Odisha Odyssey -Part 3 Puri

The drive from Konark to Puri should have been a picturesque one long back. Today the roads are comfortable but the stretch of road that run parallel to the seas shore is completely covered in litter left behind by rave parties,  after dark disco parties and irresponsible tourists. The sand is choke full of used plastic plates, cups and cutlery. This area is the natural habitat of Olive Ridley turtles and they should be badly affected by this litter. Can the local administration do something about it? Absolutely yes they can. Can we as a community do something about it? Yes absolutely. Unfortunately I could not think of any thing that I could do that evening to help make the place cleaner and safer for the turtles. I could only carry my trash along with me and dump it responsibly.

This sight brought the mood in my party down considerably, but the thoughts of Jagannatha kept us going. Finally we were going to meet the Lord of the universe  I could very well imagine Sunny Boy asking if I am referring to Darth Vader here.

Finally we reached our so called 'three star' accommodation -Kakkson Villa. Our luxury suit looked like a hole, the towels were torn, sheets were ripped or had huge oil slicks on them. I asked the house keeping staff to change the sheets immediately. They did and the new sheet had the exact same problem. One more try and eight more tries later, I gave up. There was no way that we were sleeping on clean sheet that night.  We realized how filthy the place was in the morning when we stepped into the stairway instead of the lift. It looked like hell hole with garbage and dishes with food scrapes left on the stair way and corridors. I swore to stick to the lift which was slightly cleaner.

The next morning they served a complimentary breakfast on the roof. I saw some greasy bread pakodas, toast and Idli Vada. The service was lousy and the kitchen super dirty. A strong gut is a prerequisite to eat there and survive. So if anyone is ever planning to book this place better not go by the reviews on either www.makemytrip.com or ww.tripadvisor.com. It is shitty hole and nothing like the pictures online. Though the hotel staff assured us that there was a restaurant on premises when Mr. Bubby was around, they requested us to order food via room service once Mr.Bubby was gone. None of us was willing to sit down for a meal in the hole. Instead we decided to walk around seeking out a place to eat. We did not have to walk very far to realize that Puri was a very touristy place. Pretty much every thing there revolved around tourists. There was the holiday home for Indian Airlines employees, another one for a PSU bank. Every other building there was either a restaurant or a hotel. But none clean enough from the outside. Finally was walked to the road by the beach where there were the hotels appeared a little more fancy and hopefully better. We liked one of them enough to settle down for the meal. The food was expensive but good. A few rotis , a curry and vegetable biriyani was all we could care for.

The next morning we were happy to head out for the day. Mr.Bubbly was on time. Since we had foolishly decided to skip Chilaka Lake in order to soak in the devotional spirit of Puri, we ended up at a super dirty temple called Loknath Mandir. Nothing could have prepared us to face the 'Lord of World' in that condition. The sanctum was as it is was small. Then right behind the deity was a huge pile of refuse, accumulated from previous poojas. No one had bother to remove the flowers, offerings and other organic stuff  for weeks. Obviously it was stinking in there, and nothing could have held the deity back. Apart from the stink and the garbage, there were the priests trying to hand you some kind of prasad expecting money in return. No wonder there were rows of beggars and hawkers plying neatly piled coins. Tourists can change their bills to coins so their money would stretch longer. We visited a Hanuman temple and Bengali Krishna mutt which was clean and beautiful too. But we had no tour guides or interpreters, nor were there any boards in any of the languages we knew. So we could make out what ever we wanted of the place.

Our next stop was the Gundicha temple. Gundicha is Jaganatha's aunt and Lord Jaganatha travels to his aunt's house every year in style perched on the massive cars to be lovingly fed by the aunty. Jagannatha is my kinda of guy. He simply loves to eat and that what he pretty much does through the day. The road between the Jaganatha temple and Gundicha temple is wide, really really wide,may be a few hundred feet wide. During the Rath Yatra the whole place fills up with a sea of humanity. It was hair raising to imagine how it could be, something like New Years eve at Times Square several times over.  The Gundicha temple was clean, something I became finicky about after the Loknath Mandir experience. But the fun was yet to begin. We entered the complex thinking it was a temple for one deity. Turns out that every priest in town had set up shop in the complex. The arrangement was simple. There is a particular path to be traversed. At regular intervals there would be a priest and the statue of a deity in a make shift, colorful shrine. As we approach the deity the priest feigns to be offering prasad or some kind of blessing. If we err and stretch our hand to receive the prasad, we will be in for a tax. They cajole, beseech, threaten or any combination of the three so we could part from the contents of our wallets. First to get stuck was my sister and her kid at the very entrance. The priest handed her a bangle and charged 20 rupees or so. As we managed to navigate our way inside, I got stuck at the Lakshmi shrine. The priest offered me a small Lakshmi and a few grains of Paddy and would not accept anything less than 100 Rupees. Another family who entered the temple just before us looked like they were pros at navigating the temple. The gentleman kept nudging his mother who tended to linger a bit at each stop. He gathered his family as they paused before each shrine but never allowed themselves to be bothered by the priests. While I haggled with the priest at the Lakshmi shrine it felt like the gentleman looked back with sympathy at our plight. ]

