Golden triangle of the East

Odisha

It is a dull gray morning when I step on the Chandrabhaga beach at Konark. The mild drizzle of early morning seems all set to turn into a downpour. Small groups of fishermen are sitting clustered around their boats, looking at the sea with worried eyes. The few families dipping their feet in the cold waters begin to make their way to the sun temple on the shore and I follow them.

boats

The tourist guide I hire for the morning spins out the kind of stories usually associated with all Indian temples. Of this magnificent temple, he says, twelve hundred workmen toiled at it for twelve years, using up twelve year’s worth of state revenue. Today, despite parts of it being in ruins, the temple still evokes awe, with its lush carvings all around the walls – animals and birds, gods and humans, kings and commoners.

It is believed that the temple was originally constructed right on the shore where I stood earlier, till the sea receded a couple of kilometers sometime in the past. European sailors were said to use this “black pagoda” as a navigational point in the sea. This temple is dedicated to the sun god Surya who resides there (says my guide) with his two wives Chhaya and Sandhya. The scorching, all-powerful sun with his soft, gentle consorts – shade and evening. Heat and cool. Life and stupor.

Konark

wheel

And that is what Konark is all about: the never-ending cycle, the ever-moving rhythm of life. The East-West axis of the temple is shaped like a chariot on twelve pairs of immense wheels, the rays of the sun following the circumference of the temple as the day progresses. The carvings, at eye level, are of an extremely erotic nature, something that takes many a visitor by surprise. My guide says, “In those days, they thought of this as natural and joyful, nothing to be embarrassed about as we are in modern times.”

sculpture

I had landed the day before at Bhubaneshwar’s small but well-maintained airport. This state capital has enough temples of its own to make it worth spending a few days here. Given that I am slightly wary at the thought of getting all templed-out and have a preference for quieter, non-living temples, I head to the Raja Rani mandir. Literally translated as the ‘king and queen temple’, this one is a beauty, the red-brown stone (called rajaraniya, after which the temple is named) smooth and shiny after the fresh showers of the morning.

The carvings on these walls are as intricate as those in Konark, except that there is no sexual imagery here. Instead, there are dancing nymphs with their slender waists and sensual poses from which the local classical dance form Odissi is supposed to have borrowed postures from. Also unlike Konark, this temple is empty but for a few loners sitting on the steps staring into space and couples who use its verdant lawns as a rendezvous point. In fact, the city itself seems uncrowded and unhurried, for me a wonderful change from the bustle of the big city.

temple

Bhubaneshwar

The next day, I leave early for Konark and from there, drive to Puri, most famous for its temple dedicated to Lord Jagannath. I am not there during its famous annual chariot festival but I still find the crowds difficult to handle and so head for the Raghunandan library right opposite. A few rupees change hands and soon, from the upper floor window, a much quieter and peaceful location, I get a good view of the temple.

The beach at Puri is a world away from the piety of the temple, full of families frolicking in the waves and tucking into the tongue tickling fast food bought fresh from vendors. It is also filled with Israeli and German tourists who camp here for weeks and sometimes, months, determined to find the spiritual epiphany they came to India for.

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puri2
(Puri images courtesy wikimedia commons)

When people talk about the golden triangle in India, they usually mean the New Delhi – Agra – Jaipur circuit in the North. Instead, go East to experience this golden triangle of Bhubaneshwar – Konark – Puri. This one is less explored, much less crowded and equally enticing.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Getting there and around

Fly into Bhubaneshwar direct from Mumbai on Air India, Indigo Air or Jet Konnect (return fares from Rs. 14000 – roughly 280 USD).

Konark is just over 60 km, an hour and half away from Bhubaneshwar, the nearest airport and large railway station. Puri with its beautiful beach and the Jagannath temple is just 35 km, an hour’s drive from Konark along the coast. It is best to hire a car from Bhubaneshwar for the entire trip till you get back to Bhubaneshwar as bus service is irregular.

A much cheaper way to travel is to take the package tour offered by OTDC (Odisha Tourism Development Corporation). These tour buses start from the government owned guesthouse and OTDC office Panthnivas (at Bhubaneshwar) or can be booked over the phone (0674-2431515). It is a day tour costing Rs. 300 (6 USD) and covers all main areas of tourist interest.

Other attractions

On the way from Konark to Puri, you can stop at your own private beach. The Ramchandi temple, only 8 km from Konark, is a popular picnic spot. Konark also hosts a classical dance festival every winter against the backdrop of the sun temple (dates vary and can be checked online). 20 km from Bhubaneshwar is Pipili, famous for its cloth patchwork umbrellas and bags in bright colours.

