Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gods and People- Travelling through Orissa

Dawn breaks over the sleeping town, grey clouds streaking the rising sun and chopping its orange perfection into indiscernible shapes. A steady wind breathes life into the trees dotting the countryside and explains the bent, crooked trunks of the tall coconut-palms sprinkled liberally across the fields. Small roads span canals and lead further inwards into distant, mysterious villages. Pools and ponds materialise suddenly by the road, green-flecked, generously surrounded by tall palms and trees whose benevolent branches caress them with their leaves. Women cluster by their edges, carrying pots and gossip down to their gatherings. Cattle wallow in other shallow pools, boys and men swim lazily for respite from the sun which is now beginning to make its way up the broad, unexplored expanse of blue sky.

My journeys have more or less revolved around the NH5 for a few years- and we’re going south-east now, from Bhubaneswar, through Cuttack and Pipli, to the temple-town of Puri. Orissa (or Odisha, as it is called on some of the hoardings) has a countryside as beautiful as the fertile plains of the Godavari in Andhra Pradesh- about the only other rural districts I know reasonably well.

Puri comes with the traditional tourist trappings- auto drivers charge exorbitantly, beggars line the crowded streets, cycle-rickshaws draw the young and the elderly to the temple premises, cows and bulls with sharpened horns scrounge the streets for food. Look out from a distance, and it’s an unbroken sea of humanity- black-haired and brown wrinkled heads, coloured umbrellas, tonsured heads with red towels thrown carelessly about them. The sun beats mercilessly down upon the Sunday morning crowds at the temple whose deity has lent His name to an English word- ‘juggernaut’.

The Jagannath Temple is overwhelming in its architecture. The tall structure rises majestically into the sky, evoking awe for the artisans who must have poured sweat and blood into its construction in a period when technology, as we know it now, didn’t exist. While the spiritual powers of the temple are widely spoken of, its premises throb with the lives and the prayers of the masses of people who press into its walls every single day, all distinctions cast off, wishes and wagers with God laid bare. Monkeys abound in the cleverly crafted niches of the temple, seemingly docile, heads bowed as they survey the stream of people milling about with their keen eyes.

You are clutched by the waist, the shoulder, the arm, the hair, as people struggle to push their way into the sanctum sanctorum- the place, sadly, lacks order, and chaos reigns as the doors are thrown open to devotees, who unfortunately cease to be human in their wild pursuit of divine gifts and throw discipline to the winds. That single moment in the presence of those massive figures, though, is overpowering- that quick reminder of mysterious Higher Powers that keep you asking questions about the world and its origins, about life itself.

Puri is also famous as a seaside town- the road to Konark curves alongside wide, secluded beaches, the dark blue waters of the Bay of Bengal rolling heavily down upon yellow-white sands. The Sun Temple, a World Heritage Site built eight hundred years ago, is yet another architectural marvel. Defaced and plundered by invaders over the years, it must once have been a study in perfection. The walls are adorned by exquisitely crafted figures, another reminder of the skill that coursed through the veins of the people who carved them all those years ago, without the benefit of the knowledge that makes our lives so much easier now. The figures are supposed to be mostly erotic depictions. The twenty-four wheels of the chariot-shaped temple are astounding- chopped off in various portions now, they must have been a sight to behold once upon a time.

To one side is an area marked off as the kitchen, visibly soot-blackened, ovens dug into the earth in front of the large platforms. The place swarms with people, but thankfully, there isn’t any graffiti of the ‘Raja (heart pierced with an arrow) Neha’ kind. The romance is in the sculptures, in the gargantuan homage to the Sun God who rides His chariot across the skies, bearing the gift of Life.

It is time to turn back to Bhubaneswar, and after a lightning-quick stop at Pipli, famous for its handicrafts, for a spot of shopping, we take a detour off the highway to Dhauli.

Dhauli Giri houses the Shanti Stupa- a dedication to the Buddha, overlooking the vast, picturesque, river-watered plains of Kalinga. Could this fertile, life-giving land really have been the site of bitter battle, where the blood of thousands was shed before Ashoka realized the futility of war? Legend goes that the waters of the river Daya turned red as a result of the merciless killing- now, it is a placid blue stream that flows gently through green fields, a vista of incredible beauty when looked upon from the heights of the Stupa. Four serene statues of the Buddha look out at the countryside, the bearers of the truth of peace which finally convinced a remorseful Emperor to lay down his arms and kill no more.

By the foot of the hill is a park preserved by the Archaeological Society of India, which protects a piece of rock in a glass case- the rock inscribed with Ashoka’s edicts, the rules by which he wanted his people to live so there would be no more war.

The regular tourist trips have been accomplished satisfactorily, and in good time. Without much planning or anticipation, I have been pleasantly surprised and enamoured by all I’ve seen. What I need to explore next is my own backyard.

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