Next to get caught was Amma at Annapoorneshwari shrine. In the kitchen which is fired up during the Rath Yatra, they have a shrine for Annapoorneshwari, the goddess who feeds humanity. Again, a 100 rupees bill bailed out Amma. In the mean time we did not realise when we passed the Gundicha shire. We assumed it was the shrine where they were hitting faithfuls with a couple of sticks. It was weird that they should thus assault devotes.  But we had no idea what was happening.

As we hit the exit we could not help laughing. We had just been conned in the name of 'Bhakti'. Now we did not want to see any more priests. We just sat there in the spacious and clean (it had become no less than an obsession by then) courtyard and giggled. We had never had that much fun in any temple before.

Unfortunately I do not have any photos from these temples since photography is strictly prohibited and cell phones were not allowed in either.

Our next stop was Jagannatha. My heart pounded wildly. I was just a few kilometers away from the Lord of the Universe. It was late in the morning, the winter sun was blazing hot and I had had nothing to eat till then but it did not affect me. Devotion can give you a strange high, way better than alcohol or any other substance. We had to park our car about a mile and a half away from the temple premises. Mr.Bubbly had arranged for a priest to help navigate the treacherous terrain of the Lord of the Universe. It was the best thing that happened to us in Puri. Without that gentleman we would never have escaped the claws of vilely Panda priests. The gentleman had a small tuff of hair in the back of his head signifying his Bramhin credentials. That is like an all inclusive pass to all things religious in the Hindu universe. He led us to one of the entrances that lie on the market side. He helped us deposit our cell phones and foot wear and gave a brief before we entered the temple. He had a few rules.
    Rule 1: Be careful with your money and belongings.
    Rule 2: Never accept anything from anyone
    Rule 3: Follow me.
He explained that instead of giving money to priests we are better of contributing to the official temple fund that feeds the Lord of Universe and the hungry poor-Anna Dana. We negotiated to contribute the lowest possible, that meant sponsoring to feed the Lord of Universe a single meal. In lieu of our contribution we were to receive some prasad after the 'bhog' was offered to the lord. Though I felt like we did a good deed by feeding the lord and the poor, something inside me did not feel alright. there seemed to be too much pressure to contribute which is never a good feeling. But I ignored it with thoughts of meeting the Lord for the first time. How we went inside the sanctum is all a haze. Our guide took us inside and lead us to a queue. It was crowded and I got worried about my mother and my neice, two people who could potentially get lost. But the queue hardly moved, In a quick second our guide got hold of my hand and dragged me though the mob, I started to panic because it was crowded and this strange man, though our guide was pulling me by my hand. I grabbed the next available hand and that was my mother and she grabbed my sister and she my father. So we were like a human chain cutting  through the mob that had congregated at the mouth of the sanctum. In a matter of minutes we were face to face with the Lord. Lord Jagannatha was black- pitch black in color with pretty round eyes. Unlike other Hindu gods he is not a humanoid, he is  just a stump with two smaller stumps for hands. That said he is attractive, very attractive indeed. Something in his appearance captured my attentions like nothing else before. Tears flowed. All I could see was his big round eyes and all I heard was our guide screaming 'don't get distracted, look at the Jagannatha'. The prompting helped me with all the pushing and shoving that was going all around us.  In a brief second I noticed that the queue that we were earlier standing in was blocked by a barricade maned by a fat priest. We could not have had met Jagannatha without the help of our guide. A full three-four minutes of undisturbed view of Jagannatha and everything that had annoyed me till then that morning dissolved into thin air. There he was the Lord of the Universe standing taller than a very tall human and I was right in front of him. Before I could ask him anything, I had an apology to offer. 'Dear Jagannatha, please forgive me;I have decided never to come back. This place is far too dirty.'  But in those few minutes, something inside me spoke and said to Jagannatha 'If it is your will, I will come back to you, be as they are the hardships.' I was in love with the Lord of the Universe. Before we were contended with our rendezvous with the Lord it was time to get out, which we did. Our guide took us to the Ananda Bazaar area next. We did not get an opportunity to explore the temple much. But he kept repeating the instruction not to receive anything from any one. We reached the dining hall and it was time for our guide to fetch the prasad. The lord by now would have been fed. We plonked ourselves on the dirty concrete floor in one of the dinning halls. In front of us was a party from some village. A toddler and an adorable baby played in front of us. The floor was dirty and all I could think was a baby playing on the dirty floor and the mother was sitting right there without a care in the world. As a parent myself with stocks of anti bacterial wipes and rubbing alcohol in my bag all the time, I was mortified. How can a baby survive that dirty floors, I cringed as he crawled all over the floor with the toddler and giggled with his fingers in his mouth.  May be I was overreacting, may be I had degenerated into the prosaic NRI who finds faults in everything. But that day I just wanted the baby to grow up into an adult and live a fulfilling life, be what the infant mortality statistics. I hoped he did not become that statistic himself.
