Budhua, the cab driver, is oblivious to the fact that I cannot speak Odia. He points at the plastic bottles and paper plates strewn by picnickers along the picturesque Marine Drive Road and says something in an angry tone. I too express my disgust in Hindi, with a smattering of Bengali. We manage to communicate during the one-hour drive from Konark to Puri on a bright, warm morning. The scene keeps changing through the smooth, blissful stretch… rolling waves, sandy beaches, casuarina groves, Olive Ridley turtle nests, cashew plantations and tiled houses. I wind down the window to catch some cool breeze and sleep.
And then I’m awakened by the sounds of a buzzing street and realise that we have reached the famous temple town of Puri. The sight of the Jagannatha temple’s shikara with the chakra and flag atop is nothing short of bliss. While the Nila Chakra is said to face you from wherever you view it in Puri, the flag is changed every evening, a ritual that has been followed for the past 800 years. People gather to watch Dhwaja Parivartan, a fascinating feat, when the member of a family that has been performing it hereditarily scales the shikara of the 214-ft high temple. These amazing facts are shared by rickshaw puller Bishnu, Budhua’s friend, who plies me to the temple. On the way, he shares more such nuggets. No other vehicle, except cycle rickshaws, are allowed near the temple complex. You can take one from the car park or walk the distance.
The Grand Road or Bada Danda leading to the temple is broad; big enough to especially accommodate lakhs of devotees attending the annual rath yatra. This year, the yatra began yesterday (April 4). It commemorates Lord Jagannath’s annual visit along with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra to the Gundicha Temple, about three km from the Jagannath temple and named after the queen of king Indradyumna. The deities travel in three separate richly decorated chariots. After staying in Gundicha for seven days, they will return to their abode on July 15.
Puri is among the Char Dhams. Lord Vishnu is said to bathe at Rameswaram, get dressed at Dwarka, meditate at Badrinath and dine in Puri (a reason why the temple is known for its lavish Mahaprasad).
“Be careful of the pandas,” warns Bishnu as I alight from the rickshaw.
There are four gates to the temple — Eastern ‘Singhadwara’, which is the main gate with two crouching lions, Southern ‘Ashwadwara’, Western ‘Vyaghradwara’, and Northern ‘Hastidwara’. There is a carving of each form at each gate. In front of the entrance stands the Aruna stambha or sun pillar, which was originally at the Sun Temple in Konark. There are 22 steps (baisi pahacha) that take you into the temple. As I ascend the last step and enter the inner enclosure, I get pushed into a crowd of devotees. It is impossible to even walk without stepping on someone’s toes. After almost 45 minutes of jostling, I find myself in front of the sanctum sanctorum, lit by oil lamps. I stand awe-struck by the brightly-painted wooden idols with large powerful eyes. Lord Jagannath is black, sister Subhadra in the middle is yellow and brother Balabhadra is white. Unlike in other Vishnu or Krishna temples, the Lord is here on a pedestal with his siblings and is formless, without hands and legs. I get not more than a minute or two, before I am shouted at by one of the priests to move. The woman standing next to tells me not to pay heed to those yellings and I manage to catch another glimpse of the Lord.
As we step out, she is delighted to know that I am from Chennai where her son works in an IT firm. A resident of Puri, she visits the temple once a week. During our conversation, she explains to me the reason behind the Lord’s truncated form. “Yeh duniya mein, sab perfect nahin hai. Yeh sachhi baat bhagwan idhar batate hain” (nobody is perfect in this world and this reality the God tells you here). I am amazed by the reasoning and the faith. But, the form, according to lore, is also attributed to the tribal origin of the temple.
We walk through the huge Ananda Bazaar, referred to as the biggest open-air eatery in the world, where the Mahaprasad is sold. “I don’t cook when I plan to visit the temple because who wants to miss these delicious preparations, especially the khaja (made of maida, sugar and ghee). You can buy the nirmalya (dried rice), it has a lot of significance in our homes,” she says. I see pots all over overflowing with cooked rice, dal and vegetable curry. The temple kitchen is said to have the capacity to cook for around a lakh of devotees every day. Mahaprasad is cooked in earthen pots on wood fire. The food is first offered to Lord Jagannath and then to goddess Bimala and comprises 56 dishes (chappan bhog).
If not the nirmalya or khaja, I buy idols of the deities from the shops outside. As I walk to the car park, I see Budhua waiting impatiently to drive me around town. The Sun, appearing like a huge ball of fire, begins to set and I stop at the beach to see the mammoth sand sculptures of the much-acclaimed Sudarshan Patnaik. Sparkling waves lap on the shore, as if to remind you that everything is created to be washed away.