Web Analytics

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

An Unspiritual Pilgrimage - Jagannath Puri

On the eastern shores of India and in the State of Odisha (Orissa) there lies an important pilgrimage centre of Hindus known as Puri or conversely Jagannatha Puri, being the abode of Lord Jagannatha. Puri is also considered as the cultural capital of Odisha. It was established by Adi Shankaracharya, the spearhead of Hindu renaissance during the 8th century CE. We went there along with our families. For the ladies, the purpose of the visit could have been a sort of pilgrimage but the men folk were there for sight seeing, fun and frolic. It was an endurance test as we needed to keep the women folk in good spirits. We made Bhubaneswar as our base camp. After our breakfast on a sunny morning we hunted and hired a station wagon kind of a vehicle and proceeded to Puri, which was at a distance of 70 kilometres.

The road led us through the country side but the rural settings of that part seemed a little bit different. Being in the coastal region there were coconut and  Areca nut palms at the far end of paddy fields. They were not as dense as we find in the western coast of India. The breeze coming from the paddy fields though had a nostalgic smell. Amidst the rural settings there was a way side restaurant (Dhaba) surrounded by shady trees. We thought of replenishing our tummies and parked our vehicle inside. The food, after some deliberations/consultations was settled for and duly ordered. Tables and chairs were laid out beneath the trees and we rested for more than half an hour by which time the service started. The quality of food was better than what we expected.

My nephew Girish checking up in front of the restaurant
When our lunch was over, we stayed for some time more and then proceeded to our destination. Around 2.30 pm we were at Puri. Our stay was pre-arranged at a holiday home of a reputed Bank but when we reached there, the caretaker was nowhere to be seen. The women looked tired and decided to enjoy a nap in the sofas at the reception. On our part we started hunting for the caretaker. The gentleman arrived after some time and we were at our wits end when he announced that no rooms have been booked for us. Immediately we contacted the local officials of the Bank over our cell phones. Hearing us speaking to the higher ups in the hierarchy, he offered to provide the much needed accommodation but in the meantime he too received phone calls which made him to apologise offering some alibis. We got three Air-conditioned rooms which were quite up to the mark. The holiday home itself has a beautiful building very close to the sea. We rested in our rooms till 7.00 pm in the evening and then proceeded to visit the Jagannatha temple for which Puri is famous.

My niece Gouri imitating Kate in Titanic on the terrace of the holiday home
Since that was not my first visit, I cautioned all to refrain from conversing with or entertaining the Pandas (the priests) and that I shall take care of them. My apprehensions were not ill-founded. Soon thereafter Pandas started playing their tricks. They exploit the gullible. They offer to conduct special rites/rituals very close to the deities. In the process the innocent devotees are made to part with heavy sums of money in the name of pleasing the lord thereat. Since I am conversant with Oriya, the local language, I made it very clear to them that we have done that 6 months back and do not intend to have anything performed on our behalf at this juncture. After freeing ourselves from those lechers we proceeded to the Sanctum Sanctorum which is otherwise quite large. We met with the symbolic idols of Balbhadra, Jagannath and Subhadra made of jack wood timber which do not have any semblance with Gods of Hindu pantheon. Some of the Pandas were seated very close to the deities as if they are there to provide salvation. After coming out we also went around the temple which has a huge campus with lots of smaller shrines. Since it is an 11th century temple, the sculptures are really beautiful, but then one is not allowed to take a camera or a mobile phone inside. After this courtesy call on Jagannath & Company, we returned to the holiday home where our dinner was waiting. Before going to bed we had decided to visit the beach before sunrise next day.

Although before the day break, we had our bed coffee but since our rooms were apart, it took some time for all to get ready. The Sun God obviously can’t wait for us. We ran to the sea shore. The Sun was quite above the horizon still the cool sea breeze was very comforting. A small boat was lying in the sands. Children pulled it nearer to the waters and by that time the owner turned up. The kids including the grown ups could negotiate a deal with the boatman and he was too willing to take them to some distance. The ladies started agitating and shouted at them. They were dissuaded from venturing into the sea. While we were walking towards our children, we came across a beautiful piece of sand art,  probably the creation of a sand artist, Sudarshan Patnaik. Puri is also famous on that count. Sudarshan Patnaik is acclaimed internationally. He has exhibited his talent in several countries and won several awards.
Poor Mumtaaz - Who could have made her a Shurpanakha
The art piece stated above was the portrayal of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (creator of Taj Mahal) and his lady love Mumtaaz Mahal. A small replica of Taj Mahal made of marble was also placed behind symbolically. Seeing all this my brother got excited and started his own creation. With effort he could build something looking like a fort. Finding him sitting in a ditch his wife queried as to what is he digging up. He retorted “a grave for myself”. His wife continued “and what about me”. Sensing trouble, if this continues, I requested his wife to desist from further questioning.

There is a legend about sand art at Puri. There used to be a great poet named Balram Das who lived in the 14th century. He was the author of “Dandi Ramayan”. A car (Chariot) festival takes place at Puri around July every year. Balram Das, during one such festival, tried to climb up the chariot to pay his obeisance to the lord but he was abused by the Pandas and made him to climb down. He was grieved and with a heavy heart headed for the sea front (known as Mahadadhi). There  working with the wet sand, he created the images of the three deities namely Balbhadra, Jagannath and Subhadra and started praying whole heartedly. It is said that all the three deities who were being carried in the Chariots during that particular festival just vanished and were so pleased with the devotion that they appeared before Balram Das live. People believe that the sand art form has its roots there. Anyway we may dismiss this simply as a myth. After all we do come across children exhibiting their creativity whenever they find time to play with sand. Yet another legend is that of Lord Rama, who at Rameswaram created a Shiv Linga out of sand and prayed.

A child playing with sand - He has made a Buddhist Stupa
After enjoying the sea breeze for some time, we started returning. The women folk were insisting to have a morning audience with Lord Jagannath. We had to succumb but again with an advisory with regard to the Pandas. We spent our time loafing around the market. Fortunately they joined us after an hour or so. Perforce we had to give them company for their marketing needs. Primarily there were several kinds of handicrafts on sale. There were brass/bronze items on sale. A tall lamp interested us but the cost seemed prohibitive. After finishing off the shopping spree, we straightaway headed to a hotel to have some breakfast.  Thereafter to our holiday home as the warmth was becoming unbearable. We all were perspiring profusely. After lunch we returned to Bhubaneswar visiting Konark Sun temple en route.