Odisha Odyssey-III .... Jagannath Puri & Chilika

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March 29th 2016
Published: March 29th 2016
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Reinvigorating … is the term to express the state of mind, when you awake and see the roaring sea from the comforts of your room. The Panthanivas at Puri offered this luxury. The beach was beckoning with the roar of the sea. The February morning had a pleasant chill in the air, when we quickly laced our sneakers and rushed to the beach.

Panthanivas has a small gate, which allows direct access to the vast Chandrabhaga beach. The sky was receiving its initial orange glow and sun was yet to emerge on the horizon. There were morning walkers in shorts and T’s taking long stride from the North to the South. Few children were building castles with the sand while their parents took a stroll. The city being a popular pilgrimage destination for Indians, a comparatively lower number of fun lovers could be seen at the beach. We set out southwards for a walk. Except few tender coconut vendors, there was to commercial activity on the beach. A few stray dogs in playful mood were jumping and diving aimlessly. Lifeguards, in their trademark triangular straw hats and dhotis, with inflated rubber tubes, were keeping a vigilant eye on the happenings. As we moved about half-a-kilometers, the beach became crowded.

Hundreds of pilgrims had descended on the beach to take a purifying dip in the sea. Since all rivers ultimately meet the sea, the dip in the sea is considered to be the holiest of all, by devout pilgrims. Endless number of men, women and children were engaged in the ritual bath at this scared venue. It is rare sight as compared to the beaches in Goa or Kerala, where women take bath at centers of pilgrimage with their sarees and dresses on. They venture out in knee-deep waves and emerge wet from the sea. In the absence of changing rooms on the beach it was very awkward for them to get into dry clothes. But with the strong religious inclination, they were oblivious of the surrounding and went about with the task in hand. Their bags and slippers stored and guarded carefully away from the tideline. There was a solitary tea-vendor, who was serving steaming hot heavenly brew. He satiated the need for the first drink of the day.

While we were returning to the hotel, the sun had already risen and the visibility had improved. Some more tourists have descended on the beach and many of them retreated. Little away from Panthanivas, there was a massive sand sculpture built right on the shore with the loose sand. It was standing tall against the backdrop of the ocean. The fluid sculpture was exposed to the whims of the sea and the weather. The sculptures, depicting the topical important moments, have been a regular feature at the Puri Beach. The astonishing sand-sculpture has been attracting a stream of tourists. After capturing a few images on the camera, we returned to the hotel for the breakfast.

The breakfast consisted of lightly spiced Khichadi cooked in ghee and served with lemon pickle. The Chuda Upma , stir fried rice flakes, was cooked into delicious porridges. A glass of hot milk concluded the first meal of the day. Now was the time to visit the most important landmark of this pilgrimage town. Lord Jagannath Temple.

Jagannath Puri, a part of Char Dham Yatra, has been an important pilgrimage destination for Hindus. The other three Dhams, which are also abode of Lord Vishnu, are located at Badrinath (Uttarakhand) in the North, Dwarka (Gujarat) in the West and Rameswaram (Tamilnadu) in the South. This temple was constructed between 11th and 12th century. It was invaded and plundered more than eighteen times. The huge complex covers an area of over 400,000 square feet, which has a 20 feet fortified wall. More than 120 temples and shrines are accommodated in the complex. This one of the most magnificent monument has sculptural richness and fluidity of the Oriya style of temple architecture. The main temple is a curvilinear temple and crowning the top is the 'Srichakra' (an eight spoked wheel) of Lord Vishnu. This 12 feet high wheel, known as the Nila Chakra, is made of alloy of Asta Dhatu (eight metals). Every day a new flag is hoisted on the flag post atop the Nila Chakra.

In front of the main entrance on the East, Simhadwar or the Lion Gate, there is the beautiful Aruna Stambha or the Sun Pillar. This gigantic pillar originally stood before the Sun temple at Konark and was subsequently shifted here. It is a monolithic shaft of chlorite with sixteen sides and has been placed on an exquisitely carved pedestal. The other entrances on the Southern, Western and Northern sides are known as Ashwadwara, Vyaghradwara and Hastidwara, named after the horse, the tiger and the elephant respectively.

We entered through the Simhadwar, after depositing our shoes for safekeeping. The Simhadwar is so named because two huge statues of crouching lions exist on either side of the entrance. Only Hindus of Indian origin are allowed an entry into the temple premises. It was Sahana Mela or public darshan time and the temple was abundantly crowded. A large number of Pandas started chasing us for performing pujas on our behalf and assuring a quick hassle-free darshan. It was simply irritating and extremely difficult to dodge them. The tolerance of this nuisance was the inescapable part of this pilgrimage. We remained firm and moved on following the signboards.

