Lost in India – 7. LADY WITH A HANDBAG

7. LADY WITH A HANDBAG (March 24 – 27, 2000)

Puri is one of the four most sacred centres of Hindu pilgrimage; the others are Badrinath, Rameswaram and Dwarka. Since my youth I have heard of Puri in a story told or read innumerable times. In early months of 1509 (Indian travellers shun keeping a diary), Nanak Dev, the first Guru of Sikhs, arrived in Puri. Was it also Friday 24 March, the day I was there but 491 years later?

The story goes like this: Pundits of Jaganath Temple were performing Aarti which is an evening worship involving circumambulation of the statute of Jagannath, Lord of the universe, accompanied by singing, lighting lamps in platters, ringing bells, burning incense and offering flowers. Nanak sat outside blissfully attuned with nature. Angry pundits confronted Nanak because he did not participate in the worship. To appease them Nanak sang his famous song, which many Sikhs recite before going to sleep.

The sky is the plate;

In it, the sun and the moon are the lamps

And the celestial stars are like pearls.

The sandalwood scented wind from the Malai hills is the incense,

It sways like a whisk.

The entire plant life supplies sacred flowers for You, O Light.

What a wonderful evening worship!

The heavenly music is the beating of temple drums. (Adi Granth , page 13)

At one o’clock, I hired a Hindustan car from Bhuwaneshwar airport for Rs460.00 to go to Puri. Before long the young driver convinced me that for another Rs200.00 he would take me to the famous sun temple of Konrak which is the eastern apex of the sacred triangle formed by Bhuwaneshwar and Puri some 60km apart.

Konrak Temple

Four centuries ago the sea bathed the walls of Konrak temple. Of the many beautifully carved erotic carvings, my guide directed my attention to that of a lady carrying a trendy handbag with its strap passing over her right shoulder, as women do now.

It is difficult to imagine what splendour it must have been a thousand years ago. The Muslim invaders in the 14th century could not tolerate the religious music and “erotic” dances staged morning and evening with sunrays illuminating the performance. They tried to destroy the temple. Its granite blocks were too heavy for them to move. Portuguese Catholic sailors found it even more repugnant to their religious mores. Those ignorant sailors did not know what their popes had been doing to nuns and one of them even to his own daughter back in Europe. Roping the temple domes to their ships with sails at full mast they managed to topple them and were happy to destroy a most precious work of human heritage. No regrets, what is left now attract a lot of Christian tourists.

Lady with a handbag

The temple is good two kilometres from the sea. Even if it were to be restored it will not have the same magnetic charm produced by sunrays projected by the rising sun and enhanced manifold by reflection on shimmering seawater.

Konrak town and its surroundings had not yet emerged from the devastation caused by the tropical cyclone that had swept through it a few weeks earlier. Driving along the crudely repaired coastal road I saw houses torn down and coconut palms flattened to the ground as far as the eyes could see inland.

At five o’clock, I checked in at Tanuja family guesthouse in the old part of Puri about a hundred metres from the beach. My young host, Robby, offered to take me on his scooter to the 7th Beach Festival of Puri opening at six. Normally this festival is held in Februray but was postponed to March because of the cyclone. Or was it because I was coming!

Konrak lion

Before the formal opening, I visited numerous stalls selling local artefacts and food. In the middle, half a dozen young artists were absorbed in a sand sculpture competition. Two pretty girls attracted more spectators than the others. They had reproduced voluptuous figures like the ones I had seen a few hours earlier in Konrak.

Sand sculpture

Next morning, riding Robby’s old bicycle, I felt that I had no strength in my legs to paddle it. Vijay did not turn up at the tourist office in front of the temple. After waiting a little I ventured to get in the temple with the crowd. In side I watched devotees perform rituals and prayers inhaling air heavily loaded with incense and smoke of purified butter.

