On the Riveting Temple Trail

Visiting Orissa

Konark Temple 4 © Joe Athialy
Konark Temple 4 © Joe Athialy
4 FEB 2015
by

In terms of tourism in Eastern India, the age-old pilgrimage circuit of Bhubaneswar-Puri-Konark is equivalent to what the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur circuit is to North India. These three pilgrim sites make a convenient and compact little triangle and most devout Hindus would make it a point to visit this pilgrimage circuit at least once in their lifetime.

Bengalis are renowned for their spirit of travel. Even a “Panwala” from Park Street or for that matter the daily wage earner from the Burra Bazar neighborhood of Calcutta saves enough money each year to embark on their annual holidays. I have even seen people going on holidays with the help of borrowed money. The Bhubaneswar-Puri-Konark circuit has always been a favorite travel circuit for Bengalis and at any point of time, you are likely to come across hordes of Bengali tourists in this melting pot of pilgrimage tourism in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.

As far as my family was concerned, we were a late entrant to the Orissa pilgrim circuit and we undertook our pilgrimage tour of Orissa as recently as 2007. Call it plain negligence or laxity on our part due to the fact that Orissa being a neighborly state of West Bengal, one could reach the state in a few hours time, meant that we kept on postponing our trip to Orissa every year, until my Mom raised her voice and was hell-bent to visit her dream spiritual destinations.

An overnight’s train journey from Howrah station, Kolkata brought us to the charming Bhubaneswar town and we checked in at the impressive ITDC Ashoka hotel, which was just a stone’s throw away from the Railway Station. After freshening up we had a light breakfast and I left my parents to relax in the comforts of the hotel’s room and went about exploring the cityscapes of Bhubaneswar town.

Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa appeared to be a sprawling city divided into the old and new parts – the railway line forms the approximate dividing line. I knew it was impossible to explore the city by walking and so hired a cab and asked him to take me around the city’s main thoroughfares. From what I saw from the window of my cab, the city of Bhubaneswar is more of a temple town with a plethora of ancient temples dotting the city’s landscape.

As my cab meandered its way across the narrow passageways of the city all the way to the Bindusagar tank, I was told by the cab driver that at one point of time there were approximately 7000 odd temples in the periphery of this holy tank. As of today, there are just 500 odd temples and most of them are in ruins.

The Bindusagar tank is ideally located just north of the awesome Lingaraj temple and according to my Oriya cab driver, this tank is believed to contain water from every holy streams of India. I could see a plethora of temples and shrines scattered around the tank.

I was mesmerized by the sight of the majestic “Vaital”, which is a double storied wagon roof reflecting the intricate Buddhist cave architectural pattern. Close by was the impressive 7th century Lakshamaneswar temple that also serves as a gateway to the city of Bhubaneswar city.

With the hot afternoon sun blazing with all its rage, it was about time to sit down in a cool ambience and replenish our intake of calories. Both me and my Oriya cab driver Jiten Mahato were sweating profusely and we checked into the renowned South Indian Hotel located in close proximity to the Rajmahal and had mouthwatering “Dahi Vadas” and freshly prepared fruit juice.

Apart from a surfeit of ancient temples, the city of Bhubaneswar also has its share of modern temples and the best of the lot is the Raj Rani temple. I was amazed by the ingenuity of the sculptors who had intricately carved statues of nymphs, embracing couples and elaborate decorations on the pillars of the temple.

With dusk descending on the city of Bhubaneswar, I directed Jiten to drive me back to the hotel and just when it seemed that we were nearing Hotel Ashoka Kalinga, the well-informed driver that he was, Jiten pleaded with me to have a look at the Museum. Although I was weary and feeling tired due to the humid weather conditions of Bhubaneswar, I couldn’t resist the temptation of visiting the Museum.

Once inside the museum premises, I could see the ancient artifacts that showcased the unique culture and architectural heritage of the state of Orissa. Of particular significance are the well-preserved artifacts belonging to the various tribes residing in Orissa. Make it a point to visit the Tribal Research Bureau located within the Museum’s premises to have a cursory glimpse at Orissa’s rich tribal heritage.

I was back at the hotel by 5.30 P.M. and found both my Mom and Dad basking at the ethereal sight of the sunset and the panoramic city vistas from the comforts of their hotel room. After a cool shower followed by light snacks I took my parents along to the Lounge area where the Manager of Hotel Kalinga Ashoka had arranged for an Orientation programme for the discerning guests of the hotel.

