeper.
‘Baripada has everything,’ he replied proudly.
‘What can I see?’
‘Everything. What does Baripada not have?’
‘But the mahal is closed. Is there really anything here?’
‘Well, there are a couple of temples if you head left. There is also the Mayurbhanj Palace. To the right, there is the Collector’s Office.’
‘Yes. Take the road going right.’
Mayurbhanj Palace sounded a little more promising. I took a quick sip of water and started walking towards it. After about fifteen minutes I reached the palace. The facade was enough to put me off. It was European classical architecture with strict columns, arches and gables. There was no hint of Indian influence. Just as I disliked the Brighton Pavilion, I disliked this building which clearly did not suit its surroundings or its history.
A guard at the entrance prevented me from getting into the inner courtyard. The building is today used as a college. During the afternoons, it is for the ladies only. It was 3 pm.
‘Men are not allowed,’ the guard said for the third time. I was trying to peep into the inner courtyard to see if the architecture is any better than on the outside. He clearly believed that it was his duty to protect the honour and virginity of all the women students of the college. He eyed me with suspicion all along.
‘This is not a very old building. It must have been built during British times,’ I said rather like a fox walking away from sour grapes.
‘The Rajah built it. It is more than 200 years old,’ he said in defence but hardly contradicting what I had said.
‘It doesn’t have the fame or grandeur of Raja Man Singh’s palace at Gwalior.’
He mumbled something and fell silent. I started walking out to the road. I went into cyber world and did some searching. I asked around about Chhau dance. This is a folk dance unique to this part of Orissa and parts of West Bengal and Jharkand. While related dances have facial masks, Chhau dance of Baripada do not have masks.
‘Is there any chance I can see this dance in town?’ I asked the guy who ran the Internet center.
‘You can ask Rajo just across the road. There he is, just coming out of his house.’
I crossed over and started a conversation. Ramachandra Das works at the local dance academy teaching students this dance form. This academy is maintained by the government. Generally pay is delayed by many months and never on time. His father is also an expert in this dance form. Rajo says he learnt this as a child.
I could watch the students practice in the mornings. Just my luck, tomorrow is a holiday. So I would have to catch the practice the day after. With nothing useful to see in Baripada, I was not going to hang around an entire day just for a practice dance. Real performances happen during April. That’s the best time to catch this dance in full costume. I think this dance is quite unique because it is seasonal and performed only for the festival in April. Perhaps, this is the modern remnant of an ancient dance which might have been performed more regularly through the year.