Puri – Not just Jagannath alone but also more

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

Puri is not Lord Jagannath alone; it is so many other things as well. But they all invariably seem to revolve around Jagannath because Puri is His abode. We realised this and the fact that Puri is not only a sacred pilgrim centre but also a rich cultural centre. But what a pity! It was a time-pressed half a day visit to Puri as per our tight Odisha schedule. Cursing ourselves we left Puri half-heartedly, owing to return as & when Jagannath disposes, thereby creating a dubious hat-trick of not able to visit the temple for the third time in succession.

The first time I visited Puri was in 1984 during the world-famous Ratha Jathra (temple car/chariot festival). I had landed in Orissa (the old name) only the previous year from Port Blair, just ahead of Ratha Jathra. So I could neither muster enough money or courage to visit during the festivity; further, I had hardly picked up a dozen words in Oriya (Odiya) language. I was also scared of the mandatory inoculation. Within a year, however, overcoming this inoculation fear and arming myself with a better vocabulary and a better camera – Yashica Electro 35 – I proceeded ahead; but colour film was still unaffordable, hence only B&W film roll for the still camera.  There was no scope or hope of visiting Sri Mandira during Ratha Jathra. So I missed it the first time but felt contended that watching the chariot festival was a life-time experience, an achievement by itself. As the chariots moved ahead and crossed half the distance towards Gundicha Mandir, I moved towards bus terminus and then was automatically pushed ahead, because of which I had a tiff with a Bengali gentleman who mistook me as a stalker of his beautiful (?) wife. At last I squeezed myself in the Cuttack bus. There was no time or space to move around to have a feel of the festive atmosphere. Besides the weather was oppressive.

The second time was along with my two German friends, Herr (Mr.) Volker Petzold & Herr Willi Wackers. Non-Hindus are strictly prohibited from even crossing the first entrance. If I remember correctly, even Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, was not permitted inside as she had married a Parsi, Mr. Feroze Jehangir Ghandy (not Gandhi, pl. note).   Just opposite is a building from where one can have a view of the inner prakara and the towers. They took a few pictures from there in their digital camera in colour, though I never fully understood what ‘digital’ meant. I do not strain my little brain to understand complicated things. They are what they are.  One of them suddenly clicked me in a very casual pose and sent a color copy much later from (West) Germany. How could I alone visit the mandir? So, no darshan of the Trinity – Lord Jagannath (Krishna), Lord Balabadhra (Krishna’s elder brother) & Goddess Subhadra (Krishna’s sister) – at their abode for the second time in succession.

In January 2018, after 3 ½ decades, I proposed to have a darshan of the Lord (nath) of the Universe (Jag) but He did not dispose. We found a serpentine crowd of devotees at the main Singhdwara entrance, waiting for darshan. It represented the scene at Lord Balaji’s Tirupati Hills. It was some important local religious day, hence the sea of devotees that reminded me of 1984 Ratha Jathra. We realised it would be futile to join the line because we had pre-bookings done for onward trips/stays. Alas, for the third time also I could not visit the temple and what a hat-trick sort of record!

What next? With the little time we had on hand, we explored Puri as much as (or as little as) possible. My first bus journey from Konark to Puri along the coastal road was enjoyable; it gave a glimpse of rural Odisha. On landing, we lost some time locating our online booked accommodation. With countless Jagannath temples in Puri, we had wrongly booked an accommodation that was far from the main temple. Unable to visit Sri Mandira, we climbed the steep and narrow steps of a lodge opposite the temple, of course, after paying a ransom; we had eyeful of the temple towers and bird’s eye view of the main street which was wide enough for the chariots to roll on and the lakhs & lakhs of devotees during Ratha Jathra occasion.  The tower of Singhdwara (the main Lion Entrance) was washed in a combination of dark ochre and pale yellow; the next two towers were washed white and the ultimate tallest tower atop sanctum sanctorum was being white washed with new yellow flags fluttering atop near the chakra. The street was occupied with vendors selling assorted items which were, in one way or other, connected to the Trinity and their worship rituals; the local sweet Khaja, a dry offering to the deities, was being prepared everywhere and heaped in mounds; my mouth watering, I was tempted but my wife admonished me to move ahead. ‘Don’t give in to temptations, take the middle path and reach your next destination’, she sermonised like the Buddha,

The narrow streets had chock-a-block houses that were old and traditional, with fascinating religious paintings, sculptures, jaalis and even mini mandirs. Jagannath motif was omnipresent – as stickers on vehicles and elsewhere (on a weighing machine also), key chains, photos, idols, etc. We visited an old house of a priest, tradition personified, resembling a temple itself!  Maha Prasad from Sri Mandira was selling like hot cake.  Art & craft was not only on the buildings but also alive through artisans’ creation of delicate wood carvings of deities and mini chariots. A unique purchase was a female angel holding panch deep (five lamps). The Hindu angel concept was to my liking, so I begged my wife to purchase it. ‘In return, you can buy as many white & red bangles as you want’, I bargained. Instead, she bought costly brass plates with the Puri Trinity motif for her friends, only her friends. In Konark we bought a small, cute soap stone image of the Trinity. My 1980-83 Orissa handicrafts collection has an intricate pith work of Sri Mandira costing a fat 10 rupees then! We crammed a visit to two beaches of Puri – one near the temple and another a little away. They were lively with camel & horse rides, sand art and the usual paraphernalia found in Indian beaches. Sand artist had just started creating the graceful face of a goddess (Durga?), painting the lips glowing red.

Well, it was time to leave Puri and we did leave Puri with a heavy heart, implanting our footprints on Puri beaches for eternity! Also, haven’t I the dubious record of not visiting the temple for the third successive time! In the meanwhile, I am waiting for a call from Lord Jagannatha to visit His abode during 2019 Ratha Jathra.  Lo, there, my mobile is ringing …!