On the second day of my recent trip to Odisha my mother and I headed to Puri. My mother was keen to perform the darshan at the Puri Jagannath temple. Although I had no great desire to see it, my father and uncle were so unenthused by the idea that I had to agree to go along with her.
Let me begin by saying that the Puri Jagannath temple is not a place for the faint of heart. To say that it tops my list of least peaceful religious experiences should suffice. The taxi dropped us at a ten-minute walk from the temple, around 5 o’clock in the evening. Leather and cell phones are not allowed in the temple; so we left our personal effects in the car, with wads of ten-rupee notes clasped safely into the palms of our hands.
To get to it we had to navigate an obstacle course of smaller temples, restaurants, carts piled high with those small sweet coastal bananas, chaat vendors and those selling other salty treats, clothing shops, random piles of wood two-wheelers, dogs, cows, and not to mention a sea of humanity. Once we reached the temple, we dodged fecal matter of unknown origins, beggars, panhandlers and the like. We managed to exchange our shoes at one of the designated cordoned off areas for a small metal token that read 345. It took some effort, but we also managed to ditch the panda who had latched onto my mother promising a once in a lifetime experience, and headed towards the entrance.
Walking is not strictly necessary in the Puri Jagannath Mandir; just stand still and the crowd will sweep you somewhere. It may not be where you intend to go, but there’s little adventure in predictability, isn’t it? Before long we found ourselves in the main courtyard, having passed several faceless deities tucked in various enclosures along the way. We only had about 15 minutes to perform the darshan so we scrambled to find the main sanctum sanctorum of the temple.
Inside the main part of the temple, we came across an enclosed area – ahead of where the main darshan happens. Inside, people were wriggling on the floor and basically caught up in a religious fervor unlike any we had seen before. My mother asked the panda something in Oriya, after which he pressed some tulsi leaves into our hands, anointed our foreheads with tilaks, and made us stand on a red rope strung between two bars in the barrier so we could get a better (or at least elevated) look. He then held out his hand suggestively. I felt that immediate guilt I feel whenever a person of religious (or legal) authority looks at me, and much to my mother’s chagrin I gave him 20 rupees. We made our way towards the barrier in front of the deities, navigating elbows, shoulders and body checks of people squirming and willing to do anything to get a glimpse Lord Jagannath – seated with Balabhadra & Subhadra, his brother and sister – some 20 or 30 feet away.
My mother performed a number of rituals, none of which I could see because at any given time there were at least five people between us; each pushing me in a separate direction. But my 4’10 ½” mom held her ground. When she eventually gave up her spot, we got shoved away towards the other end of the room.
As we exited through another door, we saw a whole bunch of people staring upwards at the sky. A panda standing next to us explained that the flag atop the temple was being changed. It was a daily ritual. Uninterested in the ceremony my mother asked him where the main entrance was, where our shoes were kept. Uninterested in people who were uninterested in the ceremony, he informed us, slightly sarcastically, that there are five entrances and he has no idea where we may have left our shoes.
We headed back inside the main building, and straight across to the entrance we came from, pausing to hug a pillar that everyone seemed to be hugging for some reason. Hey it couldn’t hurt, and the line-up was shorter than the one for Jagannath darshan!
We commenced our long walk back towards the car, dodging the usual suspects including a particularly persistent souvenir seller who couldn’t believe that I had only ten rupees left on my person, and hence would not be able to buy something worth 80 rupees. I believe he was down to quoting Rs. 50 by the time we left the area.
It was after I had left the temple and I started to compose this piece in my head that I stopped to ponder upon my arrogance. I remember a piece of writing advice someone gave me once. That when you write a review you are only asking yourself one question: did it accomplish what it was meant to?
I’m not a religious person. I’ve never been one. I came to the mandir because the darshan was important to my mother. When I do pray, I prefer to pray quietly inside my head and my heart without a great deal of fanfare. But that is me.
There are people for whom the Jagannath temple is a pilgrimage. The energy and enthusiasm of the crowd there was unlike any I had ever seen; be it the struggle to get a closer glimpse of the deities or the large number of people gathered to watch a flag being changed daily.
I saw a woman place herself completely horizontal on the red carpet; her body writhing as if possessed, caught up in the moment of being close to her deity. Who am I to tell them what is over the top or not, just because I have a different way of showing my proximity to god. That I need silence is no reason for me to judge their chaos.
I realized that as much as I crib about the close-mindedness of people in this country, I’m not so different from them after all. I am also guilty of short-sighted and hasty judgements; and perhaps it is I who needs to open her mind. I should be comfortable enough in my own skin to accept them as who they are and accept our differences. So in that unique and unexpected way, this trip to the Jagannath temple was also a religious experience for me.
The whole thing came full circle four days later. Dusk was melting into the night and the streets were quiet as we entered the sleepy town of Sundergarh, on the west side of the state.
We were at another Jagannath Temple. There is a large white domed structure with an outer gate leading to a courtyard, which in turn leads to the main mandir. There is a tall pillar whose significance was not mentioned, and neither did I ask.
This Jagannath temple was everything the Puri one was not. There were no pandas here, no shoe storage rackets, no souvenirs, no anonymous and smelly bodily discards; only the sound of us ascending the steps. We slipped out of our shoes, leaving them at the foot of the staircase, pausing to touch the step and bring our hand to our head and our hearts.
We ascended slowly, and the entire time I clenched my phone nervously wondering if someone would want to confiscate it from me. When I entered I realized that nobody was paying attention. The interiors were small, clean, silent and calm. There were only eight of us in total, including a priest and a man playing a brass percussive instrument to accompany the prayers.
As I closed my eyes and heard the instrument beat faster and faster, I found myself slipping into a trance. I found peace, or at least something that resembled it beautifully. The rhythm shifted something inside of me; a rhythm which I had lost touch with a long time ago. The beat grew more intense and faster and hit a crescendo, or perhaps it was just my imagination because of the trance that I was in.
As the percussive instrument softened and faded into silence, we made our way towards the side exit. The sky and surrounding area were shrouded in black, except for the clear glimmer of the stars above our heads. I stopped for a minute and looked around, taking the time to reflect upon what I had just witnessed. I realized that there is a space and time for every person. I found myself willing to accept that the Puri temple was a lifelong dream for some, and the fact that my own was over 300 kilometers away in a place bordering the state of Chhattisgarh did not make their needs any less valid, nor did it make mine any more.
As I stepped out of the Sundergarh temple into the clear warm night, I knew I would come back to this mandir, if possible many more times.
The Jagannath Temple, located in Puri, is an important pilgrimage destination for devotees of Lord Krishna. It is one of the four renowned sites of the Char Dham yatra.
All the opinions stated herein are of the author and Incredible Women of India does not conform to the same.
– By Mira Saraf, for IWI*
Have you ever been to either of the Jagannath temples at Puri or Sundargarh? What was your experience like? Share your feedback via the comment box below.
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