Inside the sanctum sanctorum, the idols of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra (elder brother of Lord Krishna, also known as Balarama), Subhadra (younger sister of Lord Krishna & Balarama; as also wife of Arjuna) and Sudarshan Chakra are placed with full divinity. Unlike other Hindu temples, where idols, either made out of stone or metal, are worshipped, this temple has unique wooden figures made from sacred Neem logs known as Daru Brahma. Every twelve or nineteen years, these wooden figures are ceremoniously replaced by using wood of sacred trees. They have to be carved as an exact replica and installed with ceremonial tradition. The highly secret ceremony is called Navakalevara ('New Body' or 'New Embodiment'). It follows an intricate set of rituals as mandated in the religious scriptures for the renewal of the wooden statues.

The temple's kitchen is considered as the largest kitchen in the world, where 56 different varieties of culinary items, known as Chappan Bhog, are cooked. The procedure & recipe has been as documented in the holy scripture. The cooking of pure vegetarian food items, sans onion and garlic, is done only in earthen pots. The water is drawn from two special wells near the kitchen called Ganga and Yamuna. After offering the “Naivedyam” to the Lord Jagannath, the food is distributed to devotees as divine Mahaprasad in the Ananda Bazar within the temple complex. We received the Mahaprasad in the disposable bowl of dry Sal leaves and exited from the complex. The darshan was blissful and sacred.

Having accomplished the spiritual mission, our next destination was Chilika Lake - Asia's largest brackish water lagoon with water spread of 1165 square km in the heart of the coastal Odisha. The lagoon extends from Bhusandpur in Puri district in the North to Rambha-Malud in Ganjam district in the South, separated from the Bay of Bengal by a 60 km long narrow strip of marshy islands and sand-flats. Our initial research on the web had identified the destination as Satapada, which was about 48 km from Puri. However for some strange reasons, after crossing Brahmagiri and Panaspada, the driver took a left turn and brought us to Sipakuda Jetty. We had no option but to rely upon the guidance provided by the local driver. The car was parked in the parking lot and we were advised to book the ferry from the adjoining counter of Dolphin Motorboat Association. The tariff for the ferry was fixed and displayed on a large board. There was no scope for bargaining or cheating for that matter. We chartered an exclusive boat for four of us.

The atmosphere was like a small fair with crowd, in hats & caps, pouring from all over. The area was surrounded with shops selling packaged munchies, wafers, chocolates, and bottled water. For the benefit of those arrived unprepared, colorful caps and hats in various shapes and sizes were available. The sets of binocular were available on nominal hire. The temperature was touching 30 degrees and the advice on a sunny afternoon, was that we must buy our liquid requirements, for 2-hour boat ride, from the embarking point itself. There were a couple of shops selling chilled beer too and the temptation was too hard to resist. The excitement of 2-hour lagoon cruise was overpowering and we stuffed some munchies, water bottles and more importantly, few bottles of beer to quench our thirst. The walk was brief towards the jetty through a narrow lane.

The jetty had hundreds of boats in different hues and colors with fluttering flags hoisted on the masts. Every excited tourist was in great hurry to be onboard. We did not understand any logic in allotting the motorboats. Our ticket was checked and we were directed towards the suntanned boatman. He ushered us to his boat and rendered a helping hand to facilitate embarkation. There were no life jackets provided to us but there were few life buoys hung to the motorboat. We were on the move sailing gently in the calm waters of Chilika.

The atmosphere is just serene and undisturbed amidst the blue expanse of water. The birds were wading, swimming and flying in every direction. Many of them hovering over the water and diving with lightening speed to pick their prey. With every unsuccessful attempt, new cycle would continue, till the bird flies away with its prized catch. The flock of birds would form spectacular patterns in the sky. We noticed “V” pattern formed by open-billed Stork above our boat. Hundreds of black tailed Godwits flew in a cloud like formation. The sound of birds chirping evolved a harmonious orchestra in the waterscape.

Migratory birds arrive in this brackish water lagoon at the onset of winter from as far away as Siberia, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Himalayas and continue to stay till the summer sets in. It is an important habitat and breeding ground for both resident and migratory aquatic birds, most notably flamingos. The Chilika Lake Bird Sanctuary, on the Nalaban Island harbors over 150 migratory and resident species of birds.

The lake is also home to a diverse range of aquatic life. The aqua fauna consists of numerous species of fishes, prawns and crabs. The local fisher folks have an exclusive right to undertake fishing for their sustenance. The lake supports millions of fishermen and their families, from the villages dotting the lagoon, to earn their livelihood.

