Pedalling Puri with the Green Riders

17:00, Sep 04 2012
A bustling street in Puri, India
BUSY, BUSY: A bustling street in Puri, India.

Bicycle rickshaws are fast enough to be cooling, slow enough to see what's going on, and don't make noise or carbon emissions. And, for a very reasonable price, we have built-in city guides.

Bapi and Pramod, our rickshaw drivers, are proud to be certified Green Riders. In recent years bicycle rickshaw owners have been having difficulty making ends meet as people turn to faster, motorised auto-rickshaws.

Green Riders is a pro-poor tourist initiative that helps bicycle rickshaw drivers find employment in the tourist industry, through providing heritage city tours. A bonus is that Green Riders use pedal-power not fossil fuels, so this mode of transport is truly green.

Laura, my niece, and I hire Bapi and Pramod and their green bikes. Hari is a generation older than Bapi so it seems natural that I, “Madame”, climb aboard his rickshaw while Laura, “Young Madame” uses Bapi's.

I'm surprised how fast we go, wheeling seemingly effortlessly along the busy streets, with Pramod keeping his eyes out for wandering cows, schoolchildren, sleeping dogs and other bigger, might-is-right vehicles. He has an old-style, loud bicycle bell that he rings as required.

We are taken to visit temples, lakes and gardens and ride through the tangled back lanes of old Puri. Women do laundry at standpipes, men wearing just a lungi sun themselves on steps and little shops are tucked into holes in walls.


Curd is sold in clay bowls, a vendor sells nuts of all sorts, another sweets, and at a tiny restaurant the proprietor sits cross-legged circled by pots and sells meals-to-go in plates made of pressed leaves. Crowded, colourful and buzzing with life - I'm fascinated with this strange medieval world just behind Puri's Grand Rd.

There are thousands of people in Grand Rd. Cars, buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws aren't allowed here but we whiz right through the middle (yet another reason to hire a Green Rider) and only stop when the pedestrian crowd is impassably thick.

It's fun to be in among the melee; family groups on tour, honeymoon couples, immaculately dressed young ladies, old folk possibly hoping to die here, hundreds of street vendors, a policeman under a rainbow-coloured umbrella and a scattering of cows.

The ambience is busy and festive. Puri is a holiday and pilgrimage destination for people from all

over India. The Jagannath Temple, at the head of Grand Rd, is the big thing in Puri and the reason for the crowds.

Puri is a sacred city for Hindus and Jagannath is one of the 12 most-holy temples. Those who are fortunate enough to die and be cremated here get a guarantee of a better incarnation next time.

Non-Hindus aren't allowed inside the temple so, for us, it's a bit like going to a show and not seeing the star, but Bapi solves the problem.

He leaves Hari with the bikes and we follow him into a building opposite the temple and up four flights of stairs to a rooftop terrace.

There is a good view over high walls into the temple grounds and of its impressive 60-metre stone tower. It's busy in there.

Puri's beach faces south into the Bay of Bengal. In winter months you can watch the sun both rise and set from the beach which puts Puri on the important-places map.

Hari and Pramod drop us at the beach just before sunset. It's low tide with wide shallows and big choppy waves. The thousands of people - standing, sitting, swimming and paddling - look as if they are fully dosed with happy pills, and the joy of being here is contagious.

Women swim full clothed and the wet-sari-look is more sensual than skimpy bathing suits could ever be. Women stand, silk clinging and bangles flashing, wringing out their hair. The ice-cream seller has wheeled his cart into the shallows too, to be where the people are.

Young men fool about in big waves with an inflated inner tube and laugh and shriek while playing with a ball. Old folk, sitting in the shallows, are as delighted as tiny tots with the baby waves. Many people have come here from inland India and have never seen the sea before.

The carnival atmosphere is full throttle higher up the beach. Camels are so decorated with garlands of fake flowers that it's hard to see the animal behind the gewgaws.

There are ladders strapped to their saddles and when people want a ride the camel stands patiently while people climb up. I see an old couple, grey-haired and rheumy, their faces full of the joy of a camel ride together.

The frivolity stops for a minute or two as the sun becomes a red ball sliding into the sea. The crowd watches with reverence, some raise their arms in praise and others have palms together in prayer.

It's a nice moment at the close of a day of many nice moments. And tomorrow promises to be just as much fun.

We have more city sites to see and, after sunrise on the beach, we have booked Hari and Pramod for a morning of green riding.


Get there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to Delhi every day via Hong Kong,

From Delhi there are many daily flights to Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa. Buy the ticket over the internet. Kingfisher, Go India and Spice are all reliable local airlines.

Getting around Orissa: Heritage Tours Orissa can tailor-make a programme for you. A weeklong tour with driver, guide, car and food and accommodation, including two nights at the palace, cost about $1000 per person. It's a varied programme that covers national parks, heritage and cultural sites and great beaches. More at heritagetours

Green Riders: Heritage Tours Orissa helped set up and train the Green Riders. Look out for Green Riders in the tourist areas or ask the hotel to order a Green Rider. There are set hourly rates so no bargaining is required.

When to visit: Aug-Feb. It's too hot between March and July.

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