another land – India series: golden triangle of the east part I

Date: 18th June – 19th June 2016

After spending one weekend alone at the guesthouse, I concluded that it was too boring without Toni and decided to explore India a bit further on my own.

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Figure 1: my route plan revolving around the golden triangle – Bhubaneswar, Konark and Puri

I boarded Purushottam SF Express on Friday evening and arrived at Bhubaneswar at 4am the next day. The sky was still dark, but I was deluded by the well illuminated train station and took a rickshaw to Lingaraj temple straightaway, only regretting on the way because there was almost no one on the street!

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Figure 2: nice murals at Bhubaneswar train station

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I blamed myself deeply as the rickshaw dashed past the forlorn and dim passageways. A few emaciated rubbish scavengers loitered around and I tried to hide my face as much as possible. I wished the ride would be long, but soon found myself in front of Lingaraj temple within a matter of minutes.

The entrance of Lingaraj temple was extremely humble, which made me wonder if I had pronounced the name of the most famous landmark in Bhubaneswar correctly. I was seriously contemplating getting another rickshaw back to the train station (though I wouldn’t be able to find one at this hour) when I noticed two security guards at the gate. To my relief, they offered me a chair to sit beside them and started talking to me. Even though our conversation ended prematurely after they found out that I was neither from Northeast India nor Nepal, and couldn’t speak any Hindi, their kindness warmed up my heart as they offered me a fan to drive away the dense crowds of mosquitoes. After what seemed like an eternity, the sky started to brighten up. A cleaning lady came by and swept away the dirty puddles. Some beggars congregated at the entrance and chatted pleasantly with each other. A group of elderly men and women cladded in white robes chantted prayers and marched towards us. A new day had begun.

I asked the guards if I could have breakfast somewhere, but they detected my true intention and led me to a public bathroom. The owner of the bathroom took ten rupees from me and beckoned me to sit on the only chair at the entrance. I never liked waiting, but the busy and lively traffic mesmorized me and made me forget about the urgency of my own bladder. Most of the customers came with loose clothes and barefoot and took time to enjoy themselves in the cooling shower. After an extended time, they walked out with various transformations. Middle-aged men made slow, deliberate strolls with towels tucked meticulously below their protruded bellies, their sons copying the same movement with a childish exactness; young girls with long, wet hair and drenched sarees which outlined their feminine contours slouched their back and avoided hungry glances from the nearby store owners, while old ladies fluanted their wrinkled and sagging flesh with partially exposed breasts…

The owner only allowed me to relieve myself after all the ladies had finished washing themselves. When I came out of the bathroom, I was glad to find a bigger crowd on the street. I walked back to Lingaraj temple and wanted to say thanks to the security guards, but they were no where to be seen due to the long queues lined up at the entrance. Since the temple was not open for non Hindus, I started roaming along the foot of the big walls surrounding the temple, which blocked the view of Lingaraj callously. However, my breath was soon taken away by a series of temples, each within two minutes’ walk from one another, standing tall against the erosion of weather and time.

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When I almost completed my clockwise pilgrimage around Lingaraj, I came upon a roadside store which had a huge banner advertising about its mango juice at Rs 20/glass. Thanks to the weather which made me ignore the danger of street food, I ordered one glass and while gulping down the icy pulp, I lifted up my head and saw a viewing platform directly in front of the store. My heart pounded wildly as I climbed up the platform, whereupon Lingaraj temple unveiled its mysterious and grand presence.

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Figure 10: thirst quenching mango juice

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Figure 11: Lingaraj temple

As I walked along Bindu Sarovara, an artificial lake next to Lingaraj which kept a drop of every holy water in India according to wikitravel, I was greeted by a kind looking monk who smiled at me and asked me where I came from. He also showed me the direction to Rajarani temple, another famous landmark on my map. I thanked him and continued walking, stopping by a small temple at the corner of the lake where a few ladies practiced yoga. I was hesitating whether I should enter the temple when the monk drove to me with his scooter and urged me to go inside. When I got out onto the street again, the monk also started his scooter and kept a short distance behind me. After some awkward silence, he called me from the back and asked me to get on his scooter. I shook my head politely and told him that I wanted to walk. Then he repeated his request and told me that he would bring me to all the famous temples at Bhubaneswar for 300 rupees. This time I gave him a resolute NO, after which his smile vanished and he drove away immediately.

