Visiting Puri and Konark
Those who are planning a visit to Orissa may have two different but equally strong and valid reasons to go to Puri and Konark; religion and heritage. For religious Hindus, Puri is the living abode on earth of the Lord of the universe, Jagannath. The massive temple graciously holds high the devotees' belief and hope of attaining salvation (getting rid of repeated cycles of birth and death) by paying obeisance at the temple.
The Sun temple at Konark, 35 Km away, is not known for sustaining any such devotional beliefs but presents a glimpse of India's rich cultural heritage which appears very much alive even after eight centuries.
PURI: THE DIVINE ABODE
As the train enters Puri station you are greeted at the platform by some stranger who appears to know you very well. As we alighted a graying man moved forward to hold our suitcase as if he was expecting us. "From Kashmir, Sir". "No, from Punjab", I said evasively. He then started naming districts, sub-districts and even some smaller towns of Punjab like a local revenue official would do. There are many like him in Puri town, called ‘Pandas’, they offer their services, of course for a fee, in order to make it convenient for you to pay obeisance at the shrine. They are sort of agents or jobbers for other bigger priests operating from inside the temple complex. They would invariably spot you no matter what you were doing; strolling, shopping or just sipping a drink out there. They even come to hotel lounges. The man who spotted us at the railway station offered us free taxi ride to our hotel if we agreed to go to temple with him. There were a couple of others too with similar offers but we obliged none and went our own way.
Hotels are aplenty over there catering to all budgets. The one we had booked at had spacious sea facing rooms. Roads in Puri are wide and well maintained and cleanliness is very much evident. One sore point, however, is a filthy drain at the ‘swargadwara’ (gate to heaven) which stinks as you’ll find while walking on an otherwise unspoilt Puri beach. Though you have to negotiate fare or daily rates for auto rickshaw ride, drivers don’t seem to be overcharging and they won’t try to outsmart you. Fear of the traffic cop is for real. Speaking out of experience, the Oriya people are very gentle and despite being in struggle to sustain themselves they appear to have found some satisfaction levels ad would not resort to dodgy tactics like some others in neigbouring states would do.
Entry to the temple is well regulated and for obvious reasons you have to deposit things like mobile, camera or any other electronic items at the counters outside. We were told that a minimum of ten thousand devotees (counted on any lean day) would daily enter the temple and there are five thousand registered priests working inside the complex. Immediately upon entry a priest with a ledger in hand will appear to take down your biodata and family details. Unlike some other religious places in India, tourists / devotees here are not fleeced by the priestly class. Apart from the 'prasada' (offering to the Lord) basket which is available at affordable prices you need not pay any more money to anyone or anywhere else. At the same time you can avail a priest's services for a paltry rupees fifty. While you are making that obligatory round of the sanctum sanctorum housing the three sacred wooden statues hold yourself firm against the pushes and shoves inside the dark tunnel like chamber. Holding your companion or the priest-guide by the arm would be advisable for the elderly, infirm or children.
These days photography is inseparable from a tourist activity. With proliferation of imaging technology even casual visitors carry a digital or conventional camera. Though there is huge wide space in front of the Jagannatha temple yet the shear height of the main tower warrants a vantage point in front from where to shoot photographs. One such spot is the library building facing the temple. One can go to roof top there by making a small donation towards the library maintenance fund. The effort is worth it.
On the Beach
The long beach is pristine, clean and moderately crowded and besides a healthy stroll you can have a beautiful view of golden sunset. Also for a breathtaking view of sunrise, get up early and dash towards the beach (if you have a room facing the sea in right orientation, just open the window) with your camera ready. Chances are that, fog permitting, you might capture the sunrise in the shape of a ball rising out of the sea. A beach festival is held at Puri beach every year in the month of November.
None for me as I am not a shopping freak. Moreover, tourists should not add to their baggage and local markets should always be preferred shopping points. However, souvenirs can be picked up anywhere and there are many to choose from.
KONARK: WHERE LANGUAGE OF STONE SURPASSES THAT OF MAN
This small but beautiful palm fringed village has well preserved ruins of a magnificent temple dedicated to Sun god built in the Orissan style of temple architecture. They say this complex spread over 12 acres of land took skills and efforts of 1200 men to build in 12 years. The whole complex completed in 1234 AD housed besides the main temple, a dance hall, hall of audience and two temples dedicated to the two wives of the Sun god. The main tower of the temple which stood at glorious 227 feet started collapsing once the massive 53 ton magnet placed atop the tower was taken off as it had been interfering with navigation system of merchant ships. Those days the ocean is said to have been touching the Sun temple base those days though today it has receded by two kilometres. The Sun temple also known as 'Black Pagoda' has many a myth related to it.
Built in sand stone (except for the statues of Sun god) obtained from Khandagiri and Udayagiri hills the masonry joints were secured by iron strips. Large iron beams of 15 to 18 feet length (now piled up on ground) were used to span the openings. Besides stonework use of iron was widespread and the magnet placed at the top of the tower (gopuram) kept the structure in balance.
In order save the structure from completely collapsing Lord Curzon in 1903 ordered boulder filling of the main temple hall after removal of the idol. Of the three entrances to main temple the Ashwadwara (Horse gate) is damaged while the Gajadwara (Elephant gate) is permanently closed. The Singhadwara (Lion gate) is kept open. Colossal stone figures of war horses and elephants seen trampling enemy soldiers adorn the flanks of the temple.
The temple is in the shape of a chariot (being drawn by horses) having 24 large wheels at its base. Each wheel is 9'-8" in diametre with 8 inch thick rim. The axle protruding by 11" casts shadow from which local (Konark) time can be computed correct upto 3 minutes. There are 16 spokes to help in knowing time during the day. This arrangement is unlike the sundials of observatories found elsewhere in India.
Base of the temple is full of sculpted panels depicting gods, humans, animals, celestial damsels, myths and lore. Life size figures of humans and gods are judiciously carved out and nothing comes to mind that has not been represented in the stonework. From routine chores like harvesting, hunting and playing music etc to military, social and religious activities all aspects life are shown therein.
The dance hall is an ornate open theatre type structure outer walls of which show whole of the Odissi dance pattern carved in stonework. Entrance to the hall carries a thematic representation in stone showing how relation between intelligence, wealth and power works in our lives. There shown is a lion sitting on an elephant which in turn has a man under it. That is how, when rationality is missing from our thoughts and actions, our intelligence (man) loses out to greed of wealth (elephant) and finally power (lion) subjugates both. An important lesson to learn at the door step itself.
There is one carved panel depicting a wife waiting for her husband at the courtyard in a manner which is said to have prompted poet Rabindranath Tagore to comment that the language of stones had surpassed the language of man.
Another interesting panel shows a giraffe. Outlandish it may appear but they say that a giraffe in fact was presented by an African ruler to King Narasimhadeva.
It is very convenient to make a one day trip to Konark from Puri.