Hundreds of thousands of people who fled the country's strongest cyclone in 14 years returned home to scenes of devastation on Monday, as survivors stranded at sea during the storms were finally rescued.

One million people were forced to seek refuge in shelters after the terrifying cyclone struck eastern India on Saturday, killing at least 22 people and leaving a trail of destruction along the coast.

Cyclone Phailin pounded the states of Odisha and to a lesser extent Andhra Pradesh, bringing winds of more than 200 kilometres an hour (125 miles per hour), uprooting trees, overturning trucks, and knocking out power lines.

"The death toll from the cyclone in Odisha has now gone up from 17 to 21. The deaths are mostly due to falling walls and tree branches," Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, the state's special relief commissioner said. One person was also killed in Andhra Pradesh, officials have said.

Largest ever evacuation operation

Loss of life was minimised after one million people spent the night huddled in shelters, temples and schools during the ferocious storm, in what officials said was the largest ever evacuation operation.

President Pranab Mukherjee led a chorus of praise for the evacuation effort and the "high level of preparedness" as well as for the accurate forecasting of the country's weather bureaus.

Relief agencies said government officials seemed to have learnt the lessons from 1999, when a cyclone tore through the same region, killing more than 8,000 people and devastating crops and livestock. Officials in Odisha said 873,000 people moved before the cyclone made landfall on Saturday evening, while at least another 100,000 were evacuated in Andhra Pradesh.AFP