Bhubaneswar is not the centre of the world but, when it comes to temples, it is one of the three temple towns of Orissa which have become known as the Golden Triangle - Bhubaneswar, Puri and Konark. Annually this attracts tens of thousands of tourists, both Indian and Westerners. Orissa, once a state with over 7000 temples, has seen its wealth of temples dwindle to a mere 200 in reasonable condition which dot the area. A dozen are well worth visiting.
Bhubaneswar is the sort of city you expect to find in India - a developing, progressive city that does not forget its past. The capitol of the state of Orissa, this city of temples is set against the background of high sandstone spires. With a population of 800,000, Bhubaneswar does not have the hordes of people found in the larger Indian cities. There are the usual small stalls selling everything from clothing to fruit. My first evening there I take a walk and pass a doctor's sidewalk walk-in clinic, with a long line of ailing people. I see small restaurants and jewelry shops featuring filigree silver work, a specialty of the area. I learn that telephoning internationally is a major problem. I have been told that the cables in my hotel are "shot". But the good news is there are small booths throughout the country, (really small - about 3 by 4 feet, where you call out and even fax.) However, if you want privacy, forget it. The people who run the stalls love to listen and my presence attracts passers by, who seem to enjoy my conversation with my husband in Canada. The cacophony of the traffic noise is overwhelming since the drivers are "horn leaners". I lose most of the conversation. Seeing my frustration, the booth's employee closes the door, but the air quickly becomes intolerable, so it becomes a no-win situation. The flip side is that it is really inexpensive, costing only about 46 rupees (approximately CND $2.) for about a three-minute call.
"The early morning," Mr. Rath, my guide tells me, "is the best time to see the temples, as the heat has not yet reached its peak, that by noon can be 40 degrees C., and the worshipers and sightseers have not yet arrived." Mr. Rath, a devoutly religious man, decides that our first stop should be Laxmaneswar, followed by a hasty visit to Bharateswar and Satrughneswar, the three oldest temples in the state of Orissa. We do not go to Remeswar, the baby, since it is only 600 years old. However, the piece de resistance is Lingaraj Temple, in a class of its own and considered the purest example of a Hindu temple.
We pass the plethora of souvenir stands, which seem endemic at every temple site. Since Lingaraj is off limits to non-Hindus, we climb to a rooftop platform and look down on the intricately carved tower and temple dedicated to Tribhuvaneswar, the Lord of the Three Worlds. Lingaraj dates back to the 11th century and is ornately and elaborately carved, "a perfect harmony". Within the complex are another 45 smaller temples. The unusual architecture of a temple includes four buildings - Sanctum Sanctorum, the Audience Hall, the Dancing Hall, and the Offering Hall, here all visible from my vantage point. Finished with our visit to the 180 foot temple, we head for the stairs where we encounter several cows feasting on a pile of garbage. Cows are sacred here in India, so are allowed to roam freely as they please. I began to think of them as "traffic cops" as they have the run of the roads too. India truly is a myriad of colors, sounds and odors.
Our next stop is the 7th century Parsurameswar, one of the oldest surviving temples and in incredibly fine condition. The interesting animal bas reliefs are filled with liveliness. Parsurameswar's carvings are acknowledged as the symbol of all that is chaste in sculpture. Worshiping still goes on here as opposed to the many temples where there is an admission charge and are not considered "living temples". The 7th or 8th century Muktesvara Temple, one of the earliest, set in a garden- like atmosphere, is noted for the carved colourful arched torana, which is a Buddhist influence. "God fearing and god loving, that's what we are," Rath tells me about the Oriyas. We try to beat the heat and race off to the relatively small 11th century Rajarani, not a living temple and for only 2 rupees you can see the beautifully carved 9 planets over the entrance. Hidden among the carvings are sensuous female sculptures. Suddenly, seemingly from out of nowhere, a man appears with a book showing the donations that previous tourists have made. Rath tells me how much to donate but also warms me that many of the inclusions I'm being shown in the book have had an extra zero added.
