Puri, the land of Jagannath

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By Kasturika Mishra

The morning skies on this temple town reverberates with the sweet hymns of “Bhaja Govindam smara govindam, govindam bhaja mudhamate” by M.S. Subhalakshmi. It heralds the starting of a new day in the life of the deity ‘Jagannatha’ around whom revolves life of the natural and immigrant masses in this small town. He would be woken up at 4.30-5.00 every morning and have a daylong ritualistic activity like human beings. That includes brushing his teeth, having breakfast, lunch, dinner, dressing up for his devotees depending the day according to the celestial calendar and retires late in night.  For the 50,000 servitors that live around the temple’s streets or ”sahis” are demarcated by the services they render in the temple. It’s been their homes for generations.

Commonly called ‘Pandas’ or ‘Sebayats’ community their working hours are set according to the lord’s requirement managed by Srijagannatha temple trust. They can treat and entertain any tourist that wants to capture the glory of the splendor of this mystic cult of Jagannatha. They have mastered languages from all over the world to adapt to their client’s interest and easy understanding. Though strictly Hindus are allowed inside the temple, filming the exterior and the suburbs of the temple is not restricted. Rather you can always catch unassuming, bewildered gaping faces if you are ready with a handy camera to shoot. They will willingly pose with their local fares if you care to intrude more into their lives. Simplicity and innocence lace the social fabric and pervades the sentiments as well as milk is indistinguishable if mixed in water.

Small robberies, Pandas charging money at all stages of prayer, unreasonable prices for the small artifacts, curio lined up in the only main road called aptly grand road are all done swearing on the name of the God! As any Puri citizen would say ” Jagannatha dham me aaye ho punya kamake jao”. Earlier a part united with Bengal, Puri is now a second home for Bengalis. As in the past, when most of the land owners i; e Zamindars were Bengalis the modern day Zamindars of Puri are the hoteliers who own from a dingy rest house to a well furnished three star hotel.

The reason why Puri never wanes from the minds of it’s streaming Bengalis tourist from Kolkata is that the place is dirt cheap and suitable for holidaying on a shoestring budget. A five kms stretch separates the temple from the sea beach. You are free to walk around anywhere at any time of the day carefree.  Food served is specially Oriya tinged Vaishnavite food on the temple side and fish oriented delicious dishes on the beach side. Amongst these two extremes one can also notice the innumerous “Matha” and ashrams of lesser saints like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Sankaracharya, Pranabanada’s Bharat Sevashram, Chaitanya’s Goudiyamatha, Alekha guru, Mahima Matha, Anukulacandra that survives the perils of time like a spiritual zealot.

 

Some of them operate on collecting alms whereas others have their vedantic devotees who contribute to the corpus of the Matha. The Mahaprasada and dry prasad of the temple, Khira, a cheese based milk syrup and sweet items made up of pure ghee cannot be matched in their acceptability throughout the kinds of people who visit Puri. The coastal areas are also interspersed with Victorian mansions high roof wooden beam ceilings and asbestos tiling roof tops which are the majestic remnants of a glorious British influence on the eastern architecture. Hay and straw utensils and toys, brass and bronze hangings and pots, paper mache images of Jagannatha and animals, filigree jewellery, stone carvings and exquisite handlooms.  You name and you will find it all. For a foreigner it provides a perfect setting for spiritual experience with the number of God, Goddesses and cult galore. A great aphrodisiac and intoxicant “bhang” provides the ulterior high to this mystic feelings and tourists are seen settling on the fringes of the city as disciples of Sri chaitanya, wearing saffron robes, tikas on foreheads and singing Kirtanas. A lazy and langrous way of life Puri is remembered the world over for its car festival when thousands arrive in the temple town to discover their inner truth. A site for knowing the seat of Oddissi music and dance traditions, Puri is as culturally rich as ever and ready to face the modern world of Internet and software wars. Far away from metropolitan influences yet closet as a visitor’s paradise on the eastern coast.

 

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