The hundred thousand residents of Puri, in coast al Orissa, think that beyond their municipal limits nothing exists, at least in civilisational terms. Perhaps they cannot be faulted. Puri was, after all, once part of the Kalinga of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. And it continues to be one of the four sacred Hindu pilgrimages of India.
Puri residents are surrounded by water, and the breakers of the Bay of Bengal in the east and south are just a part of it. It is all water beyond this ancient holy town and destination of pilgrims and tourists. To the south, not far distant, is Chilika, Asia’s largest fresh water lake. Close at hand to the north-west is the more modest and unassuming Lake Sar. The river Barghab flows a little to the west. And then there are the five holy lakes of the town—Markanda, Shweta Ganga, Narendra, lndradyumna and Parvati Sagar.
Puri, not more than a few kilometres in length and breadth, gets its sanctity from the 12th century temple of Lord Jagannath (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu), built by the Ganga dynasty ruler Anangabhimadeva Chodagangadeva. The tallest Vishnu temple in the world, the Jagannath temple, also called the Purusottama khetra, is one of the finest expositions of the ‘Pancharatha’-style of Kalinga period architecture. Hindu devotees from all over the country, particularly northern and western India, throng this coastal city for a divine high. From overseas, on the other hand, the Westerners come for a package trip of sea, sun, yoga and antiquity.
Puri embraces all with its saline hospitality, the tourists from the West, the devout locals, the sloppy government officials and all those who come for a darshan of Jagannath, the humpty-dumpty God whose chariot is pulled by the multitudes on the Rath Yatra or “Car Festival Day”. Far cry, indeed, from juggernaut, the industrial metaphor for relentless force that took its name from the deity of this ancient town.
The tall, narrow buildings of the town look as if at any moment they could stray absently into the streets. The pace of life is languid. Everything in Puri moves slowly, including the automobiles. The people are seemingly lazy, which may have to do with profound religiosity. Those who live with such devotion in the shadow of the Lord can jolly well afford to cool their heels. Life, after all, is taken care of by Vishnu the preserver, no less. Then there is that balmy seaside weather. And ofcourse, there is the euphoria that comes from bhang, a local drink of cannabis paste and milk that stills the restlessness and restrains ambition. Bhang in Puri is a social trip for which even therapeutic uses have been found. At times it is used as a specific for minor ailments like fever and cold.
Puri-ites scorn modernity as a rule and scoff at sophistication, but do not seem to mind the good life, that includes succulent food, robust humour, music and laziness. That is possibly what enables them to reconcile to the town’s dependence on tourism, both domestic and foreign. You might hear a lot of slogan-shouting against the undesirable influence of Westerners who come to tan their skin along the Puri coast, but deep down everyone realises just how important the tourist is. The economy thrives on the lure of the beach and the temple.
Puri presents a continuous buzz as pilgrims, mostly there for the darshan of the Lord, gawk at the sights and bump into bicycles and pedestrians in the narrow lanes. The seaside spots with their shells and corals have a rather different story to tell. One part of-the long, sprawling beach will be occupied by Indian families. Here, piety lets its hair down and lounges in the sand after the labours of the day. Under the god’s benign gaze (from the beach one can catch a glimpse of the top of the temple), the pilgrims make merry on the soft sands, as the tireless waves Wash their feet in precise rhythms. Beach frolic is Indian-style, with saree-clad women wading into the swells, with screams of delight at an unusual experience. For many land-locked Indians, this could be their first experience of the sea.
But then there is the other part of the beach. This part is- close to the fisher village and the fining tourist is its principal habitué. They are all there, the Israeli recruit rushing for his return ticket on learning of a bomb attack on his Tel Aviv neighbourhood, the inscrutable Japanese tourists looking stoned with or without mindaltering substances, or the young American and British brats, creating a fuss over the absence of discos and night clubs. Regardless of origin, all firangs fall in love with Puri and tend to overstay. Puri had its brush with sex, drugs and rock and roll, the slogan of the sixties. Some of it still lingers. The locals, whose economy is interwoven with lives and pleasures of these fairskinned visitors, remain, for large part, ambivalent towards them. It is peaceful co-existence.
The names of the beachside hotels and restaurants recall a hippie era. Traveller’s Inn, Xanadu, Hotel Z and Pink House carry the shabby aura of RL Stevenson’s nautical novels on their fading walls. The menu at the thatched-roof restaurants are hardly local. Spaghetti, macaroni with tomato and mashed potato with cheese sauce are more likely to remind you of the Adriatic culture, or, at the very least, Kathmandu’s Thamel. Served hot, with the salty dampness of the sea breeze sticking to your skin, the macaroni can be a delightful meal at any time of the day. The majestic lobsters appeal as much to your visual aesthetics as it does to the gastronomic.The Pink House restaurant, almost touching the shore, gets one a fantastic view of the wavy greenish water and the golden polished sands. In fact, from here (and particularly if you have already had your quota of bhang), the froth in the beer mug seems to simulate the foam of the marine turbulence just a few yards away.
But that is not all, for the temple town has other diversions too. At the end of a languid day, when the gloaming turns to darkness and you prepare to get back to town from this Mini Europe, as the locals call it, a chant cuts through the evening air—” Brim Bhole”—and the holy smoke curls upwards.