The first thing that caught my attention in Puri was the use of the Bengali language. A mixture of language in a tourist place is a given thing. But what set me thinking was the use of the Bengali language alone. Why not Hindi or English? In South India, Hindi just wouldn’t help you. I remember how in Thiruvananthapuram I had a hard time dealing with a cab driver. I was speaking in Hindi which he even refused to acknowledge, even though, I am sure, he understood.
But in Puri it was different. In the whole of North East and beyond, Hindi is the lingua franca, the connecting language. Then why the predominant use of the Bengali in Puri?
Is it only because Puri is closer home to Kolkata, and it is Bengal’s very own tourist destination, or is there other reasons?
Welcome to Puri. Apart from jelebi-shaped Oriya scripts on the signboards, there’s nothing Orissa about Puri. The rickshaw-pullers talk to you in Bangla, you are welcomed into a hotel in Bengali by the receptionist, for lunch you eat bhat and macher jhol, and in the evening you eat rosogolla before arguing with a shopkeeper for an Orissa handloom kurta, of course in Bangla. Even the priests in the temple talk to you in that language. Make no mistake. These people are not Bangla natives. For them, the language is the part of their business plan.
From Howrah, Puri is just a 12 hours journey. Spend a jerky night in the train and the next morning you are at Puri. Does the size of a railway station can tell you the size of a city? If it does, then Puri is not a very big place. You get down with a hoard of Bengali tourists only to be accosted by rickshawallas, tourist agents, or temple pandas waiting to grab you like hungry wolves. You feel you are still in Bengal. Only that people around you look thin and emaciated. Probably the news of famous Orissa famines is working trick on you.
Sleeping towns have their own charm. It makes them look enormous and more beautiful than they really are. My destination is Swargadwar: the heaven’s gate, a place unbiased like the heaven itself, sheltering everyone from the pot-bellied Bengali bhadralok to the leper with bandaged feet. You cross the VIP Road, the official Puri, and come face-to-face with the sea. The road now runs straight. On your left is the sea, and on your right are the tourist lodgings, buildings with different shapes and sizes with endless nameplates in English, in Oriya, and of course, in Bengali.
Puri is at once a temple city and a sea-side resort. Don’t expect the deep blue Arabian sea of Bombay or Goa here. The sea looks dark and smoky; the breaking surf has the colour of mother-of-pearl. The Bay of Bengal is more of a severe kind, like a sage who has seen the world, very much part of it, yet seemingly detached. Legends say the sea water here has healing powers. It can cure any skin-related diseases. You sit on the seashore under the scotching sun, sip lemon juices, or bargain for sea-shell key chains or miniature terracotta statues of Lord Jagannath.
Come evening, it turns into a small-time fare, a Mina Bazaar of sorts. Eat Puri Bhaji, fish fry or chow-chow, buy conches of various sizes, or curios for your drawing room made of sea shells, or clothes from Oriya handloom, or just stroll about the place; it’s fantastic.
At the middle of Swargadwar, you see a concrete statue of Sri Gauranga Mahaprabhu beckoning you to him with his outstretching hands. Follow the road to his left hand; it will lead you to Bali Shahi, the seat of the famous Jagannath temple, one of the four dhamas of Hindu belief, God’s own house.
The temple has four gates on four sides, east, west, north and south, each door represented by an animal, east lion, west tiger, south elephant, and north horse.
The carved stone temple is the original structure, where the deities, the siblings reside. The front panel of the temple painted white and pink is a new addition. The main structure is surrounded by several small ones dedicated to numerous deities of the Hindu pantheon. Among them, the biggest one belongs to Mahalaxmi, next to her lives Saraswati.
In Hinduism, Gods are usually worshiped alone or in pairs. This is probably the only temple in India where three siblings are worshiped together. It is perhaps again the only temple in India where Balaram and Subhadra are worshiped as Gods.
Legends say once a log of wood was found floating at the sea, and the God appeared before the local king asking him to collect the log, carve idols from it and install it in a temple. The king collected the log, but he could not find any carpenters who could dare cut the log. Finally, one carpenter came forward. But he had a condition. He should not be disturbed while he was at work. So he locked himself in a room with the log of wood. Months passed, but the carpenter did not appear from his room. The queen, a kind-hearted soul, began to worry about the carpenter, and one day she ordered the room to be forced open. And lo, the carpenter was gone, and there remained three unfinished idols.
These three idols occupy the main dais of the temple: left Balaram, middle Subhadra and right Jagannath. The big brother wears a Neelam, and the younger a diamond. The sister has a pearl.
Whoever the carpenter was, who carved those statues, he was surely from down south. Each idol in Puri has unmistakable resemblance to the idols of South India. In South, there is an impressionistic trend in idol carving. In North, God is mirrored unto man, to the last plait of his dhoti.
The Gods in Puri are living Gods. They need to eat, drink and be merry. The families of Brahmins surrounding the temple pamper the siblings day and night. The priests awake them, give them bath, feed them, in the afternoon take them for a walk and finally at night lull them to sleep. The annual Rath Yatra notwithstanding, it's festival at Puri all though the year.
The name Puri means the dwelling place. It is the house of Lord Jaganath, and mind you, he is a gourmet God. He has the world’s largest kitchen were every day more than 400 cooks prepare food for him. When the Gods have eaten, the rest of the food is sold in the market as prasad.
While at Puri don’t forget to make a wish. The priests at the old baniyan tree will tell you how. Buy a thread from them and tie it in three knots on the tree and wish three wishes, no more, no less.
Despite the sea, it’s the temple which is the main source of livelihood for the people in Puri. Whatever may be the reason of your visit to Puri, everyone out here is after your money. That’s true of any holy places. However, compared to other temple cities, Puri is moderately cheap. Probably because Orissa is a poor state.
But the vendors wouldn’t leave you in peace. The local sellers of curios in any tourist place are patient like tiger and vicious like hyenas. They are an unfriendly lot, with the sole end to sell their good and earn a buck or two.
In the evening near the seashore, a small boy accosts me. He’s selling sea-shell key chains. He wants me to buy them. I ask him how he speaks fluent English, because, I guess, he is Oriya-speaking. He tells me that he can speak Oriya too, and Bengali and Hindi. But his mother tongue is Telugu. His father is a migrant fisherman from Andra Pradesh. And he goes to an English medium school, that when he's not selling the seashells.
Talk about the mixture of languages in a tourist place!