Very soon our guide got us a banana leaf each. We procured from bottled water from our satchels and wiped our leaves clean and waited for our guide to get our prasad meals.  Meantime, a shady looking  scrawny man with a small tuff of hair in the back of his head appeared from nowhere and offered us something. We did not even realize we were breaking Rule 2, when we accepted it. It looked like food, Jaggery I presume. Papa who was sitting next to me was looking at it suspiciously when the scrawny guy bent over his palms and licked it. Papa flew into a rage. How dare the guy lick his hand. He immediately shuck his hands free and rushed to the end of the corridor where there were sinks with running water. The scrawny guy kept trying to cool Papa down but that would be of now use. Amma's reaction was different. She just wanted to get rid of him without offending him -a bramhin. She urged us to give him something and one of us handed him a tenner or so. The scrawny guy kept justifying his actions saying he was a branhin and allowing him to lick our palms / a symbolic feeding him was a noble deed. I could not understand why and how we as the most rational of religions ended up here. Why did this guy think it was ok for us to let him lick of palm? How degenerate we were as a religion if we still believed that superiority was determined by an accident called birth. My own mother subscribed to this notion that we should not offend a Bramhin. Was not caste system itself obsolete? Why should anyone feel important just because of their birth? the questions I got were the same that I got when I came across political dynasty hirelings.  Would the Lord of Universe differentiate between us because our births? If the Lord is merciful and if we all equals in his eyes there should be no reason why people like this scrawny guy feel superior, or people like us allow the priests to threaten /cajole us into giving them money. But devotion like life is not a straight and simple path. We do things in devotion that is way beyond the purview of our own logical minds.
As a thankful diversion, our Prasad arrived. Our guide placed a few earthen pots in front of us and left to get more. He arrived in no time with more pot. He went back to get rice. The food in front of us was fragrant and enticing. But we had to wait. Mean time the village party in front of us was settling down. A angry young man kept yelling instructions in a language I did not understand and the motley broke down into a careful line with their backs against the wall. The baby and the toddler continued to play, the mother dressed in garish outfit continued to smile nonchalantly. Soon the angry young man arrived with huge earthen pots filled to brims with dal and rice. They fumbled to get plates and our guide arrived with steaming rice.  He scooped hot rice with his bare hands and heaped it on our banana leaves. He did this with all the dishes he had placed in front of us. By the time he was done, I could see a mountain of food in front of me. On a normal day I did eat that quantity of food in two days. There was a small mountain of short grain white rice of the local kind. There was a kicchdi, masoor I suspect but I am not sure. There was dal made of pigeon peas, a cinnamon flavored Shalyanna -sweet rice, so after everything cinnamon in sweet dish is at least as old as the Jagannatha temple. Then there was a fruit salad like Rasayana with Bananas, coconut , cilantro and sugar. There were two curries one called 'Rayi' or mustard based curry and the other 'saag' or curried greens. All the dishes tasted very different. No wonder they did because they had strict rules to follow when it came to feeding Jagannatha. A few of the rules are
   -all cooking to be done in earthen pots only
   -all ingredients are native
   -all recipe are from antiquity
   -all recipes are satvik and vegetarian
Given these rule, no wonder the food tasted different. But then it is the the partaking of the Lord and we devoured with great fervor.  My not eating anything till at point in the day helped me. The steaming mountain of rice in front of us was gone in minutes. The angry young man and his accomplices continued serving rice and dal to their huge party. The toddler and the baby continued to play till they were lured by the hot rice. For an instance I thought about Sunny boy. He would have thrown a fit eating the dal and rice. But less prevailed children are more interested in eating food than complaining about it. Once we were done, we disposed the banana leaves into the dustbin at the end of the corridor, washed our hands and set on our way out. It is a pity that we could not explore the temple, its architecture. We were by then mortified at the thought of predatory priests and wanted to get out as soon as possible. Soon we were out of the temple complex, collecting our cellphones and foot ware. It was not yet past noon that were done with our tour. We went around the Bazaars of Puri. But it turned out that  "Swarga Dwar" bazaar was in deep slumber during the day time. The hot sun finally took its toll and we were forced back to where we did not want to head back to -our dirty hotel. We napped for a few hours, the dirty linen still bothering so much that I would not cover my head with the blanket like I normal would. Once the sun set, we were off again to the Bazaar. The Bazaar now looks entirely different. There was a different energy.It suddenly was alive. Our first stop was the Boyanika- Odisha equivalent of Priyadarshini. Papa got me a black and orange Sambalpuri saree. It was much cheaper than Radhika fashion but the silk was much thinner too. We lingered around the bazaar and the beach till night fell. Rows and rows of shacks were displaying deep fried sea food and raw sea food in various stages of marination. There were shacks on the beach serving tea and assorted snacks. The sea was noisy and the waves broke at regular intervals. I felt that the intervals started to shrink as the night deepened, but it could have been just me. We parked ourselves on a set of cheap plastic chairs hoping for some quiet time. We must have sat for a few minutes that we realized my niece was not to be found. A panicky few minutes later we spotted her near the camel and camel minder trying to lure her into a short ride. My sister dashed to the camel, grabbed the kid by her arm and dragged her back to the party. We thought we had settled down that the owner of the plastic chair a buxom middle aged women who owned the tea shack came down to take our orders. None of us would drink Chai tea at that hour. Nothing else in her shack evoked enough confidence in us to order something. So we did what our intelligence could muster- scoot from there. We loitered around for a little longer and then we got hungry. Given the dismal meals the previous night Mr.Bubby felt guilty enough to promise us to take us to Dalma again.
Very soon at Dalma, Puri we were requesting the staff to tone down the air conditioning as we figured out our orders. Carnivorous sister ordered a Thali with Fish mustard curry, Papa ordered a vegetarian Thali and Amma and me shared a thali as usual. The dalma was very good. So were the other bits of the meal. But finally I got to taste Chenna Jilli.  It was a rustic fresh Panner, depp fried in ghee and soaked in a thin sugar syrup.  I could have mistaken it for an early unsophisticated precursor to Gulab Jammon. It was very good. Sadly they had run out of Chenna Poda and we would had to wait till the next morning for the legendary Chenna Poda.

