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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Privately in Puri

An abridged version of the below can be read  at Jokatimes.com

A night’s travel from Calcutta stands the sleepy town of Puri, contoured by the Bay of Bengal and basking in the glory of its Vedic history. As one of the four holy places of Hinduism, it attracts many a devotees, and the occasional unobservant wanderer. In many ways, I fall under the second category.

As I set foot in Puri on a Saturday morning, I was mobbed by a bunch of auto drivers, giving me hints about what to expect for the next few days. I assume that the natives thrive mostly on tourism, and this is evident in the huge number of resorts and hotels along the coast. I had booked a cottage at the end of the beach, and reaching it involved a long ride on the marine drive. With the famed Golden beach on my left and hotels and such commercial places as “Pyassa Wines” on the right, it turned out to be a rather pleasant ride, and I came to take it several times in the next 3 days – sometimes by accident, but mostly on purpose.

The Sun Temple, Konark

After a sumptuous breakfast and a good day’s sleep in my room, I set out, in the words of a friend of mine, to stare at the Sun Temple at Konark. The Black Pagoda is a singular structure that overwhelms you in an instant. Widely regarded as a marvel of Indian architectural brilliance and recognized as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, the temple is designed as a chariot of 24 wheels – although it is hard to imagine the original structure amidst the ruins.
There are many theories regarding the fall of this magnificent monument, including some that state that the temple was never completed in the first place, thus denying the ‘fall’ itself. Although leaving a project mid-way is not very unexpected from today’s engineers, it was rarely the case for their medieval counterparts, say historians who deny these stories. The most intriguing theory of destruction is about the Portugese invaders removing the magnetic lodestone from the temple, thus causing the structure to collapse. The magnet was supposed to be so powerful that it interfered with the compasses of approaching ships. The generally believed story is that the Bengal Sultanate under Kalapahad destroyed the temple with several others on his invasion of Orissa in the 1500s. Given the state of the idols and elephants with limbs cut off, this looks quite plausible. In any case, the monument is but a shadow of what it had been.
According to many, the temple is best watched at Sun rise and Sun set, and I conveniently chose the latter. Even for a person as unobservant as me, the benefits are clearly visible. For a temple dedicated to the Sun God, it is perhaps a touch of irony that the structure looks best at night, in moonlight. A photographer’s dream. Equipped with a 5mp mobile cam and the knowledge that I know bonkers about using it, I instantly subscribed to the Sajith P Surendran school of Photography – clicking 100s of pics of the same scene and banking on the probability that at least a couple of them will turn out to be good*. Probability, just as in the second semester of my engineering, failed me this time too.

Oriya cuisine

On the way back, I got to try the local cuisine – tiger prawns and mutton curry with rice. Now this is a very unlikely combination. Being a beach city, sea food is part of every meal at Puri, but I couldn’t first digest the omnipotence of mutton dishes at the place. Till I read about the Afghan and Mughal invasions of Orissa, who brought their cuisine and culture along. The Muslim rule failed to impact the local culture in a significant way, and after they left soon, leaving the province to local rulers. However, goat meat stayed, and found that it was embraced by the natives who built dishes around it.
I also tried a lot of street-food, half conscious about the hygiene. In the end, all of it turned out to be fine. Upon return, as fate would have it, it only took one meal from our hostel mess to restrict my movements to the proximity of washrooms for a day.

Temple of Jagannadh, Puri

I spent the rest of the night in my hotel room, and ventured out to the famed Puri Jagannadh temple next day afternoon. I am not a devout follower, although I do visit temples from time to time, primarily for the peace of mind and relaxation each visit imparts. I was to be disappointed here for various reasons, but I did meet a few interesting people. First to catch my curiosity was the German born Adrianne, who, dressed as a Hindu monk lives in the premises of the temple. I spoke to him, and although his heavy accent denied any serious conversation, the smile on his face told me that he is a happy man. As I bid goodnight to the European, my eyes met that of a young widow sitting by the pathway to the temple of Durga. I noticed the shaven head as she outstretched her hands for alms. Just as the Indian culture and religion can give peace to many a mind, they can also deny the same in many others. She cannot be more than 25.
Near the entrance are a few shops which sell stationery and photos of deities among others. To please the female members of my family, I bought many, including a rudraksha garland. Okay, that was for me alone. Priced at Rs. 35, it looked too cheap to be authentic, and I sure didn’t want to buy one made of plastic. I inspected the rudraksha seeds till I got reminded of the night when I spent 200 bucks on a ticket to ‘Cocktail’. Without further thought, I fished into my pocket. The garland lies on my table as I write, awaiting its turn.
Looking at the prices, it won’t be too far- fetched to say that inflation is unheard of in those parts. Or so I thought, till I met the pandas of the temple. I must have seen close to 100 monks in the premises. Some of them were stationed near the deities, some involved in preparing Prasad, and some others just roaming around mumbling prayers. Regardless of the diversity in occupation, they stood united in agenda – make money out of devotees. In one instant, I was being pulled into opposite directions by the pandas of Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva. I am not sure what the Gods will think about that. One particular person guarding the Narasimha deity pushed my head down on the stone and performed an elaborate prayer, asking for a donation as it ended. I took a 10rs note out, and he aptly told me that everyone gives him 200 and so should I, for good results. How much I hate direct marketing!


Till my last day in Puri, I had no clue what ‘Swargdwar’ was or where it was although the locals use it very frequently as a landmark. So, whenever I asked anyone about the route to the temple or to the bus stand, the typical response I got was “close to Swargdwar” or “take a right from Swargdwar and go straight”. Finally, my curiosity was aroused, and I decided to give the place a visit. ‘Swarg-dwar’ – the entrance to heaven; in mind, I had a temple that opened to the sea, imparting moksha to the true devotee. In the end, it turned out to be something starkly different; one that imparts moksha of a different kind. Swargdwar is a cremation ground. As I stood shocked, I saw several pyres burning, and some bodies in queue. It has turned out to be a very haunting sight. Nevertheless, what a way to romanticize death!! I doubt whether any other cemetery or graveyard has such a beautiful name.

The Golden Beach

As someone who has lived near the sea for most of his life, I am rarely impressed by beaches. Like a true snob, I constantly compare every beach I see to the one at Calicut, my hometown. Despite all this, the Golden beach at Puri delighted me instantly. Although it’s a bit of exaggeration, the sands are supposed to appear golden at sunset. I walked barefoot on the shore for about an hour, relaxed by the cool winds and knowing no boredom. I remembered what one of my dad’s friends once told me – “There are three things in this world that you can watch forever and not get bored –the sky, the sea and the elephant”. I didn’t tell him that he hasn’t heard of Megan Fox.
As I love watching the sea at night, I returned, only to find the place deserted. This didn’t stop me, and I sat down looking at the waves. About 10min later, I found myself being questioned by a bunch of policemen. My appearance wasn’t half decent, with a four-day stubble and the newly brought rudraksha garland across my neck. In addition, the Policemen spoke very little Hindi, and almost no English. After searching me for anything dubious, they retreated, warning me that mugging was common place in those parts at night. I didn’t take further risks, and returned to my room.

With no snowy mountains or green valleys, Puri is not a place for instant gratification. With a beach that rejuvenates, the Sun temple that fascinates, and the Jagannadh temple that intrigues, gradual seduction is the word. I now dream about the amazements that wait for me at Angkor Vat in Cambodia. This December.

* I was just kidding. Sajith is one of the best photographers I know, and all proof can be found here

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