Where to stay

The government-run Panthnivas is of decent quality, even though the exteriors do not inspire much confidence and is present in all three towns. It is best to base yourself in Bhubaneshwar or Puri where all facilities are better for visitors.

The Mayfair Hotels and Resorts in both Bhubaneshwar and Puri (+91 674 6660 101) is an upscale option.

In Puri, the Chanakya BNR Hotel (91-6752 – 223006 / 91-9831032217) is right by the sea and is a great favourite among locals for its old world charm. The Maharaja’s former summer palace has been converted into a heritage hotel, the Fort Mahodadhi (91-6752-220440).

The Lotus Eco Village at Ramchandi beach – closer to Konark – is new and offers cottages with views of the sea (91-6758-236161).

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Published in Morning Calm, the inflight magazine of Korean Air. Only text by me in the original published story.

A quick temple visit at Bhubaneshwar

Bhubaneshwar was a let-down for me – after those merry marigolds at the airport and the cool breeze that caressed my face through my drive into the city, I expected a lot more. My fault, really, for expecting big things from what has been described as a temple-town (beware of that term – Varanasi, Puri, Tirupati – they are rarely charming – the only exception for me is Madurai) – the problem with Bhubaneshwar is that it is so unassuming about its heritage. Indifferent, actually.

I asked around for the best place to shop – I had Orissa handicraft and handloom in mind – especially the gorgeous Sambhalpuri material in its deep earthy tones. And three times, I was told – Big Bazaar. Bhubaneshwaris (is that what people from B are called?) are understandably proud of their newest “mall” but to fly out there all the way from Bombay to shop at Big Bazaar…? Oh, Utkalika? (when I inquired) wahan kuch khaas nahi hai. Ditto for food. No one I asked – locals all of them – was able to point out good eating joints – my vegetarian status, of course, did not help – they just shrugged their shoulders when I asked about Oriya food and I ended up eating dosa for lunch and dinner the day I was there. Speaking of which, I found the most remarkable spellings for humble old idli on the small restaurants dotting that path to the sun temple at Konark – ranging from iddili all the way to eddle through idli with a ‘h’ in front. Idli, you have come a long way, baby.

On the way back from Konark, my driver insisted on taking me to Dhauli – famous for its Buddhisht monuments. When I refused, his next attempt was to take me to Lingaraja temple, the most famous of the Bhubaneshwar temples. I was rather more interested in seeing the Raja Rani temple, I told him – again the wahan kuch khaas nahi hai refrain. I wonder what it is that makes locals everywhere blind to everything they have by way of history and culture.

I am glad I insisted – the Raja Rani temple is not live – in the sense, there is no god, no idol inside. It stands in what can only be called a park – I know I spotted several birds there from the more common kingfisher to the more exotic I-wish-I-knew-their-names species. I learnt later that the temple used to stand amidst paddy fields till just some years ago. Ah, civilization.

RajaRani temple

Fresh and sparkling emerald lawns, smiling after the unexpected rains of the previous day, benches for the tired and old, and the lovers who find it the most convenient and secluded spot for their amorous activities, the cold cobblestone under your feet on the flat platform upon which the temple stands, the tall trees swaying to some private rhythm – I could have spent hours there.

Towering high

I learnt that the RajaRani temple is not named after any king or queen of the region, but in all likelihood, after the stone available lovcally claled Rajaraniya. Dark with red and brown tones, the stone shines smooth in the dull light of the day, depsite its rough texture. The carvings on the walls are as intricate and wonerful as those found in the best temples, including Konark. The images are mostly that of the smaller gods, especially the caretakers of nature. Sexual imagery, the pride of Konark (the tourist guides definitely) is absent on these walls, but the dancing nymphs with their slender waists and sensual poses try to make up for it. Seeing these, one can understand how Odissi, the dance form, came to be so sensuous – most of the poses are said to be derived from the carvings on the temples of Orissa.

the dancing queen

If you happen to be in Bhuneshwar, do visit this temple – I also understand that there are other equally splendid temples around the same area which I coud not visit for lack of time. It is a wonderful feeling to sit quiet and alone and stare at stone… and sometimes the stones stare back at you, cool, warm, cold.

