There is no clear definition of what is South India. The general definition is the part consisting of the four southern states. One can think of the south as anything that falls before the Tropic of Cancer, which would include a good part of Gujarat and West Bengal. Perhaps it is, as some claim, everything that falls south of Mumbai’s latitude. I have a theory. When you start seeing people chewing on paan all the time, spitting liberally at every bend and corner and the majority speaking with a red-stained mouth and bad teeth, you know that you have just left South India for the north.
The effect was more pronounced when I entered Puri. As soon as I got off the bus I was surrounded by a few rickshaw-wallas offering me a ride to the temple. I preferred to walk seeing that it was all that far. However, one guy was very persistent and insisted on my business. He followed me for a full five minutes. I shook him off by quickly taking a ride on a bus going to the temple.
As I approached the temple, I could see the shikara looming in the distance. The road leading is long and wide. I tried to imagine the scene at the time of the Rath Yatra, for which millions descend on this pilgrim town. It must be quite a sight. It would be a sea of heads with the three massive processional chariots as the focus.
Today the scene was a little glimpse of the Rath Yatra. The road to the temple is perpetually busy. The side lanes are crowded as well. The month of Karthik is a busy one for pilgrims. I found a room, checked in and proceeded to the temple.
If in Andhra the people worship Lord Venkateshwara, in a lot of parts of Orissa it is Jagannath Puri. The name itself is interesting. In Kancheepuram, we say ‘Kanchi Kamatchi’. In Madurai, we say ‘Madurai Meenakshi’. But in Puri, we don’t way Puri Jagannath. The town is defined by Lord Jagannath, not the other way round.
I feel I have stepped into a town many decades back. It would have been centuries instead if not for the modern shops with modern-age goods. I cannot understand this massive instituition that sustains the lives of many and driven by the beliefs of many more. Beggars and lepers line on both sides and live on offerings. Cows make Puri their uncontested domain. A group of cows will cooly sit in the middle of traffic discussing bovine politics. No one will bother to move them. Even large vehicles will take the trouble to manoeuvre around in a cumbersome way rather than honk at divinity on four legs. Stray dogs too in great numbers. They have a pact with the cows and these two live amicably in each other’s company. They know n0 race, religion or caste. When the temple’s and the market’s garbages are piled up high as a hill propped up against the temple walls, you can see as many as 30 cows gathering for a feast. This is India. ‘Cleanliness if godliness’ is a forgotten phrase.
What kind of belief drives the pilgrims? It is simply difficult to understand for me, myself being not a great supporter of worship in this manner. The more I visit these temples, the more I see truth in them. I see them as a business, an institution designed to sustain an industry built around it. Imagine what would happen to Indian economy if all the temples were closed and pilgrimages are banned. How many will lose their livelihood – from shoe-keepers to coconut vendors, from the lowly temple beggars to the scheming Brahmin priests.
Monkeys are many in this temple. They can be seen on the shikara as well as on the ground. A crowd has gathered in the inner courtyard and I know intuitively that something is going to happen. Two priests are ready with yellow and red cloths tied to their waists. Loose ends are wrapped in loops around the necks. Suddenly a shout goes up from the crowd which is now about 1500 strong. It becomes clear the the two priests are going to climb the massive shikara which towers to a height of 214 feet. The crowd cheers on as if this is a circus spectable. ‘Jagannath ki jai,’ resounds the complex in chorus. The priests climb briskly. On the shikara, they climb with their backs to the shikara. Once on top, they go about replacing the old prayer flags with new ones. The whole thing takes about an hour. When the priests are back on the ground the old flags are cut up into small pieces. The believers buy them for ten rupeers a piece. There are shouts and shoves as devotees battle to get a piece of the old weather-beaten but holy flag. Only the sanctity of the place prevents a brawl. These pieces are used as wrist bands to already heavy wrists bandages in threads, cloths, bracelets and bangles.
‘You are not allowed to bring your camera,’ shouted a priest.
‘I was only switching it off,’ I replied rather impertinently.
‘You will be fined hundred rupees if they catch you,’ he said bossily. It was not clear who ‘they’ were but I replied that I was leaving to deposit my camera. I left the temple to the outer courtyard, walked around and entered by another door.