The one-hour documentary on Orissa covered all aspects of tourism in the state. The significance of the temples of Orissa, particularly the Lingaraj temple, the Jagganath temple and the Konark Sun temple were highlighted in the most appropriate manner, much to the delight of my Mom. I could sense, she was already soaring on a spiritual high, which is only to be expected for someone who had to wait all of 65 years just to visit the places of pilgrimages of Orissa, which is high on the list of must-visit places for any devout Hindu housewife.

From the rather informative one-hour documentary on Orissa and subsequent interactions with the Manager of Hotel Kalinga Ashoka, I was amazed to know that Orissa was once the hub of Buddhism, courtesy emperor Ashoka but later on in the 7th century A.D. Hinduism ruled supreme and commenced the golden age of Orissa.

After an early dinner we retired for the night only to wake up early next morning for our visit to the all-important Lingaraj temple. According to my Mom’s instructions, we relinquished our breakfast and after shower headed straight to the waiting cab. At the temple premises, there was already a gathering of pilgrim crowds and our cab driver arranged for pujas by hiring the services of a Brahmin priest, popularly referred to as “Pandas”. By the way, the temple of Lingaraj is off limits to non-Hindus.

Once the ritual of offering puja to the principal deity was over, it provided me with a chance to explore the temple’s façade and the peripheral areas of the Lingaraj temple. One of the most popular vantage positions of the temple is the one that is located to the northern side, which was reportedly erected by Lord Curzon during the days of the British Raj. You do not even need binoculars. The sight of surging crowds of devotees was absolutely mesmerizing.

The main temple compound is around 150 meters square and dominated by the 40-meter high temple tower. The ornately carved tower is intricately sculptured. Apart from the main temple, there are more than 50 smaller temples and shrines that crowd the enclosure.

After a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel, we cleared our bills and checked out at noon for our onward journey to Puri by an air-conditioned cab arranged by the Hotel Kalinga Ashok.

On our way to Puri, we visited the colossal 11 meters high Mukteswar temple, which is renowned for its intricate carvings. I was very much impressed by the dwarves. Of special significance is the arched “Torana”, which is basically a gateway reflecting the inherent Buddhist influence.

The 60 Kms drive from Bhubaneswar to Puri was beautiful and most good hotels are located along the seafront. We had our bookings done at the Mahodadhiniwas Tourist Bungalow and found it to be well maintained with an exclusive Dining Hall.

Apart from the holy Jagganath temple, most pilgrim tourists indulge in beach activities after the completion of their religious rituals. The Puri beach is a conservative beach and generally you will find the beach bums bathing fully attired. No Bikini clad business out here! Since none of my parents were interested in bathing at the Puri sea front, perhaps intimidated by the lashing waves that hit the shoreline, I ventured alone to the beach with the help of a local Orissan fisherman who guided me through the surf in exchange for Rs. 50/-.

The city revolves around the great Jagganath temple and the best time to visit Puri is during the annual Rath Yatra, which is a riot of colors with millions of devotees pouring in to this holy city from all over India and abroad.

My Mom’s decade long wish of offering pujas at this world famous Hindu temple came true as she performed her pujas and offered prayers to Lord Jagganath. The temple is off limits to non-Hindus but on the hindsight it would be appropriate to state that Hindus of all castes are allowed inside the temple premises.

Every day thousands throng to the Jagganath temple. The square shaped temple enclosure is around 200 meters on each side. The walls of the enclosure are six meters high. The temple is conspicuous by its conical shaped tower, which is all of 58 meters high, above which flutters the flag and the wheel of lord Vishnu.

Entry to the main temple is through the “Lion Gate” and from the centrally located “Jagmohan” one can see the images of Lord Jagganath, his brother Balbhadra and sister Subhadra. A peculiar feature of the temple deities is that the two brothers have arms but sister Subhadra doesn’t have any. According to reliable estimates, more than 20,000 people are dependent on Lord Jagganath.

We were ushered into the Gundicha Mandir or the Garden House in which the images of the gods reside for seven days each year. There is a wall enclosing a garden in which the temple is built.

Our last pilgrim destination was Konark, located at a distance of 64 Kms. from Bhubaneswar. Konark is where the world famous Sun Temple was constructed way back in the 13th century by a king of Orissa to celebrate his victory in a military battle. The astonishing temple was in a state of decay until the year 1904 when a group of archaeologists began to unearth the real grandeur of the Sun Temple.

