Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Sutapa McCrae
When I had toured India it had always been cocooned in the safety-blanket of my parents. Hence armed with my past experience of blissful ignorance as far as planning was concerned, my husband and I boarded the British Airways flight to Kolkata.
I had chosen Puri, in the state of Orissa, because, it is less visited by the western population, is one of the famous Hindu pilgrimage sites and for its sea-beach along the capricious Bay of Bengal.
We were rightly informed that Indian Railways now issued e-tickets and we had booked them prior to our departure from London.
I had already warned my husband that non-Hindus are prohibited from entering any temples where worshipping is still carried out, but, that little compromise did not matter as there was so much to see.
The adventure began after we landed in Kolkata, the day before our journey to Puri. A cyclone had uprooted and destroyed the bridge that takes us to Puri. Although a makeshift bridge was functioning, our train was cancelled! There was no bus or car route as the road was broken as well.
John was clearly disappointed; but, all was not lost, informed the railway booking office. Trains were still running, the problem was whether we can manage to get on them.
They were overbooked and the waiting list was long. The sweating officer in his vest, behind the counter with a half-burnt cigarette and steaming glass of tea realised our desperation.
“Is he a foreigner?”, he asked pointing towards John. “Yes, he is British”, I said.
“You can apply for tickets in foreign quota”-so another taxi trip later to Fairlie Place by the Ganges, we managed two tickets in the AC carriage less than 24 hours prior to the journey-thanks to the British passports.
Weaving through the mass of commuters at Howrah Station we boarded the train to Puri the next evening and departed right on time. Our fellow passengers were a young American and a middle-aged Australian lady, who had been in Kolkata for five months offering voluntary services to the Church. We all happily snacked on samosas and “garam chai” for breakfast next morning.
Our budget hotel room balcony overlooked the grey sea , frothing and foaming in the monsoon season. We chose to stay in “New” Puri to avoid the crowd and take full advantage of the beach.
Bathing in the huge breakers that lashed on the shore was fun. It sent off a spray that cast a perpetual mist over the coast. We had to dodge men claiming to be lifeguards and volunteering to take us into deep waters and then demand money once we were done.
John was soon a victim of the tropical weather. Apart from sunburns, he went on to develop cellulitis from mosquito bites. Being a doctor, I bought some antibiotics over the counter for him to avoid hospital admission in case it worsened.
I could not help indulging in some Ayurvedic therapy offered by the hotel. Although it was a far cry from a modern salon, the massage itself was quite relaxing in the hands of a petite local woman. This was followed by Shirodhara- warm oil treatment of the head, on a utilitarian bed, my head resting on a banana leaf. It left me feeling relaxed and rejuvenated from the long-haul journey from London to Puri.
The following day we booked a cab and made a day trip to Bhubaneshwar . The White Pagoda built by the Japanese as the symbol of peace, in memory of the slain people of Kalinga was anything but, peaceful. Alongwith the cacophony of the tourists, the priests tried to entice anyone who would succumb to their request to pray and then demand money.
The Pagoda is built atop a hill overlooking the river Daya. I drifted into 274 BC when The Great Emperor Ashoka in a quest to expand his empire had turned the river red in the blood-bath that followed the Kalinga war. Thereafter Ashoka became repentant, denouncing Hinduism to become an avid Buddhist, eventually leading to the downfall of the Maurya dynasty.
The Sun Temple of Konark was the other major attraction- or what remained of the temple.
The Sun Temple was built around an infrastructure of iron grid which was held together and stabilised by two huge powerful magnets mounted on the peak of the temple. The original idol of Sun God was made of iron which remained suspended in mid-air! Our guide explained that it was built in the shape of a chariot pulled by seven horses-signifying the seven days of the week. Each chariot wheel is a sun-dial very intricately carved out.
The temple was not destined for worship due to some curse, but, unfortunately there was more to come. Built beside the river Chandrabhaga and near the sea, there were ships navigating past the temple. During the British rule, these powerful magnets attracted the British ships and destroyed them as they crashed on the shores. This led the British to blow the magnets off with their canons inevitably destroying the temple itself.
Surprisingly throughout the temple there were carvings of different sexual positions from Kama Sutra including polygamy, lesbianism, infidelity and venereal diseases. The guide explained it was to boost the population of Orissa after it dwindled following the Kalinga war. Carvings also signified the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism to rise as the supreme power.
Ironically, now the river is dead and non-existent and the sea has receded by 3 kms.
As the evening breeze drifted in and out of the pillars of the dance hall, the guide’s monologue held a possible promise- “We are trying to re-open the interior of the temple again madam, it has got even more intricate carvings and architecture inside. Will you visit again when the temple reopens?”
We did not make any promises as we admired the huge idol of the Sun God basking in its pale glow.