wayfarer's corner

Puri- one city, many dimensions.

Crowded streets, energetic or may I say noisy shopkeepers eager to grab your attention,  priests looking for their next clients, its daily way of life of Puri, at least around the shrine at least around the shrine of Lord Jagannath one of the four ‘dhamas’ of the country. It is as if time has not moved around this place. A city which is revolving around its many dimesions. A city which is perhaps trying to balance its place between centuries-old traditions and new age economic prosperity mostly because of being developed as a popular beach city by Bay of Bengal which is pocket friendly too.

A flute seller at market near Lord Jagannath temple, Puri , Odisha.
A flute seller at market near Lord Jagannath temple, Puri , Odisha.

There are only a few cities in India which can boasts of so many dimensions within it. Puri is definitely one of them. It seems there are so many different worlds living in perfect harmony. Although at first glance it may seems to be like any other popular beach side town with bustling and busy beach front lined with resorts and hotels of all kinds and budgets, shops selling what not from hot tea/coffee to fresh fish which can be fried as per liking, from fancy ornaments to conch shells of various shapes and sizes. Puri is known for its beautiful conch shells.

A shop selling varieties of conch shells, Puri, Odisha.
A shop selling varieties of conch shells, Puri, Odisha.

But it is the shrine of Lord Jagannath around which the life revolves here. It’s the soul of this city. The shrine is part of Char Dham yatra, pilgrimage to four most holy shrines in Hinduism. The other three are Badrinath, Dwarka and Rameshwaram.  The shrine is visited by a large number of devotees at any given point of time. But even amid all these frenzy everything appears to be moving in rhythm like complex musical instruments are playing their best melody together!

The daily flag changing ritual atop Lord Jagannath temple, Puri, Odisha
The daily flag changing ritual atop Lord Jagannath temple takes place daily, without fail.

My first visit to the shrine was on an evening during the first week this year. There was still some time for the Sun to set over the blue waters of Bay of Bengal, although when I reached near the shrine of Lord Jagannath. There was no plan to enter the temple right then but I wanted to witness the sacred flag changing ritual. It is one of main rituals which have been performed daily for last 800 years or so, minutely without fail. Witnessing this ritual is considered to bring good omen to the devotees.

A glimpse of main temple of Lord Jagannath near the Ashwa Dwar
A glimpse of main temple of Lord Jagannath near the Ashwa Dwar of temple as photography is not allowed inside the temple premises.

The honour to change flag daily is bestowed to a particular family. A new flag made by male members of the family has to be hoisted by the male members of this family on daily basis. It is considered as great honour to be selected and trained for this job. The rights of preparing this 20 ft triangular shaped flag has given exclusively to a Chola family by the founder of temple King Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva , first of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty rulers. The flag requires to be tied to the metal wheel (comprised of eight metals) called Neela Chakra (Blue Wheel) atop the temple. It took only around 10 minutes for these trained men to finish the job amid chanting of prayers and blowing of conch shells. The flapping of flag from east to west during the evening hours is unique here. Generally, during the day time wind blows from sea to land and in the evenings it blows from land to sea but in Puri it seems just opposite happens. One has to see it to believe it.

 street vendors selling ' Khaja'
On of the many street vendors selling ‘ Khaja’ near the temple premises.

Soon after we returned to happening beach road after a long walk through the narrow streets of Puri. These narrow streets were lined up with all kinds of shops selling everything from souvenirs of different types to Khaja – a crunchy sweet. Visit any street of Puri and one would be surprised by noticing sheer number of shops selling these sweets especially around the Jagannath temple and roads leading to and from it. If you have not tasted Khaja in Puri than your visit to Puri would remain incomplete! 

Shops selling pictures of Lord Jagannath at Puri
Shops selling pictures of Lord Jagannath at Puri.

Next morning we all assembled near the Jagannath temple for darshan. It seemed we beat the crowed by waking up early. We took services of a Panda, a local priest to guide us inside the temple as our group was fairly large. Once inside the sanctorum through Singha dwar the first thing you witness is large statues of Jagannath, Balvardra and Suvadra. The statues were made from the woods of a Neem tree which stood there at the time of construction of this temple. The most fascinating thing of these statues is eyes of the idols. They are big and completely round in shape. You just cannot just miss those huge round eyes. In fact, these eyes are everywhere and would watch you literally everywhere in Puri!

shops selling articles required to perform rituals at temples Puri, Odisha.
There are numerous shops selling articles required to perform rituals at temples as well as at homes, Puri, Odisha.

Once the Darshan was over then we took relaxed walk around the temple. The priest cum guide diligently explained about the four dwaras or gates of the temple, dedicated to elephant, tiger, lion and horse. He also showed the temple kitchen where Mahaprasada, the food offered to the deities is prepared on fire by burning wood. Legend has it that the quantity of Mahaprasada remains same always no matter what is the no of devotees. There has never been any shortage of Prasadam. The other temples around the main temple are equally beautiful but much smaller in size than the main temple. Photography is not allowed inside the temple premises so I could not capture the grandeur of this temple they way I wanted. Once out of the temple from the Ashwa Dwar (Horse gate) we were once again on the same busy street.

Colourful temples in Puri.
Colourful temples such figures everywhere in Puri. Though small but architectures of these temples are unique.

But no mention of Puri would probably complete without mentioning Swarga Dwara, considered gateway to heaven, a crematorium. Although I had heard about it before I stumbled upon this place just as I took a small right turn from the beach road. I found myself at the gate of this huge crematorium. I was definately not prepared for it. It was way beyond my imaginations. It is said that if a person is cremated here, his soul would reach straight to heaven and attain salvation! That’s why the name ‘Swarga Dwara’. Without delving into the believes of the people I would certainly say that visiting this place is the kind of experience one would seldom forget. Never before in my life I have seen so many dead bodies being brought to a single place, lined up and waiting for their turn to be cremated at Swarga Dwara. It seems that there is no respite from queue system even after death. The most disturbing or fascinating thing, depending upon your state of mind is that this crematorium is situated right in the middle of most important market place thronged by  thousands of tourists visiting Puri daily. People are buying everything from food items to popular handloom articles right beside the crematorium, trying to live life to the fullest, everyone seems to happy around this small island of pain or relief! It is business as usual, nobody is bothered. It seemed everybody have either accepted it or became too busy to be bothered.  It was humbling experience for me.  One has to be there to experience it! I tried to capture these moments through my camera but felt very shallow to do it!

How to reach-

Puri is one of the holiest places of the country. It is well connected by both by road and railways. Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha is just 67 km from Puri. Nearest Airport is also situated at Bhubaneswar. Apart from direct trains Puri can be reached by changing trains at Bhubaneswar and Khurda Road stations.

Where to stay-

Puri is frequented by thousands of holiday makers every day. Thus finding hotels, guest houses, resorts as per ones budget should not be a problem.

Food-

Its heaven for seafood and street food though all kinds of food are available. Observe the cleanliness of the place before jumping into these stalls.  

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