As we walked around the temple accompanied by a local guide, we could see that the entire temple complex was conceived as a chariot for the Sun God - “Surya”. The sheer enormity of the temple with its 24 gigantic carved stone wheels, 7 sturdy horses and the immensity of the structure replete with carvings, sculptures and bas-reliefs astonished us.

The entrance to the temple is guarded by two stone lions, crushing elephants. The entrance porch, which is popularly referred to as the “Jagmohan” in the local parlance still stands but the “Deul” behind it has collapsed. The images of Surya – the Sun God, still stands and have been so designed so as to catch the sun’s ray at dawn, at noon and at the time of sunset.

The space between the “Jagmohan” and the entrance to the temple premises is conspicuous by the presence of a Dancing Hall that is referred to as the “Nat Mandir”. As we ventured to the north, the sight of elephants caught our attention while to the south we were mesmerized by the sight of marauding horses trampling down men.

What is especially noteworthy at the Sun Temple of Konark is that the base of the temple along with the walls and the roof, there are a series of intricately designed carvings skillfully depicting erotica much like the erotic art of the temples of Khajuraho.

Our local guide informed us that in the days of yore, the Sun Temple used to be known as the “Black Temple” in complete contrast to the whitewashed temples found elsewhere in the state. Legend has it that the Sun Temple was once a huge repository of iron that drew unwary ships in to the shore. For the avid archaeological buffs, a visit to the temple’s museum that showcases many ancient sculptures and carvings can be a very rewarding experience.

From my personal experience of the temples of Orissa, they are quite a distinct entity. A typical Orissa temple will have an exclusive entrance porch – “Jagmohan” and the “Deul” where the image of the temple deity is kept and above which the temple tower rises. Apart from these, the Orissa temples also have an exclusive ‘Bhog Mandapa” or hall of offering and the “Nat Mandir” or the Dancing Hall.

Furthermore, the most notable aspect of the temples of Orissa is the soaring tower and the intricate carvings that adorn every surface of the temple façade. These may be figures of gods and every other aspects of daily life. But what attract the attention of the visitors to these temples are the erotic carvings that create the greatest interest. They attain the high-water mark of perfection at Konark where the close up details is every bit as interesting as the temple’s sheer enormity.

Apart from the three main temples (Lingaraj, Jagganath and Sun temple), there are numerous other temples strewn across the entire length and breadth of this incredible state, which is worth visiting. I for one was very much awed by the “Dhauli Edicts” just 8 Kms. south of Bhubaneswar on the road to Puri where emperor Ashoka carved his famous edicts into a rock measuring 5 meters by 3 meters. There are 13 inscriptions in all and they are still remarkably clear even after more than 2000 years and one can get an insight to emperor Ashoka’s bitter experience in the Kalinga war and his subsequent conversion to Buddhism.

Traveler’s Fact File:

Getting There: Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa is 469 Kms. from Kolkata and 1222 Kms. from Chennai.

Bhubaneswar is well connected by trains to the other metropolitan cities of India like Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi. Since it is on the main Kolkata-Chennai railway line, there are plenty of trains to Bhubaneswar as well as trains terminating at Puri.

By air, Bhubaneswar is well connected to other cities of India and Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Jet Lite, Kingfisher etc…operate regular flights to Bhubaneswar.

Accommodation:

There is no dearth of quality accommodation at Bhubaneswar to suit every budget. The ITDC run Hotel Kalinga Ashoka as well as the state government run Panthanivas Tourist Bungalow offer good quality accommodation at a competitive price. Apart from government run accommodation, there are a plethora of private hotels at places like Bhubaneswar, Puri and Konark. Bhubaneswar Hotel, Rajmahal Hotel, and the Banaraswalla Hotel are some of the renowned private hotels of Bhubaneswar. The rooms are generally well kept and all rooms have attached baths with 24-hour supply of hot and cold water.

In Puri most good hotels are positioned along the sea front. The Panthanivas Tourist Bungalow, the Mahodadhinivas Tourist Bungalow, Puri Hotel, South Eastern Railway Hotel, Youth Hostel and Sea Side Inn are top rate hotels of Puri. While in Konark, the Tourist Bungalow and the ITDC run Ashok Tourist Lodge offer decent accommodation.

For any further information on the Bhubaneswar-Puri-Konark pilgrim tourist circuit, please feel free to contact –

The Director,

Dept. of Tourism,
Paryatan Bhawan,
Museum Campus,
Bhubaneswar - 751 014.

Tel (674) 2432177
ortour@orissatourism.gov.in