Irrawady dolphins (Orcaella Brevirostris) have been the flagship species of Chilika. While we were sailing towards Satapada, we learnt about mutualistic relationship between fishermen and dolphins. Fisher folk call out to dolphins by tapping a wooden key against the sides of their boats, to drive fish into their nets. In response to the acoustic signals, dolphins would form a semi circle to guide a school of fish towards the fishermen’s net.

We sailed toward the Dolphin View point and the boatman shut the engine so as to minimize the noise. There were many boats carrying tourists, who were waiving at us. All of them with bated breath, were hoping for dolphins to emerge from placid water. The rush was to shoot dolphins in the shutter-box than to see them with their own eyes. The emphasis was on creating a memory to take back home than to live in that moment. Suddenly they would point aimlessly to communicate that they spotted a dolphin. All necks would turn in that direction. After few futile twists and turns, we did see a pair of dolphin jumping above the water level and swiftly diving back. The moment we saw a pair of dolphins, the boatman signaled that we have to return. We pleaded with him to remain anchored for some more time and thankfully he obliged. A couple of more places dolphins were spotted and the engine started, roaring. It wasn’t enough though.

Later we sailed towards the Sandbar and the mouth of the lake. It was a striking and unexplored stretch of few km of empty beach, which separated the lake from the sea. It was truly a geographical wonder to watch the unspoiled golden sand with placid lagoon on one side and turbulent Bay of Bengal on another. We disembarked from the boat for a short recess. There were few small makeshift eateries selling locally prepared fish dishes and other refreshments. Since, we had not planned to have our lunch here, with great difficulty, we ignored the fervent pleas from the restaurant operators. Out of curiosity, we checked the rates and found them to be as expensive as any other star-restaurant in the city. Make hey when the sun shines.

We took a small stroll on the beach and tried to capture the nature, at its best, in our cameras. The afternoon was scorching and we could barely withstand the heat when we retreated. As we were marching towards the anchored boat, few locals came with the pearls in the oysters. The pearls were in many shapes and colors. The authenticity was doubtful. None of us being an expert in that particular subject the valuation was difficult. Neither was the purchase of pearls on anybody’s agenda. The salesmanship was at it’s best and the lady members fell victims for it. This gave rise to the next stage. Bargaining. Ultimately the matter was settled for 25% of the price originally quoted. Both the buyers as well as sellers were satisfied and we recommenced our journey. It took less than 20 minutes to return, after a memorable cruise, to the jetty.

The need for satiating hunger pangs surfaced immediately upon the contentment of most sensory organs. There was only one solitary restaurant near the Sipakuda Jetty. We parked ourselves for food without giving any second thought. It turned out to be very unhygienic, poorly ventilated stuffy room with an attached dingy beer bar. The solar heated tin-roof was adding to the discomfort. The ambience was repulsive enough to drive us out of the restaurant. We returned to the hotel at Puri for a simple lunch, a bit late and a brief siesta.

In the evening, before we move on to the next phase of Odisha Odyssey, we decided to visit Raghurajpur – The artists’ craft village.

This heritage crafts village is, about 14 km from Puri, situated amidst grooves of coconut, palm and other fruit-bearing trees. The main street was lined with houses, which were decorated mural paintings. The most artists dwell and engage themselves in Patta Chitra craft within the same premises. The Patta Chitra paintings are made over a piece of cloth called Patta or a dried palm leaf. The intricate images of Gods, Goddesses, and mythological scenes with ornamentation of flowers, trees and animals are first drawn with a mixture of chalk and gum. Thereafter they are painted using bright and vibrant colors. Lord Krishna and scenes for the Krishna Leela was the principal subject in the most paintings.

Additionally, some of the talented artists were engaged in making traditional masks, stone idols, papier mache, sculptures, wooden toys. The villagers have been trained in the hospitality management. Their friendly welcoming nature has made Raghurajpur a template for heritage tourism in Puri. The works of art on display were available for sale at very attractive prices. The noteworthy feature was there was no overtly attempt to sell the artworks. We did purchase a few small paintings as souvenirs to carry home and bid farewell to the artists.

The concluding day at Puri, we decided to go vegetarian for dinner. There was a small restaurant quite close to the Marine Drive. The food ordered was Dalma, the signature Odia dish alonwith Saga Bhaja (Spinach Fry), Badi Chura, Kakharu fula bhaja (Pumpkin Flower Fry), Ghanta (Mixed Curry). The rice, pickle and papad completed the package. It was quite a heavy on the stomach and we walked back to the hotel to lighten the load a bit. The beach was now deserted and there were hardly anyone we could spot. The Bay of Bengal incessantly roared heralding the arrival of the high tide.

Soon … we returned in the embrace of Lady Slumber…


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