Temple hopping in Odisha

Visiting “famous” temples in India is an experience for the those that are able and more importantly, believe in the super natural. I qualify on the former and lack sorely on the latter front. I prefer to stay away from the temple visits when I can help it except for when I can’t or the only purpose of visiting a city is the temple that it is known for. So it was that we made a 3 day trip to the wonderful state of Odisha, famous for the triumvirate of cities/ towns – Bhubaneswar, Konark and Puri. It was at Bhubaneswar that I learnt that the city has one fewer temple than Kashi (aka Varanasi), one of the most popular of religious cities in India, coming in at 1,24,999 temples in the area! Word has it that Kashi houses an even 1,25,000 temples (The Simon Sinek in me asks Why would any city host that many temples?, but we’ll let those iconoclastic thoughts idle). Anyway, the good news is that we did not even think of attempting a visit to all of those temples to validate the claim. We stuck to the major temples in what was a very hot weekend in April.

Lingaraj temple, Bhubaneswar

The temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is in the old part of the city. Getting there was easy enough in a Uber and for someone like me coming from Bengaluru, where it takes about an hour to go anywhere, it was a surprise when it took only about 20 minutes to reach the temple in the evening. There was a footwear stand which also accepted mobile phones for safe-keeping. Many temples in India ban the use of mobile phones likely to reduce the instances of people taking selfies with the deity or at various spots. Blasphemous, really. At a religious site where everyone has only God on their minds, there are these youngsters looking to post images on Instagram and the older generation posting their images at the temple on Whatsapp! Therefore, rightly, mobile phones are banned inside the temple premises. The castle-and-moat security personnel did not bother to check if the pilgrims were anyway smuggling phones inside. We were sincere.

At the entrance of the temple, there were numerous pandits lounging about looking for the ideal tourist to accost. We looked perfect – a family with kids and the middle-aged parents. I was initially wary of taking on one of these pandits, but they are nothing if not insistent. That Oriya accented Hindi is difficult to understand, but my slowness in understanding the diction did not phase the pandit in the least, who was happy to repeat the important parts of his monologue as many times as was necessary. The important part being, of course, the “bhog” that is offered to the deity every day – apparently either a quarter kilo for a year, or half a kilo or a kilo for a year. The various options that the deity offers to his devotees. Each has its own price, of course. They do give a receipt for the donation. So it was that he gave us a tour of the temple, which itself is representative of the wonderful stone architecture that characterises the 10th/ 11th/ 12th century temples in the southern part of India. Truly magnificent, the work that the artisans put in to the stone work over a 1000 years ago. Such monuments stand the test of time and the resident deity notwithstanding, the artwork is marvellous. The temple area houses 108 temples, with each one dedicated to a different God. We visited a few of them, including the main sanctum. The funny part is that the Pandit used a very poignant phrase from a recent movie that I watched on Netflix, where a character says, “If you believe, it is God. If you don’t, it is a stone”. Very apt considering that the sanctum actually houses an imperceptible mount of stone, which is believed to be Lord Shiva’s form. Anyway, cynicism aside, the premises was actually well maintained. There was a lawn with a seating area available and the temple was not very crowded. There are various local customs and beliefs that play a role in the popularity of the temple and this temple was no different. The pandit was good enough to explain some of these and then, of course, the business side of things came through when in return for the donation made (plus an additional “dakshina”), we received the benevolent deity’s prasada (food and a few flowers touched by God for his devotees). All in all, it was a pleasant visit without much crowds. Luckily enough, we were able to retrieve our phones and footwear upon our exit. Our Uber driver did not cancel and we returned to the hotel in good time.

An abandoned monument just outside the main temple
A view of the Lingaraj temple from outside

Sun temple, Konark

The Sun temple is different from the other two in this list of temples in that there is no deity housed inside the temple. We visited this temple at around noon on a hot Saturday afternoon. The site is maintained very well by the Archaeological Society of India. There are rest rooms before the entrance and although the ticketing counter looks jaded, the monument itself is magnificent. Once again, the brilliance of the work put in by the stone masons of that era is simply marvellous. The entire monument is in the shape of the Sun God’s chariot, complete with 12 wheels, all carved out of stone. The work on the wheels is extraordinary. To have achieved the construction of such magnificence before the Industrial Revolution was even a thing, is mind-boggling. No machinery run on fossilised fuels was used. Incredible stuff, really. It is in the nature of man to create and destroy and so it is with this monument too. While one half of it is still as it was when it was created, the remainder has been reduced to rubble. This was destroyed centuries ago and I did not get into the history of how and why it was destroyed. My assumption is that it would have either been a marauding ruler who overthrew the erstwhile king who was the caretaker of the monument or a later ruler who chose to destroy all symbols of a contrary religion. Either way, they did a half-assed job because they only destroyed one half of the monument leaving us with a glimpse of the magnificence. At the Sun temple too, there are guides who will explain the meaning of some of the features and showcase some of the marvels in the architecture. Unfortunately for us, travelling with two kids in that heat meant that a guide was redundant. Regardless, the Sun temple is truly gorgeous and I thought it was well worthy of the fame it has garnered over the centuries.

