The Chilka Lake in Orissa is Asia's largest inland salt-water lagoon. Studded with small islands- including the picturesquely-named Honeymoon Island and Breakfast Island- the lake is separated from the Bay of Bengal by a sandy ridge. The pear-shaped lake spreads across 1,100 sq km, and has a unique ecosystem with a range of aquatic flora and fauna found in and around its brackish waters. An impressive array of bird life, both native and migrant, makes Chilka one of the best places in India for a bit of satisfying bird-watching. White bellied sea eagles, greylag geese, purple moorhen, jacana, herons and flamingos are among the many species which make the lake a bird watcher's delight: Chilka, in fact, is home to one of the world's largest breeding colonies of flamingos.
Other than the birds, Chilka's shores are home to blackbuck, spotted deer, golden jackals and hyenas, and the lake is rich in aquatic life- its waters harbour around 160 species of fish, crustaceans and other marine creatures, including the famous Chilka dolphin. Prawn, crab and mackerel fishing are an important source of livelihood for the local people, and hundreds of small fishing boats set sail each morning to bring in the day's catch from the lake. he Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve harbours India’s second largest pachyderm population, and the chances of seeing elephant herds is pretty high, especially during the dry season.
Chilka is approximately 120 km from Bhubaneshwar, the nearest airport; state transport, OTDC tour buses and private operators ply the roads between Chilka, Puri, Behrampore, Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack. The nearest railway stations are at Rambha and Balugaon, both of which have train connections to cities as distant as Kolkata, Puri, Hyderabad and Chennai. From both Balugaon and Rambha buses are available to the lake.
Local transport is basically limited to three wheel rickshaws and auto rickshaws, bicycles and cars are sole modes of private transport. The services of local boatmen and the OTDC's motorboats are available for access to the islands though outboard motors are not allowed near the bird sanctuary. OTDC boats can be hired at Barkul, and cost between Rs 410 (for a 7-seater boat) to Rs 790 (for a 34-seater boat) per hour. A special tour is operated by the OTDC between Barkul and Kalijai, and costs Rs 40 per head.
Best time to visit
The weather remains moderately warm the whole year round, so come any time of the year except during the rainy season from June to September. The best time, however, is from October to March, when the lake is crowded with migrating birds, usually at least 50-70 species. Pilgrims flock here in January during Makar Mela (at the time of Makar Sankranti) to pay obeisance to the Goddess Kalijai, whose temple is situated on Kalijai island in Chilka Lake.
There are a few hotels on the banks of the lake including an OTDC run hotel and two tourist bungalows (the `Panthnivas' at Rambha and Barkul) that have stunning views and a relaxed vacation ambience.
A number of state-run as well as privately-operated resthouses and tourist lodges also dot the shores of the lake, and tariffs vary considerably, depending upon the facilities offered.