Right after lunchtime yesterday, I checked out of my Hotel Subadhra in Puri.
‘Staff baksheesh,’ someone said as I was stepping out.
I turned to see that this was one of the guys who checked me out.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
‘Staff baksheesh,’ he repeated and after a pause he added, ‘Tips.’
‘No tips, sorry.’ I was not going to pay tips for a guy I have just met, who has not done anything to make my stay any more pleasant and who knows nothing about proper service. I left him on the steps with new thoughts. Perhaps he will make my stay unpleasant if I stay here in future.
I reached Konark by bus and hunted for a while for a place. I could see the famous Black Pagoda of the Sun Temple just a little distance away. It was sticking out above the tops of trees planted in its surrounding gardens. The ASI is doing a good job in maintaining these places of historic interest including beautification of the surroundings.
Konark has a respectable number of options for staying for the night. There is a decent one operated by OTDC but it was not fitting my budget. A narrow door pointed the way to an alternative. I was expecting a small place with perhaps only one room. To my surprise the doorway led to a long corridor with at least a dozen rooms stretched out in line on the left. I bargained the room down from Rs. 200 to Rs. 150 but I guess he might have agreed for even less. Later as I entered my details in an unwieldily large register, I noticed couples who had taken rooms for less. I guess these registers are quite useful tools to gauge one’s ability to bargain.
Just as I finished unpacking, which is more or less a daily ritual when you are on a long backpacking trip, it started to pour. It has not rained thus far on my trip and this is the first. It rained again later in the night but the morning was clear.
On the way to Konark is the lovely beach of Chandrabhaga. It is about 3 km from Konark. I enquired what would it take to get to the beach for sunrise. I was quoted prices between hundred and two hundred rupees. The alternative is to catch sunrise from the Sun Temple. The temple opens at sunrise and stays open till 8 pm under lights. In the end, neither happened. I slept past sunrise and left on a long walk to the beach at half six this morning.
The isolated road between Konark and Chandrabhaga sees very little traffic, less so in the early hours. An occasional villager pedals by. Sometimes an early load of tourists on a coach speeds by. The road cuts through a wildlife sanctuary. So casting furtively glances at the shadows beyond the road’s edges, I walked to Chandrabhaga on a cool morning. The air has been refreshed splendidly by the night’s downpour. Cobwebs dangle in the vegetation, the dew glistening in their threads. Water lilies wait patiently for the right moment to open their petals. Birds begin their day with song.
Coming to any beach in India at sunrise is a bad idea. You will see exposed buttocks lined up at intervals along the beach. Revolting. Beaches next to settlements are to be avoided. At Chandrabhaga, I walked south a long way to find a stretch of sand that was clean and away from any substantial village. Once I had picked my spot, it was time to go barefooted into the water, stand knee deep and enjoy the soothing waves for nearly an hour.
Konark is one of the those villages that is trying to become a town. I can’t see any industries or significant businesses here. There are only small lodges, some restaurants and many shops that cater to tourists. In fact, this pretentious town has grown by tourism alone. Indians are not enthusiastic tourists. They are however, enthusiastic and devoted pilgrims. Konark would not get even half as much traffic as it does without Puri.
There is a museum here at Konark. I should have rushed to see it yesterday when I arrived late afternoon. Being Friday, it is closed today. So I visited the temple. It is modelled as a chariot with 12 stone-carved wheels drawn by horses. These wheels are the glory of Konark and are beautifully sculpted. Each wheel has eight main spokes, alternated with eight secondary spokes with a beaded motif. The main spokes have a circular medallion carved with female figures or erotic couples. To fully understand the brilliance of this design and the craftsmanship, just look at the seams. It’s not like drawing on a single piece of paper or carving from a single stone. When the spoke ends on one stone, the next stone picks up perfectly. The same is to be said of the axle. The space between spokes are filled with details that continue the pattern on the walls outside the wheel. This essentially gives continuity to the walls even with the wheel in between.
It is interesting that this temple has very few gods and goddesses. Many of the figures are musicians, dancers or erotic couples. Elephants, lions and horses feature more prominently among the animals.
The main shikara would have been similar to the temple at Puri. This collapsed years ago but the loss of the shikara makes the Black Pagoda stand out. But imagine the shikara still in place. Imagine the horses in their full vigour and strength, though only fragments survive today. Imagine these horses, too few in number, pulling this massive structure in stone. I guess they didn’t have animal sympathizers in those days!
While I was admiring this temple from all possible angles, a middle-aged man approached me with a camera in hand.
‘Take a photo. You please stand,’ he said in Hindi. I have so far managed to elude these photographers who are in Konark, as in Puri beach, in their dozens. But this guy was persistent.
He opened his portfolio of samples. ‘You choose. The full temple will come,’ pointing to a faded photograph. I showed no interest but he was not to be dismissed so easily.
‘Your digital camera is no good. This is much better,’ he said trying a new approach. But I was not about to take criticism of my Sony-Ericsson camera phone lightly.
I pointed out that my camera is fairly good. I usually don’t take prints. In any case, I had no interest in posing myself in front of the temple. I look at myself everyday in the mirror. He still would not listen.
‘Look, all you people with your digital cameras have driven us out of business. Taking photos, we have grown old through the years.’ He was speaking not just for himself but for the entire community of photographers.
‘How about you stand with the temple and I take a picture of you?’ I asked sincerely.
This did not go too well with him. He was offended. ‘Now you are angry. You are making fun of me,’ he murmured and walked off. I immediately felt sorry for him. Later I felt I should have taken a picture for just ten rupees even if I didn’t want it.
I contined my visit by attempting some sketches of the temple. First I sketched a high viewpoint of the remnants of a horse pulling the chariot. Then I did some sketches of various dancers, musicians and female figures. These are numerous and vividly carved on many pillars. While I was busy doing this a group of three French women took interest in what I was doing. They must have believed that I am artist but a true artist will really know by the quality of my drawings.
‘Do you draw on palmyra?’ the blonde one asked.
‘No,’ I replied half amused and half amazed. They must think that India is still in its medieval period.
‘You are an artist?’ asked the one with dark glasses. It seems that if you didn’t write on palmyra you are not truly an artist.
‘No. I am a tourist. I am from Bangalore.’
‘No. Bangalore. South India.’
‘Bangalore. Oui. Oui.’
They quickly lost interest and moved away. They do not like tourists. Competition is to be avoided. It appears to me that they are looking for authentic India. They are looking for ancient architecture in stone, village India and artists who write on palmyra.