The Chilika Lake is spread over three districts of Odisha, namely, Puri, Khurda and Ganjam, along the eastern coast of India. Covering an expanse of 1100 km2, Chilika is, in fact, the world’s second largest coastal lagoon. The coastline has moved eastward over the period of time. Though widely thought to be a saltwater lake, the Chilika is actually a brackish water lagoon. Which means that it does have more salinity than fresh water, but not as much as sea water. As it is an estuarine lagoon, it supports a unique ensemble of freshwater, brackish and marine species. Over the year, as awareness has grown and measures have been taken to preserve the ecology of the lake, there has been a rise in aqua-cultural activities.
The legend goes that once a pirate tried to attack Puri with huge fleets of ships. As a way of avoiding detection, he slyly anchored the ships at the mouth of the river. However, his deception was discovered and all the people of the village escaped. He was enraged at seeing the abandoned village, and directed his fury towards the sea. The sea parted to let the pirate’s army in, but as soon as the army entered the water flooded back in, drowning the pirate and is army and creating the lake.
The Brahmanda Purana, a 10th century text, the Chilika Lake is mentioned as a significant center for trade and commerce. The lake was also a shelter for ships departing for China, Java, Malaya, Singhala and other distant lands. This shows that the lake was deep enough for harbouring sea sailing ships and had a channel big enough for loaded ships to pass through.
Today, the lake is home to many endangered plants and animals. The ecosystem of the lake sustains a large resource of fisheries, thereby providing a livelihood for almost 150,000 fisher-folk, living on the small islands in the lake.
The lake is the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in the Indian sub-continent. In the peak season, as many as 160 species of birds can be found! Birds seeking wintering ground come from as far as the Caspian Sea, Aral Sea, Baikal Lake, remote parts of Russia, Central and South-east Asia, Himalayas etc. It is one of the best places to go bird-watching. The birds you are most likely to spot are sea eagles, greylag geese, purple moorhen, jacana, herons and flamingos. The lake is one of the world’s largest breeding grounds for flamingos.
Chilika is the only place in India where sightings of the Irrawaddy Dolphins have been reported. It has been classified as a “Critically Endangered” species. Chilika is also home to Bottle-Nose Dolphins.
The water-spread of the estuary varies from 1165 km2 in the monsoon to 906 km2 in the summer. A narrow channel, which is 32 metres in length, connects the main lagoon to the Bay of Bengal.
In the past few decades, the ecology of the lake has indeed seen several glitches not only due to intervention of humans, but also because of natural processes that recur over the ages. As a consequence of waves converging with the sea at a particular angle, beach material are steadily shifted. This has resulted in siltation from the inland river system. There have been reports of blockages in the inlet channel. The mouth of the channel that connect the sea and the lake has been gradually shifting. This may create a serious problem as the channel was way of releasing silt and other natural wastes into the sea, so as not to choke the lake, thereby endangering the thousands of animals and plants that are dependent on the lake’s ecology. Surveys have also revealed there has been deterioration in the salinity of the water, thus reducing the fishery resource. Reports also show that there has been a steady and unhealthy increase in the procreation of fresh water invasive species, due to the decline of saline water. This is not only harmful for the balance of the ecology but also endangers the survival of the fishing communities living nearby, as these fishery resources are their only source of income. The major reason of the waning of the fishery resource is the commercialisation of the prawn cultivation. Big companies come in with their heavy machineries and exhaust the fishery resources. This not only takes away source of income from local fisher-folk, but also denies nature the chance of replenishing the fishery resource.
Concerned about the steady deterioration of this beautiful ecology, the Odisha government took reformative actions. In 1992, the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) was set up. The main function of this organisation was to look into the matter of the degradation, come up with plans of restoration and the overall development of the entire region. This body functions with the Chief Minister of Odisha as its head. The body also has the representatives of the local communities and the fisher-folk, people’s representatives, and also experts, scientists, etc. who guide the functioning of the organisation. In November, 2002, the CDA was felicitated with the Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award for “Outstanding achievements in the field of restoration and wise use of wetlands and effective participation of the local communities in these activities”.
The natural beauty pulls people with a fetish for eco-tourism, which has also developed over the years and provides a viable source of income for people in nearby villages. It is astute use of the scenic splendour of the lake and also spreads awareness about keeping environment pollution free. A number of islands in and around the lake have been identified for tourist activities. For example the Breakfast Island, Ramba Bay, Honeymoon Island are some of the islands that travelers will enjoy immensely. The Beacon Island gives a view of the Eastern Ghats. The Birds’ Island, as the name itself suggests, is the site where one can see hundreds of thousands of birds flocking around.
The Kalijai Temple, which the locals believe to be the abode of Goddess of Kalijai, is also worth a visit.
The Satapada village, which is a few kilometres away from Chilika, can be accessed by boats and ferries. It is this village, where all the dolphin sightings happen.
The best time of the year to visit Chilika is in the month of December. The migratory birds and the dolphin sightings are truly a sight to behold. So, the next time you want an overload of nature, Chilika is the place for you. Nature lover or not, Chilika is a must visit, at least once in a life time.