A view of the Sun temple from the side
One of the stone figures to the side of the main temple
One of the wheels of the chariot. The detailing on the wheel stands out.
A view of the temple from the front

Jaganath temple, Puri

The most famous temple in the region and one that was the most crowded as well when we visited. The Jaganath temple also has magnificent architecture and much like the Lingaraj temple, did not allow for mobile phones or cameras inside the temple premises. That meant that I could take no pictures of the temple at all, which is a shame. Anyway, our visit to the temple was facilitated by our taxi driver who put us through to a priest inside the temple, who in turn arranged for a man to guide us during our visit inside. The police had cordoned off a radius of 3 kms around the temple, preventing entry for any four-wheelers. Only two-wheelers, cycle rickshaws and battery-operated auto-rickshaws were allowed to operate around the periphery of the temple premises. With the kids in tow, the only option available for us was the cycle rickshaw and the only picture I have from that visit is one that I took when seated in that rickshaw. Nowadays I feel like a old-fashioned landowner in India, exploiting the labour class when sitting in a rickshaw. This time was no different while the puller huffed and puffed his way through the gullies of the city, pulling a weight of around 190 kgs behind him towards the agreed upon rendezvous point with the person who was to take us on a tour and provide us with a privileged viewing of the deity. I tipped the cycle rick puller to assuage my guilt somewhat.

Temple visits in India are class based like the society that we live in. The privileged class always gets to be “closer” to God. In that way, we mirror the capitalist economy with the rich getting richer. Here too, we were provided privileged entrance to the temple, cutting through the lines which were otherwise at least a kilometre long, straight to the entrance point and onwards to the main sanctum. The guide was very helpful in holding us back at just the right times and ensuring that when we got to view the deity, we could spend more time than most there. He was aware of the time when the police would cordonoff access to the inner sanctum and ensured that we were in the last batch allowed inside. So there was no one behind us, pushing/ shoving us forward. Even with his able guidance, there were pundits (touts) inside the sanctum, who pulled us aside to showcase the seat of the God when he would be taken on a yatra around the city. There was another, up a set of stairs, where there were smaller idols of the Lord. For these viewings, we were urged to “donate”. The guide was upset that we had even donated there.

The depiction of the Lord Krishna at the Jaganath temple is unique and it highlights the diversity that exists in this amazing country. The images of the Lord, his consort and brother stay etched in my mind for now. Anyway, once this privileged viewing was complete, we stepped out and onwards to another place, similar to the Lingaraj temple, where we were introduced to a chart that listed the various options to donate towards “bhog” or offerings to the God. We had to make a donation that was “suitable” to our means. Based on this donation, the guide retrieved a meal that is unique to the temple. This meal is cooked in large earthen pots and is served in a disposable plate. The food was good and we feasted on it while seated outside the donation area. This was just outside the main temple premises and was not as clean as the interiors were. Regardless, the facilities are not bad as long as one is willing to soak in the experience and the atmosphere.

We visited the temple in the evening, so it was not as hot as it would have been had we made the trip a few hours earlier. Even then, there must have been around 1,50,000 to 2,00,000 people visiting the temple that day. Apart from the main sanctum, there were so many other temples around it, within the perimeter of the temple premises. We were tired and only made it to a couple before we decided to head back to our hotel. After paying the guide, who assured us that his household runs with his earnings from this “work” without ever making any demand on the exact amount due him, he hired a battery operated rickshaw for us which took us back to the hotel.

The streets of Puri from a cycle rickshaw. If you peer long enough into the picture, you will see the temple at the far end

Rounding out the experiences

Three other highlights from Odisha were the beach at Puri, a visit to Raghurajpuram which is a village famous for its Patachitra artists and a boat ride at the Chilka lake, the largest salt water lake in India. The unique aspect of a visit to the village was the display of the artwork from the painter in his house, which was a typical small house in a village. The Chilka lake visit was memorable not for the sole dolphin that we caught a glimpse of, but for the oyster shells and corals that were broken open in front of us to reveal treasures such as pearls and opals. This was the first time that I saw this happening live and it was incredible!

Some of the artwork on display at the aritsan’s house
Whaddayknow! There is an opal in that coral! Look at those colours!
And we find a pearl after a bit of a search
A view of the beach at Puri
Udaya giri and Khanda giri caves at Bhubaneswar

For those visiting Odisha for the first time, do try out their famous local dish, which is called Ganji/ Kanji down south and called Pokalo (or something to that effect) in Odisha. They feast on it to fill their tummies and keep them cool in the hot summer months, much like farmers do elsewhere in South India. We had it at a small restaurant and it was quite filling. The vegetarian accompaniments were quite tasty too. It was a fun trip that concluded with a visit to the Khandagiri caves in Bhubaneswar. It was all nicely excavated and provided a throwback to what lives must have been all those centuries ago. This trip was a taste of what Odisha has to offer. India is so diverse that the culture and dialect change every 100 kms. There is so much more to explore in that state as there is all over the country!

Residing in Bengaluru, I am a Techie by profession and a thinker and doer by birth. I muse about any topic under the sun and love to share my thoughts in print when I am not doing something with them. I love reading and at some point, thought that maybe others would like to read what I have to write, too!

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