Before long we were back in the dingy hotel room trying to catch some sleep between the filthy sheets. The only explanation for our current state of misery was that it was a test by the Lord of the Universe if we could stand the trials, of the erotic images, of the predatory priests, of the utter filthiness and squalor of the place and still be able to muster up single minded devotion. Devotion after all is more potent than any substance of abuse discovered by man and I felt we had all overcome the distraction and mustered up devotion to the extent possible in our personal selves. The sun and tediousness of the travel had wore us all down to be able to slip into sleep in the dingy hole of a hotel.

Soon enough it was time to head back to Bhuwaneswar airport and we were at the end of our trip. Mr.Bubbly was on time as usual and shepherded us and our bags into his taxi.In no time we were back on the Puri Bhuwaneshwar highway. This time I did not notice either the squalor or the litter. Mercifully my senses were overtaken by a bliss called sleep. The next thing I know is that we had stopped in front of a sweet shop very close to the airport. We got some snacks to humor the kid in the party, which essentially meant vast quantities of atrocious packaged chips. Then the holy grail of Chenna Poda. I finally got  a bit of Chenna Poda. It resembles our own 'ginnu' - a sort of a cheesy confection made of cow colostrum. It was moist and spongy. Unfortunately I forgot the name of the sweet shop. I was sleepy enough not to take a picture of either the Chenna poda or the maker of the Chenna poda. The next thing I know, I was on the Vaayu Vajra bus from Bangalore airport out into the city. Papa and Amma went their way. Sister and niece went their way and I was all alone peeking out into the city through the huge glass windows of Vayu Vajra bus. A guy in a skull cap sat in the seat next to me puking into a plastic bag. An elderly gentleman sat next to him rubbing his back. I hoped all was well with the man and that it was just a bad case of motion sickness that happens to me many time. I hopped down the bus at a traffic signal when I started to feel queasy in my stomach. I tried to pull my luggage with its fancy wheels. But the pavement in urban Bengaluru is no smooth and polished airport floor. I decided to carry my luggage till I came across an obliging autorikshaw, which I did very soon..
So there ends my Odisha Odyssey a story of how devotion and hedonistic consumption of vast quantities of food came together.

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