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Worship and Wonder by the Seaside
Puri, Orissa

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Orissa is among India’s poorest states, but it has one of its greatest temples, says
Sarah Shuckburgh

Wisps of smoke rose from piles of smouldering ash dotted about the sandy courtyard. An ancient priest raked cold embers, spreading a thin layer of grey over the pale, parched ground. In one corner stood a crowd of several dozen men in dhotis and hitched-up tartan lungis, some with loosely tied headscarves. Beyond them, we glimpsed the crowds and noisy chaos of Marine Parade, and the Bay of Bengal shimmering in the tropical sunshine. One man noticed my husband and me and beckoned us forward, ushering us through the huddle of men. On a woven mat at their feet lay the corpse of an old man, his wrinkled face smeared with red powder, his shroud covered with flowers. Several men were arranging logs in a careful stack. A few yards away the eldest son loitered, white loincloth and hair still dripping after his ritual bathe in the sea. He was ready to light the fire which, over the next three hours, would consume the mortal remains of his father. Female relatives were at home, preparing ritual food for the eleven days of ceremonies that would follow before the ashes were thrown into the sea.

Our journey through Orissa, one of the poorest states in India, had brought us to Puri - a unique mix of pilgrim site, seaside resort and jostling city. Thousands of Hindus throng to Puri from West Bengal and Andra Pradesh, but few foreigners visit. Orissa’s tourist industry is rudimentary and inefficient, roads are pot-holed, distances huge and hotels are often filthy. But the region is spiritually rich, culturally diverse, with beautiful landscapes and Orissans are open-hearted, enthusiastic and welcoming.

We were the only Europeans on the flight from Kolkata, and at Bhubaneswar airport a press photographer took our picture and asked in broken English for our names. When we arrived in Puri a few days later, the hotel manager excitedly pointed to a page of squiggly Oriya newsprint, each character topped with a curved eyebrow. There, next to the sudoku puzzle, was our photograph. We were famous!

The government-run Panthanivas hotel was spartan and bleak, with dangling cables, fly-strewn neon lights and peeling walls streaked with mould. But our room overlooked the sea, and had a basic washroom and an air-conditioning system slotted askew into a gaping window. The hotel rarely sees Europeans, let alone celebrities from the pages of Dharitri. Every few minutes a knock at the door announced another curious young man with a small bar of soap or rusty fan, mosquito repellent or a jug of water, a towel or half a roll of damp loo paper. Finally one brought a sheet and two stained pillow cases, so we could make up the bed.

The night air was hot and humid, and before supper we joined the strolling holidaymakers on the sea front. Rickshaws, three-wheel taxis and motorbikes swerved through the crowds, hooting wildly and belching exhaust. Families of five crammed on to scooters, mothers perched sideways with saris fluttering near the spokes, toddlers on their fathers’ laps, clutching the handlebars, older children and babies wedged between their parents. Marine Parade is lined with a jumble of cheap hotels, restaurants and stalls selling souvenirs, shells, trinkets and food. More shacks sprawl across the beach. There are camel rides, children’s merry-go-rounds, and strolling hawkers of candyfloss, coconuts, flags and foil sachets of ‘pan’ – a mix of chewing tobacco and betel. Even at night, the beach was packed – mothers cooking rice and dahl on small tin braziers, extended families crouched round flickering lamps, children splashing in the shallows and young women running, fully dressed, into the moonlit waves and emerging, like Bollywood starlets, with saris clinging saucily to their curves. The beach shelves steeply and there are treacherous undercurrents, but local fishermen act as lifeguards, wearing distinctive white wicker bonnets and carrying inner tubes from lorry tyres.

Escaping the crowds, we ate at Wild Grass, an incongruously chic restaurant set in a lush garden full of statues, gazebos and fairy lights. Puri is famous for its seafood and we ordered shrimp curry and fried pomfret, netted by local lifeguard-fishermen – a welcome change from the staple rice mountains with dribbles of dahl.