Before driving to our destination Puri, only 12 km from Bhubaneswar, is Dhauli, and again considered one of the oldest monuments in Orissa. It's here that King Ashoka carved his famous edicts on a five by three metre rock, still very legible and guarded behind an iron gate. Nobody is around and it is a good time to look over the 13 inscriptions, which have been blown up and set in panel style. Numbers 11, 12 and 13 have been edited out but I cannot get an answer as to why.
With still some energy left, we climb to the top of the rock so that I can see Elephant Head, claimed to be the oldest monument in Orissa. Again there is not anyone nearby. But up the hill is the white wedding-cake like white and gold building, Dhauli Peace Pagoda. Built in 1972 by the Japanese, it is here the crowds have gathered. Against the blue sky, there is something very ethereal about the building. The newness for me certainly does not have the appeal of the antiquities but makes a great photo opportunity.
As the heat settles in, on our way to the coastal city of Puri, we take a small break at Pipli, a shopping area. At stall after stall, mirrored umbrellas, lanterns and handbags are for sale. The only difference in the sameness of the merchandise is the price. Amongst the Indian people there seem to be many talented crafts persons who mass produce these items. As we continue our drive, we pass orchards of cashew nut trees, which flank the roadside. The dryness, dust and heat make us thirsty, so we stop for the liquid of a green coconut. The vendor is so agile that in seconds the top is chopped off with a great long sharp knife. After we sip the sweet and refreshing warm drink, the nut is chopped open, the meat scooped out and served on half the shell which we eat with a small scoop that he has made for us.
I cannot say no to Mr. Rath's suggestion that we stop at the Handicraft Museum in the small village of Batagan near Puri. I am glad to have the break as the drive has been quite along some tortuous, narrow, often semi-paved roads. The shop is filled with woodcarving, miniature paintings and textiles. Since it is also a training centre for the arts, I speak with some of the students through Rath's translation. The object of the government is to teach these young people a useful trade. The clay thatched roof huts along the roadside are a sad comment on the housing conditions in this area. This centre suggests that the government is trying to raise the standard of living for these people.
Finally, we reach the former port city Puri and what a welcoming sight, with the expansive beach and the ocean. I am told that the crowds are not here because of the beach, but the primary reason is Jagannath Temple, Lord of the Universe and dedicated to Vishnu. "Here the past is never forgotten," Mr. Rath tells me. The temple is even larger than the one in Bhubaneswar. Since it is not open to non-Hindus, for a small tip we are admitted to the roof of the Raghunandan Library to view the temple's grandness. At the highest point, the temple is 214 feet high. From the far end of the wide, crowded bazaar-filled boulevard, Grand Road, I can see the massive structure. A startling fact is Jagannath Temple has the largest kitchen in the world, feeding 100,000 people each day. To give an indication of its mammoth size, the food is cooked up by 600 chefs who use only wood fire. Over 25,000 have the food inside the temple grounds, while the rest is sold on the streets or given to the multitudes of beggars that sit close to the temple gates.
The coup de grace of the Golden triangle of temples is at Konark, often described as "an allegory in stone." It's on the deserted coast among sand dunes, 64 km from Bhubaneswar and 33 km from Puri. With the traffic and curvy roads, it takes over one hour to get there. Again there are the vendors and souvenir stands, but the site is solely for the Temple of the Sun. Built during the 13th century, although still huge, only half the main temple remains of the former glory. What is remarkable is that without too much care taking, this monument built by an Orissan king as a victory war memorial is in great condition and the carvings are very visible. However, recently some thought has been given to its protection. The temple has been chemically treated and to protect is from the sea salt, trees have been planted between the edifice and the beach. Pushing through the groups of school children and tourists, I see that fine carving covers every inch including the 24 gigantic carved wheels around the base and seven muscular horses. Nowadays, if Konark is known for anything, it is the erotic carvings. These images are smaller at the bottom and looking upwards, mostly hidden from view, are life size figures in various sexual poses, which are most explicit and totally remarkable.
Even for those not involved in any of the religions, The Golden Triangle is worthy of a trip if just to see the greatness of the temples, their ancient carvings and sheer majesty of size.
By Barbara Kingstone
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