Odisha Diary: In the court of the Sun God

After chasing down the Mangrove Whistler in Bhitarkanika, Jennifer Nandi journeys to the temple towns of Konarak and Puri, where a technicality stops her from washing away her sins

A pair of Yali, fearsome mythical beasts, guard the temple gates
True to his word, the boatman is already at the jetty – we choose to go to the same area where we had seen the snake. There is an embankment between two large bodies of water that we had reached too late the previous morning. Now we have arrived just in time to see close-ups of the Spotted Eagles – those birds that often live lives of piracy, bullying birds such as Black Kites to jettison their prey.

There is much on the menu here – frogs, lizards, young birds. With predatory intent, an eagle leaves its perch, its head pointed downwards. I love the fact that I’m inexhaustibly intrigued by natural history. Once again I watch with intense attention – in full knowledge that the bird flies out of the collective unconscious of dinosaurs. That feathered reptile archaeopteryx, which lived 150 million years ago in the late Jurassic period, lives on in the birds! 

As the sun touches the leaves of the tallest trees, its warmth coaxes a family of otters to run and swim and frolic. The air is punctuated with the whine of a few mosquitoes but it does little to alter the beauty of the morning. I am reminded time and time again that the touch of nature is such exquisite pleasure. 
Throughout my journey I will often be reminded how the world is gilded just for my delight! 

A long day ahead compels us to make haste – we walk through the dry scrub forest that skirts the water bodies and whose outer bushes had harboured the King Cobra. We see no snake. However, we get a good look at a real Mangrove Whistler! We didn’t really expect to see the bird, but we are early and there is absolutely no one about. We just get lucky.

Two hours later we are ready for the road. We collect flasks of freshly brewed coffee and some omelette sandwiches that the kitchen had kindly consented to pack for us. Further into our journey with delectable anticipation we open up our packet of sandwiches and laugh out loud – for some reason the cook had chosen to insert a slice of bread between two omelettes! But it’ll have to do. 

The Sun Temple at Konarak symbolically represents the Sun God’s Chariot, complete with enormous carved wheels
Konarak is five hours’ journey away. In the 13th century, on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, the Ganga kings of Odisha built one of the most elaborate and ambitious temples ever conceived. It is dedicated to the Sun God Surya, who is depicted as being drawn by a chariot. Built in red sandstone (Khandolite) and black granite, colossal stone wheels, intricately carved, are positioned along its flanks. Rearing seawards are massive draught horses. The scale of this temple is overwhelming. As is the case at Khajuraho, there is a rich variety of sculptural ornamentation which includes many mithuna (intertwined couples). Truly beautiful.

The sprawling temple complex at Konarak
On our way to the Jagannath temple at Puri we stop at the beach where 60,000 pilgrims would gather the following day to perform the ritual bath. Built in the first half of the 12th century by Chodagangadev, the greatest among the Ganga dynasty’s fifteen kings, the Jagannath temple at Puri is surrounded by two walls. Its 60 metre-high shikara is topped by the flag and wheel of Vishnu. It houses the jet-black deity of Jagannath, Lord of the Universe and incarnation of Vishnu. This image is very popular across Odisha. In the assembly hall, Jagannath, his brother Balbhadra and sister Subhadra are continually dressed and garlanded by priests for different ceremonies – several thousand men perform the elaborate rituals. The temple’s kitchen employs several hundred cooks to feed those dependent on Jagannath for their livelihood. 

In the streets of Puri
Only Hindus are permitted to enter the Temple at Puri so we just walk the streets till darkness falls. Tourists can still have an overview of the temple complex from the roof of the Raghunandan Library! I muse about festivals in days gone by when the king would parade around his city, escorted by courtiers, troops and musicians. So also would the god be paraded in a splendid procession. The main deity, Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu, would ride on a massive inexorable moving shrine pulled by large bands of devotees. This spectacle gave rise to the word Juggernaut — for an inexorable force that crushes whatever is in its path.

Text and photos by Jennifer Nandi
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