Konark journey… poetry in stone

The beach at Chandrabhaga near Konark was a dull grey blanket when I reached there early in the morning, eyes half shut, mind still on “where-is-my-filter-coffee” mode. What ever happened to the “famous” East Coast Sunrise that I woke up at 5 a.m. for? The rain. That is what happened. Who has heard of rain in February? Where are we living, for heaven’s sake? In London? *end of rant*

Chandrabhaga wore a deserted look, a few early morning types wetting their feet tentatively in the angry waters, creating enough noise to make up for their lack of numbers. I walked away from the group towards the fishing hamlet between the narrow road and the sea. I found small groups of fishermen sitting on their haunches, staring at the sea with desperate eyes. Are you not going in to the sea, I asked one of them in Hindi. I don’t know if he understood my words, but he followed my hand pointing to the sea, and pointed towards the sky in return. Both hands up, a sign of despair.

I stood staring at the waves for a few minutes, mind a peaceful blank, unmindful of the cold wind playing havoc with my already sore throat and aching ears. The sea, in all its dreary tones, was still magnetic. As I headed back to the car park, the sun was just peeping out and the boats standing desolate on the shore suddenly seemed to get a life of their own. I turned back and saw a few of the fishermen already heading out into the sea. Good luck to them.

konark 008

By the time I reached the temple at Konark, the sun had resumed its game of hide-and-seek and the skies were again colorless and pale. I seem to have a talent for choosing the most dismal days in the year for visiting the most beautiful places in the country – just perfect for that washed-out background in the photographs.

Admittedly, no sun is not the best way to visit the sun temple. But for all the dullness in the sky, the temple stands tall and majestic, inspiring awe without any effort.

First glimpse

I hired a guide to show me around the temple, eager to know more about its history and keen on not missing out the finer details. The guide starts off with the story that all such monuments have – about when and how it was built. Twelve hundred workmen toiled at it for twelve years, using up twelve year’s worth of state revenue to build this magnificent temple. And as a fitting climax, a twelve year old master craftsman fixed the kalash at the top of the temple, a feat none of the other older more skilled workers could achieve – and jumped to his death into the sea, protecting the honor of the clan. To this day, the child’s sacrifice haunts the temple, no puja has ever been carried out there. It stands proudly, much of it in ruin as a reminder of the grandeur that was. Even today, in all that ruin, there is a profusion of carving all around the temple, intricate and astonishing in detail. Animals, people, clothes, jewellery, even emotions and feelings… seeing them, one understands what made Rabindrabath tagore enthuse – here the language of stone surpasses the language of man…

konark 043

It is believed that the temple was originally constructed right on the shore, till the sea receded a couple of kilometers sometime in the past. European sailors were said to use this black pagoda as a navigational point in the sea. The temple, as is well known, is dedicated to the sun god, Surya who resides there (says my guide) with his two wives Chhaya and Sandhya. The scorching, all-powerful sun with his soft, gentle consort – shade and evening. Heat and cool. Life and stupor.

And that is what Konark is all about. The never ending cycle, the ever moving rhythm of life. The East-West axis of the temple shaped like a chariot on twelve pairs of immense wheels, the rays of the sun following the circumference of the temple as the day progresses. The lower part of the temple walls carved with images of elephants and horses – for the child to enjoy. Right on top, where the gods anyway reside, are carvings of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, for the aged to look at.

konark 038

The middle part, at eye level – for the young – is full of erotic carvings – man and woman, intimacy and togetherness, procreation, recreation. As natural and joyful as life itself. My guide spares no pains to point out the spicier carvings to me – lesbian, woman with animal, group sex – see, he tells me, all this has existed in India centuries ago. Foreigners take these ideas from us and they make films out of these. Chalk up one more for Global India.

konark 039

Another recurring motif throughout is that of victory-defeat. Just as you are about to climb the steps to the natyamandapa, you are greeted by two statues ofn either side of the steps. There is a lion (signifying power), riding an elephant (connoting wealth), which is in turn trampling a man (standing for justice). What this means, my guide is unable to explain – is it to acknowledge and accept that justice wil be trampled upon by might and wealth? Or is this a metaphor for the eternal food chain… or is it meant to remind all visitors about the ephemeral quality of life?

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Right towards the end of our tour, my guide points out this carving of a woman standing by the gate – she is all dressed up and waiting for her husband. He adds for good measure, in those days, women used to wait for their men. Nowadays, often men have to wait for the women to come back home.

Waiting for tonight... when you will be here in my arms!

I think of my husband waiting for me back in Bombay and feel a quick pang. I pay the guide his fee and head towards the exit when I stop. I want to go back for another round, this time on my own, just to take in the magnificence of it. Standing in the shadow of the temple, watching the huge wheel intently, it is almost possible to feel it move, taking you back in time with it. Close your eyes, and you can hear the waves crashing aginst the walls of the temple, eroding the sandstone slowly through the centuries.

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