It is a very hazy morning. The egrets stand on the river bed, wrapped in the morning hues. The river Bhargavi arches and curves as it meets the sea.The caesious sky meets the sea as well. I stand there, gazing at the meeting points. The sun has woken up early and has started his march across the sky. This is his turf. I am in East India, in Puri, in Orissa, looking out at the estuary, a priceless exclusive view that I get from the Sterling Resorts, where I am staying.
It is still the wee hours of the morning and I have just returned from the Jagannath Puri temple after a mesmerising darshan. It was the first darshan of the day and the resort had arranged it for us to be there even before the sun rose in the sky. The temple doors had just been opened and the crowds had already gathered, but in the sanctum, i feel like there is no one intruding in the silence communion I have with the triad deities mounted on a throne of pearls The panda, who is with me whispers in my ear, ” Do not open your purse; just close your eyes and ask for whatever you want. ”
The crowds jostled and shoved but one had eyes only for the larger than life dieties of Jagannath and Balabhadra flanking Subadra . The wooden deities carved out of logs of Neem tree stood there, dressed in bright orange and red hues. But there is an air of mysticism surrounding the temples. I was there for just five minutes but it felt like an eternity. After all, these deities are believed to be chiseled by none other than Lord Vishnu himself.
But it is not just the religious fervour alone that lures me to temples. The architecture, the history, the legends, the myths, the traditions and the quintessential “Indianness’ of these sacred shrines fascinate me. Outside the sanctum, I learnt more about the legends surrounding the 11th century temple. Spread over 400000 sq feet, it was built on the ruins of an earlier temple by King Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty. But legends say that the original temple was built by none other than Vishwakarma himself
It is believed that eons ago, the deity manifested itself as a powerful gemstone, the Blue Jewel or the Indraneela Neelamani which could give immortality to anyone who even chanced to look at it. While Yama , the God of Death hid the stone, one of the kings of ancient India did penance to locate the stone. Vishnu then directed the king to the shores of Puri where a piece of wood floated on the sea. While Vishwakarma, the divine architect built the temple, Vishnu himself in the guise of the carpenter carved the images on the log of wood. He laid a condition however that no one opens the door until he completes the task, but the impatient queen did so, only to find the deities ready without their hands. The Lord vanished and the deities are worshipped without hands till date .
However one of the biggest rituals and festivals celebrated in Puri is the rath yatra held in July every year here millions of people attend. Even today the king sweeps the street, dressed as a sweeper, a tradition that has been practised since centuries. However I was more interested in hearing about the ritual called the Nava Kalevara or the New body. Every 8 or 12 years, the old idols are buried ceremoniously while new idols are installed in the temple. Another festival is celebrated right after the Snana Yatra, when the deities are bathed every year. It is when they go on a holiday or what is referred to as Anavasara. The Gods are kept in a secret altar and cannot be worshipped by devotees for a fortnight. It is believed that they are unwell after their bath and are hence being treated. This, I was told usually takes place before the Rath Yatra.
There are several legends around the temple, but as we were leaving the sanctum, I was told that the breakfast will soon be served to the gods. The kitchen is huge and food is prepared in earthern pots and water is drawn from the two wells, Yamuna and Ganges that are in the temple premises. It is believed that Goddess Mahalakshmi personally supervises the kitchen and a shadow falls on the walls if the food is not good enough.
It is still cloudy as we leave the temple premises back to the Golden Sands Sterling Resort . If the Jagannath Temple forms the nucleus of Puri, then it is the beach that lures the tourists. A group of kids are going on a camel ride on the sands while there is a Sand Art Festival on the beach. The beach is crowded with people like a star studded night sky sans clouds. I head past the melee and seek my retreat at the resort, located far from the madding crowd, right at the end of the long list of resorts lining the beach.
There is barely anyone at the estuary, except for a few kids building castles on the sands. I go for a long walk and lose myself in the morning breeze. The waters from the river and sea merge. I sit there, meditating on the silence, imbibing the spiritual experience.