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Feasting with the Gods.

Byline: AB

To glimpse the contrasts that make India head to Puri, a town that offers the bliss of a beach along with the frenzy of spirituality

Everywhere you look in downtown Puri you'll see people carrying tiffin carriers and pots of all assorted sizes. These are filled with the delicious food cooked for Lord Jagannath. Seven hundred and fifty two braziers smoke daily, cooking food for Jagannath's six meals. The last one is a simple spread of yogurt and rice served at midnight, while the most complicated consists of three rice dishes, two varieties of lentils, vegetables and a sweet dish. At work are 200 cooks with 100 attendants, choppers, fetchers, carriers and washers. On a normal day as many as 25,000 people are fed and during festivals, the number rises to over a lakh.

Generous pots full of mahaprasad, some still piping hot, can be ordered and delivered to wherever you may be staying in Puri, or bought at the Anand Bazar in front of the temple. The recipes have not changed in the last 2,000 years. The ingredients used in the temple kitchens are all from within the country and more specifically around areas in Puri. Which is why potatoes, tomatoes and brinjals do not feature because the temple recipes were compiled many centuries before.

Despite these restrictions, 56 types of mahaprasad are concocted everyday. The food, sprinkled with holy water, is placed in front of the image of Jagannath. If the priests manage to catch sight of his reflection in the water droplets, it is assumed that He is pleased with the repast and that rest of the food can be served to the waiting priests and devotees. Most of the time, the signs are auspicious and the mahaprasad is served and sent out. There is only one restriction: the holy food cannot be kept overnight, so it all has to be eaten.

The entire town centres on Lord Jagannath and his schedules. It has been a place of worship as far back as BC times and temple after temple stood on the spot that is known as Puri today, before the building of the present Jagannath Temple. Even the waves at sea are known as Jagannath, at least the ones that tower over your head. The bamboo hatted guide will tell you that as he tries to coax you into the sea, promising discounts if a Jagannath knocks you over.

The current 214ft-high temple dates from the 12th century and was built by Chodaganga Deva. The temple is ringed by two elaborately carved and sculpted enclosure walls. The images of the Lord of the Universe, Jagannath his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, housed in the inner sanctuary, are rough, hewn from wood and crowned in gold. Jagannath has the added glitter of diamonds and the others are decorated with sapphires and emeralds. A view of the god is granted only to believers. Non-Hindus have to be content with just a glimpse of the temple from the roof of the Raghunandan Library in front.

The best place to take in the atmosphere is from opposite the main gate on the east side. There's a column there that used to stand in front of the Sun Temple at Konark. The other option is the crowded Municipal Bazaar where rickshaw pullers stand in rows, guarding the slippers of worshippers.

The climax of it all is the Rath Yatra. The festival is held on the second day of the bright fortnight of Asadha, which roughly works out to late June. The images Jagannath, Balabhadra Subhadra travel in the caparisoned chariots pulled by faithful devotees from the main gate of the temple to the Gundichaghara or Garden House. They remain there for a week and then are brought back again. But even without a festival, Puri is busy.

Some of the resorts on the beach front have their own private beaches. At 6am you can go for a stroll on the beach where the fisherman are sorting out the nets and trawling their catch. The sky is blue, the breeze is blowing and the sun threatening to turn into a white-hot laser--though the sea hasn't yet splintered into molten metal. When you return to the resort with a wriggly bag of freshly caught ruhi fish bought after much haggling, on the verandah you'll find the samosa vendor with his bamboo staff and his baskets--miniature hot samosas, burnt pitha, charcoal crackling outside honey sweet inside, gulab jamuns.

There are sacred tanks to be visited in the north, all you have to do is follow the north wall of the temple as it twists and turns till you reach the Markandesvara tank. A lot of people do it by bicycle, though cycle rickshaw is Puri's favoured transport. Narendra Sagar is Puri's holiest tank, a replica of Lord Jagannath is taken there for a daily dip during the Chandan Yatra festival in August.

Near the railway station you'll find the Sudarshan workshop where you'll see the stone carvers at work. Their methods are centuries old. You can take a taxi to Raghurajpur village and invest in Orissa's exquisite patachitras, a type of painting. There are plenty of souvenirs to take home, from ikat sarees to shellcraft.


Puri is connected by rail to major cities. The closest airport is at Bhubaneswar 60 km away that has connections to all metros.



In Orissa

Buy Sambalpuri sarees that you can find at any emporium in Puri or Bhubaneswar. However Sambalpur's Gole Bazar is the place to look for ikat and Sambalpuri weaves.

Go to the tribal areas of Orissa and haggle for adivasi jewellery and weaves.

Catch the dance festival at Konark, where the finest Indian classical dancers perform against the floodlit backdrop of the temple.

Go applique shopping at the tiny village of Pipli--a one street place, it's crammed with all kinds of colours and goods. The best time to go is in the evening when there is devotional music in the air.

In the month of February spend a night at Gahirmatha Beach to watch the rare Olive Ridley turtles who come to lay their eggs.


In Orissa

The Sun Temple at Konark is shaped like the sun god Surya's chariot and dates from the 13th century.

The Kalinga Mahotsav usually held in February attracts martial art dancers from across the country. The aggressive display signifies victory of peace over war.

Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can spy the rare dolphins, crocodiles, lizards, kingfishers and herons.

The Lingaraja Temple, in Bhubaneswar. With the Jagannath and Sun Temple this completes Orissa's temple triangle.

Chilika Lake is Asia's largest freshwater lake. It is dotted with many islands and is home to a rich variety of aquatic fauna.

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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