Getting darshan would have been easy last evening when the crowd was thin. I didn’t go into the inner sanctum because I was wearing a leather belt. Leather products are clearly not allowed in the temple. So this morning I have left my belt in the hotel but the crowd is too much. They are not allowing anyone into the sanctum. I got a glimpse of Lord Jagannath’s face through a gap in the crowd. Those of Balabhadra and Subadra remained hidden. There is a lot of commotion, pushing and shoving as usual. I say ‘as usual’ only because I have to expect it and am not surprised by it. People will do anything, almost brutishly pushing their way forward to touch the flame of the aarti. There is no queue or coordination as in Tirumala. Perhaps in busier days this would be so.
The shikara is brilliant. The constant crowds and an atmosphere of active prayed prevented me from admiring the art in the stone or in the paintings. The shikara rests on a stone pedestal. This is quite unlike the one at Lingaraj Temple at Bhubaneshwar. The shikara is so huge that two lions prop out on each of the four sides of the shikara.
There is something to be said of the image of the three famed ones. Their faces are stylistic and not the traditional images modelled so closely on human faces. I quite like them. I believe they are of wood and are painted in bright colours. I have seen in the State Museum in Bhubaneshwar that they wear different dresses as suits the occasion.
The temple complex has many shrines. Wikipedia claims as many as 120 shrines exist within the complex. So if you have nothing better to do, you may wish to spend an entire day praying to each one of them. There are unbelievable scenes of worship here. A lean priest will come from through a low doorway only 3 feet by 1.5 feet, having completed some rituals to the god within. Some women will place their foreheads against pillars and walls. They seem to sense the holy spirit of the place. Others will have a look of awe and satisfation on their faces. It looks to me that they have fulfilled a lifelong ambition to be here. It may be that many of these poor folks have saved up enough over the years to make this pilgrimage. Or they may be praying for deliverance from wordly problems. Either way, they believe in something. They are an epitome of the power of faith.
At night, all scenes take on a different ambience. It looks like India unchanged over the centuries. A troupe of drummers create a din with varying and continous beats. A couple of small lorries loaded with decorated images are paraded through the streets. A small fire of dry hay and twigs is started. From time to time, the drummers face the fire, warm the beaten leather and in this way tune their instruments. I watch and listen to the beats. The cows do not seem to care. They have heard it all before. They take to their beds in the middle of the street.
The Lifeguards of Puri Beach
On the way to the beach I saw a lot more of Puri – its little lanes, old buildings, open drains, rickshaws being pedalled down the streets, the usual fanfare of vendors, customers and pilgrims. There are many shops that sell Orissan handlooms. The common ones are cotton fabric printed with colour designs. After enquiring in many shops, I bought a long sleeved half-kurta for Rs. 70. The designs are truly amazing and colourful. Despite my wish to avoid adding to my luggage I bought this one anyway.
After hunting for a long time for a clean restaurant, I found one that was somewhat decent.
‘What do you have for breakfast?’
‘Puri. Aloo parata,’ he replied unenthusiastically.
I ordered the aloo parata and some coffee later. Both were quite bad. The aloo parata would later create problems to my stomach. Finding a clean place to eat can be difficult but I am amazed how people cook, eat and wash next to open drains.
The beach is reasonably clean. Camels are available for a ride. Tea vendors set up their stalls on the sands. Coconut vendors invite potential customers in the rising heat. Vendors try to sell shells, trinkets and bags printed with the faces of the famous threesome. In this scene, there is a canvas shelter propped up on a few poles. It provides a welcome shade. There are plastic chairs laid out in the shade. There are many such temporary shelters along the beach. They are setup in the morning and taken down for the night.
In one of these shelters I found Pyare. This is his shelter and he charges Rs. 10 for one hour of sitting. A darkened face with sea-kissed wrinkles, his face spoke of years of experience and perhaps tiredness of doing the same job for years. He has been on this beach for 32 years. He wears a curious conical hat made of cane. It is painted in white. There is number of it and the words ‘Life Guard’.
He claims to have saved as many as 200 lives on this beach over the years. People pay him a couple of hundred out of gratitude or I suppose what their lives are worth. The government does not support their cause. They have approached the hotels and shop owners in the area for sponsorship but this is India where you live only for yourself. Only during the annual yatra the government employ their services for 4 days. They get paid hundred a day during that time. I met a couple of other lifeguards like Pyare. They have lost count of how many lives they have saved but there have been just as many deaths. The waves are strong on this beach.
I took some portraits of these lifeguards and paid something for sitting in the shade. A group of photographers chatted away a little distance away, looking bored and waiting for customers who would like a photographic souvenir.