Puri: The Pagoda

23rd Jan 2008
Photo of Puri: The Pagoda 1/1 by Soumya Siddhartha Mohanty
Jagannath Temple, Puri

Often when filling out a form, you have to fill in that distinguishing feature about you, and almost always you have one that you feel is unique and seeable-a mole below the lip, a scar mark somewhere, dimples! When I travel outside my home state of Orissa, invariably an inane expression follows my introduction where I mention Orissa. Questions about its geography are a must, but almost everyone identifies it when Puri Jagannath is used as a remider. Puri is just like that mole on the visage of Orissa; usually oblivious, now (post my intro) inquisitive but never ignoramus people find it to be the hallmark of the state.

Puri has been and shall always be one among the Chaar Dhaam that every staunch Hindu wants to visit before bidding a goodbye to this mortal world. It has been the symbol of Hinduism in the east and epitomizes spirituality. Young and old, Hindu and Muslim, the believer and the atheist-one and all have felt that vibe. What is that vibe?

For all those who have not been to Puri, you have to be there to feel it, I'd say and I think everybody who has been there would concur with. Being to Puri for the umpteenth time on my last visit, which was in fact very recent and to be exact happened only last week, I could not help but be fascinated by its sights and sounds. It is like that scene in a film that you have seen a thousand times, but still it manages to hit you, like you're seeing it for the first time. A visit to the Jagannath Mandir is a must, because this is where you begin to feel that vibe. There are two kinds of people here. One who want to make their current life good, and the other consists of people who are more concerned about their lives after this one. Inevitably the first group of people manage to make the most of the paraphernalia available in the premises, and the second group, they are as clueless as they were when they set foot looking for eternal bliss.

The temple staff definitely belongs to the first group and they are busy raking in the moolah. Some parasite or the other climbs up your back the moment to set your foot in, and keeps chattering away at your ears for the Bhoga (Prasad/offering made to the deity). There is a variety of Bhoga available and the debate of Private versus Public makes its presence felt. The monkey on your back will guide you to one particular shop all the time, and you keep saying "No, no, I am just here to offer my prayers; no bhoga for me". Mind you, the parasite has seen tougher nuts and has enough in his kitty to crack them. So you are going nowhere with your argument.

Hell and heaven are the crux of this debate and rationality goes out of the window. It's said-Paani mein rehke magarmachh se bair nahin karna chaahiye (Never make enemies with the crocodile when you are in the water). This holds good and you give in when that indifferent comment is hurled upon you with the vermilion clad guy looking at the top of the temple and saying in casual fashion-"its up to you and if your soul can find peace, in hell or in heaven, I have nothing to say! There is no bigger sin..."

I have visited this temple with my friends too, and just like with other family members, the consensus was not to give in to these allurements, or buckle under threats. In short, all of us realized that no amount of bhoga is going to purge us of our sins, if there is anything like that in the first place. Amazingly, this was easier said than done. Never have I been able to achieve this.In fact the occasion where I gave up attempting this was when I went with my friends. Most of us are pretty nonchalant when it comes to religion, and having said that, this task should have been accomplished easy. To my dismay, we not only ended up offering a Bhoga that cost us a thumping sum of money, but also had the famous "Abadha" accompanied with the wonderful "Kanika" rice. Everything was done with a cheerful smile and absolute oblivion reigned when it came to adherence to the pact.

Once the inevitable has been dealt with, you enter the main Pagoda with your Bhoga held tightly in one hand, making way in the crowd, trying to catch a glimpse of every piece of architecture around. On big festival days, these crowds can turn ugly and queues give way to stampedes. However, I haven't had that fortune and getting through the normal Rush is no less tiring and tedious. And on the way, there would be other guys clad in vermilion and white looking to make their buck. With a couple of sticks in hand, they whack you on the head, and they do that for some good reason. Lower your Dakshina, harder comes the wack. And these Nanas (Brahmins) have a great eye at identifying soft targets- women. "Das Tanka re kana heba? (What'll happen with these 10 rupees) he says and looks at you with utter disbelief-eyes popping out and that right hand going up, all ready to smack you. You crouch like a hockey goalee in defense as Mother slips out a note that makes the glutton all gleeful.

You proceed into the main portion now, and this is where you get to witness the ecstasy of the devotees. Getting a peek at the idols inside is quite a struggle. You always put a foot on someone else's and there is muted anger, demonstrated by that tooth grinding look-Come on now, you can't swear in the House of the Lord, can you! ‘Sorrying’ a dozen people you have walked on you finally make it to the first line of devotees, and a hand pulls your Bhoga from your hands. It is one of the Nanas, and you heave a sigh of relief. He gets that Bhoga of yours sanctified and gets the bag back to you in a flash. As the mob behind you is pushing you left (that is where the Exit is),nonplussed you screech your lungs out-"Hei gala? hei gala?(Is it done? is it done?)".The Nana doesn't even give a second look, he's busy pulling at the Bhoga bag some other pilgrim.

You get pushed out of the Exit door and breathe in. As you relax, there is the Temple Market awaiting you for some more affiliated purchases. And these shopkeepers have their typical style; pretty similar to the parasite you had jumping all over you a little while ago.

Buys here call for a penchant for bargains, and talent when it comes to deal with these people who are capable of saying almost anything. Amidst all this a group of loquacious beggar children keep tugging at your hand or habiliment for a coin or two. They are just as obstinate as the earlier parasites and are equally time trained. They know their targets and the spots to hit upon. "In God's name" is the catch phrase and as soon as you've shelled out their hard earned paisa, they go swearing among other street children with absolute panache. No other place in Orissa can compete with Puri on this front. People swear at the drop of a hat, and so fast that you sometimes don't even get it. And after making that final purchase of a bead, a ring or a shell, or even a showpiece from the little market, you head out.

Let me assure you, at the end of it all, you would have enjoyed this trip. It was different, engrossing, was a lot of things happening together, lot of idols in that temple campus and with that tasty Bhoga, you're sure to have got your money's worth if not that feeling of piety.