But the town’s main attraction is neither beach nor seafood. Puri boasts one of India’s holiest and most important Hindu temples - home of Jagannath, the living god, Lord of the Universe, and incarnation of Vishnu.

The industry surrounding Jagannath is mind-boggling. Twenty thousand locals are employed by the temple; six thousand of them tend the living god himself in an elaborate series of ceremonies. The Lord of the Universe is unusual-looking and instantly recognisable with his jet black face, circular white eyes, beak nose, and stump arms. His head and trunk are festooned with glittering gold. Lord Jagannath’s day starts at 5am with ritual seal-breakers and door-openers. The ten-foot wooden statue is woken, offered hot milk, bathed (water is poured on to his reflection in a mirror), dressed, garlanded and breakfasted. Then he receives visitors until 1.30pm, when the doors close and he has lunch. Dozens of different dishes are prepared in vast quantites in the temple kitchen – the world’s largest – and these are blessed by Lord Jagannath and then sold to the faithful in the temple’s leafy food market – also the world’s largest. Each day 425,000 pilgrims have lunch here, paying 30 rupees a head (about 40 pence) for the holy leftovers and eating in a vast open air dining area. Later, thousands more return for supper.

Non-Hindus are not allowed into the temple, but we strolled round the high pink walls of the compound, pushing through a multitude of holy men in orange robes, bare-chested Brahmins, near-naked Vishnavite ascetics, beggars in tattered dhotis, old women bent double, barefoot waifs, skinny dogs, bicycles, rickshaws, impassive hump-backed cows, and hordes of worshippers pouring in through the four gates, past uniformed guards. Pilgrims were buying offerings - coconuts, bananas and marigold garlands - from displays laid out on the ground; others paused to pray at gaudily painted shrines set into the walls. Temple employees hurried by, balancing stacks of palm baskets on their heads or with sacks of vegetables hung from bicycle crossbars.

Stretching away from the main ‘Lion’ gate, near the crumbling palace of Puri’s Maharaja, is Bada Danda, the wide, straight road on which, once a year during the monsoon, the famous Rath Yatra festival is held. On the day of the full moon, the statues of Jagannath, his brother Balbhadra and sister Subhadra receive ceremonial baths and then retire from public view for fourteen days to convalesce. Rested and refreshed, the gods are installed on three vast wheeled platforms – the original ‘juggernauts’ – and dragged by thousands of men to the Gundicha temple two miles away. Here the trinity enjoy a lakeside holiday before being hauled back to the main temple. The richly decorated chariots are then dismantled and used as firewood. When we were there, the road was bustling with pilgrims and souvenir shoppers, but at Rath Yatra, a crowd of seven ‘lakhs’ gathers - 700,000 filling every roof, balcony and inch of tarmac.

We climbed a flight of stairs to a stifling library with a few dusty books in grimy glass-fronted cabinets. From a verandah we could look over the temple complex, which dates from the Kalinga dynasty of the 12th century. Lord Jagannath and his siblings live in the main temple (at 214 feet, the tallest in Orissa), its pinkish stone walls intricately ridged and dimpled beneath fluttering flags. Other smaller beehive domes, gleaming white with red trim, celebrate lesser deities. Worshippers streamed up and down temple steps or crouched in the shade of banyan trees. Smoke billowed from the huge, blackened kitchen block. In paved courtyards, cross-legged cooks chopped vegetables; others, bent low, swept with short besoms, sluiced the ground with water, or carried baskets of food in and out of the sweltering kitchen.

We returned to the beach to cool down in the sea. Pale crabs were scuttling out of holes at the water’s edge. Puri faces due south, and the sun rises along the beach to the left and sets along the beach to the right. As dusk fell, I paddled in the lapping waves and imagined generations of families throwing ashes into these welcoming waters.

First published by the Telegraph

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