When I was at college, an Oriya friend of mine had gifted me a magnet with a picture of Lord Jagannatha which still finds a place on my refrigerator after all these years. So when work took me to Puri some time ago, I thought I must visit the temple if schedule permitted. Early one morning, I skipped my long run on the beach and instead took a cycle rickshaw to the temple. Puri is basically a temple town and all roads lead to the temple. When I started at 7 am, I thought I would be the early bird but was surprised to see that the crowd had already started building up. The rickshaw stopped a little distance away and I had to walk the last few hundred metres. Outside the temple, I had to deposit my footwear, mobile phone and my camera. I was somewhat reluctant, but they had a fairly decent system to ensure that the personal belongings of hundreds of devotees were kept safely. Moreover, I did not have a choice.
As I entered through what is called the Lion Gate facing eastwards (there are four gates facing four directions called the Lion Gate, Tiger Gate, Elephant Gate and Horse Gate), I came across the Aruna Sthambha, a stone pillar that has been moved from Konark to Puri. After bowing to the pillar, I climbed up the sacred twenty-two steps and saw the devotees either kissing every step or touching their forehead to every step. The priests (called the pandas) were thrusting themselves on all visitors and it took me some time to get used to their nagging presence at every spot without getting irritated. Everyone around seemed to be carrying pooja thalis and elaborate offerings and I looked somewhat out of place because I was not carrying even a single flower and was not even interested in doing any pooja.
The temple itself rests on a raised platform and is built in Kalinga style of architecture. The walls and the dome have beautiful intricate carvings and considering that it was built in the 12th century, it is in an excellent condition. The main temple is surrounded by thirty other small and not-so-small temples and the devotees were distributed across all.
There is also a huge kitchen that can serve food to large gatherings during festivals. Lord Jagannatha is said to be worshipped by all sects of Hinduism thus symbolizing spiritual eclecticism. It is also among the four ‘dhams’ which must be visited by every Hindu before departing from this life. The idol of Jagannatha is actually made out of wood and is said to contain an object that lends the deity an extra mystical and spiritual significance.
As I entered inside the dark corridor on the periphery of the sanctum sanctorum, there was a huge rush to get a glimpse of Lord Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra. Looking at the crowd, I wondered if I should just head back, but there was no choice. Before I could make up my mind, I was pushed by the crowd away from the exit. The priest ensured that the crowd kept moving and all the devotees got just a couple of seconds to fold their hands and lower their heads when they were straight in front of the trinity. I too got my two seconds before I was pushed away. The image was just the same as the one on my refrigerator but here the trinity was almost coming alive with the prayers and chantings reverberating inside the high dome and adding to the radiance. The deities were dressed elaborately and exquisitely.
As I came out, I saw many devotees sitting in the courtyard with rosary beads praying and reading from the texts. I saw there was an unusually high proportion of elderly women devotees, some so old and bent that they could barely walk. I realized some of them must have waited their entire lifetime to finally make this yatra.
Some devotees were distributing and eating Prasad. I quickly went around all the other temples, but spent more time sitting and observing the devotees and marveling at the picture of faith that was spread around. The sun had risen quite high by now and the temple looked brilliant with a golden hue created by sunlight. I realized that I should now return. As I walked down the steps, I once again saw the devotees touching every step as they entered and the temple bells ringing continuously beckoning them as they came closer and closer. I wished I had my camera with me, not so much for taking pictures of the beautiful architecture but for capturing the expressions of those who were nearing their destination. As I stepped out of the temple and rode through the narrow lanes of Puri in a cycle rickshaw driven laboriously by someone who was of my father’s age, it seemed like I had stepped into a different world altogether.