At 11.30 I return to the guesthouse feeling feverish. I slept until 16.30 and then, as guided by Robby, I cycled to Dr. N. Pandit’s clinic near the railway station. Dr. Pandit had been to Geneva and had lived in Paris for a few years but had not spoken French for ten years. He was more interested in practicing his French than his profession. He diagnosed a viral infection, sold me antibiotics and prescribed a diet of Britannia Arrowroot biscuits, apple juice, bananas, coconut, weak tea and rice with “moong” lentils. Afraid of getting very sick by eating in not too clean eating-places in the area, I asked my host if I could eat with the family.

I had just enough day light to deliver my Uncle’s recently published book to Puri Sikh Temple, which is actually a low back street derelict building composed of two small rooms one housing the Sikh Adi Granth and the other on the left displayed Lord Jagannath’s idol.

Nanak was here!
Jaganath behind bars

The Udasi (non-Sikh) caretaker told me the story that Nanak Dev had gone into such deep meditation (samadhi) that on the third day Lord Jagannath got worried about losing his status. Jagannath himself walked from his temple to meet Nanak. That is why his idol sits next to the Adi Granth. It was quite dark when the caretaker showed me the steps going deep down to a well (Baoli). So I did not test the freshness of its water. There is a legend associated with this well.

One morning Guru Nanak went on the seaside for a stroll. There were many people bathing, just as the pilgrims do now in their customary fully attired manner. His companion, Mardana, felt thirsty. The water all around was insipid. The Guru with his staff dug up the sand near him and there appeared a spring of cool drinking water, from which Mardana drank to his satisfaction. It would be interesting to find out why the surface of well water is now so much below and far from the seashore.

The caretaker did not know what to do with the book that I handed him. May be I should have taken time to go to the other Sikh Temple known as “Mangu Math” near Jagannath temple.

Jaganath temple


Early next morning I walked to the sandy beach two blocks behind Tanuja Guest House. From far the sandy beach looked wide and long. I was attracted to walk/jog eastward to the fishing village. I was disappointed and disgusted when I saw human excreta everywhere. What shame! I cannot dislodge from my brain the sight of a well-dressed young man. The track back from the beach passes along a scattered grove of trees. The man took off his trousers, neatly folded them and placed them near a tree trunk. When I saw him wrapping a white cloth around his waste I thought he was going to take his morning swim in the sea. No, he surveyed around insensibly, lifted the cloth over his knees and squatted down to enjoy his toilet a few metres from the track.

With its beautiful beaches, temples, the famous annual Rath Yatra (Car Festival) and a rich natural and cultural hinterland, Puri has a tremendous potential for tourism, if developed and managed properly.

Robby’s family living in the adjoining house invited me to a rice and lentil dinner. The children loved the bar of Swiss chocolate I offered in return. Not long ago, the family had migrated to Puri from the countryside near Chilka Lake. Two brothers and their families and the young widow of the third live in three congested rooms under the supervision of the old father. The widow runs a small grocery shop and a small adjoining eating-place. She sleeps on the floor behind the counter.

The next day (26 March) I boarded the 9am train to Bhubaneswar. I deposited my pack at the railway station and paid 40 rupees to ride an auto straight to Lingaraja Mandir, the great temple surrounded by a high wall and dedicated to Bhubaneswar, the lord of three worlds.

Lingaraja Mandir


I noticed pundits manipulating pilgrims. Although a non-Hindu, no one stopped me. Two priests holding trays for receiving “toll” money guarded the entry to the lingum-yoni carved out of granite. I could see devotees going round it taking a sip of liquid composed of milk and coconut water previously poured over the lingum and flowing around it in the yoni. I watched a handsome well-dressed young couple led by a priest. After making an offering of a coconut and fruit they stood with folded hands and eyes closed while the priest recited Sanskrit verses mechanically, indifferent, his eyes rolling in all directions watching other visitors. Surely, the young couple’s dedicated prayer would have reached its destination without him.

After having a lunch of vegetable pilao in Ashoka Hotel (Rs180.00), I visited the State Museum Just outside I captured a scene of road workers.

Slow, Road works ahead!


Then I lingered towards rail station in the hazy afternoon sun.  Bharat Dube (Geneva) wrote: As kids, we often made trips to Puri. I’m sorry to hear that the scatological imprints in my mind cannot be erased as yet. It seems that in feeling unwell in Puri you were in exalted company!




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