At another temple, I was again addressed by a monk who introduced himself as the priest of the temple. “I’m not a tour guide. I just want to show you my temple. It’s the most beautiful temple in Bhubaneswar. Come, follow me,” He spoke to me sincerely, but also forcefully that I thought he would drag me by my collar if I rejected him. After explaining about a few interesting carvings on the walls and encouraging me to take photos of those carvings, he led me to a dark prayer room and handed me a donation book. He said he needed money to preserve the temple and showed me how people from different countries had generously donated hundreds of rupees while visiting. I asked him if I should put my donation directly into the donation box, and he said I could just pass it directly to him. So I wrote down my name, nationality and donation amount in the donation book and passed a small note to him. He thanked me warmly, but once he looked down on the actual amount, he exclaimed incredulously, “Only 20 rupees! Ma’am, others are donating 500 rupees… You could at least give 200…” I told him that I was very poor, he paused for a long while and said “ok” in the end. I wondered if he would put another “0” behind in the donation book…

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Figure 12: Bindu Sarovara

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Figure 13: sanskrit college near Bindu Sarovara

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Figure 18: I was asked to make a donation in this temple

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Figure 19: two heads with four bodies

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Figure 21: heritage map of the old town where hundreds of temples could be found

After having a simple vegetarian breakfast, I took a local bus to the Jain monastery at the outskirt of Bhubaneswar. I got off at a busy junction, drank three full glasses of pineapple juice (because the fruit store owner had poured so much water into the blender) and followed a gentle slope to the irregular stacks of sand stone caves spreading from the peaks of Khandagiri and Udayagiri twin hills. Each cave had a different shape and dimension, but most of them were smaller than the size of a single bed and less than half of my height. I tried to explore the interior of these caves to find out how the monks residing here more than two thousand years ago had crammed into these tiny spaces and murmured their mantras, but was instantly brought back to reality by a strong smell of urine, scattered rubbish and coarse graffiti…

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Figure 27: these monkeys were often fed by tourists

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If I had to choose a place that disappointed me the most as well as a place that made my trip most fruitful, I would think that Pipili fitted into both conditions. Perhaps I should have inferred its notoriety from the fact that I was the only one who got off the bus, which left a thick cloud of dust behind as it drove away. There were a number of shops lined up on the main road selling umbrella, bags, clothes, wall hangings and a variety of art pieces with colorful prints, but for some reason all the shops were still empty. When I mustered my courage to walk into one of the shops, I was out in two minutes because of the musty air and thriving house flies. Some of the products were apparently mass produced and had Jagannath and his two siblings and the words “Puri” printed as the logo. The applique handicrafts were beautiful, but most of them were covered in dust and looked exceedingly bulky and heavy. The lighter varieties had their own flaws as well – the velvet pouches came with conspicuously white plastic zips or buttons, whereas the walnut-sized coconut bells were pierced with rusty wires and frail cotton strings…

I decided to take the next bus to Konark, but the direction given by a dessert store owner led me to an even dirtier road. Some villagers stopped their work and stared at me curiously as if I had antenna on my head. I grew increasingly uneasy and entered an air-conditioned clothes shop, but instead of confirming the location of the bus stand, I asked for an imaginary market which sold bags and clothes and handicrafts, as I still couldn’t believe that the shops I had passed by were all that the famous Pipili village could offer. To my excitement, the owner seemed to understand my enquiry and told me it was just a few hundred meters away. I followed his directions, and was soon back to the same shops where I first alighted from the bus! Frustrated, I stood at the side of the road and dreaded about walking on the same path again, when an enthusiastic shop owner called me to his shop. He followed my glances closely and asked his son to display the product wherever my glance had rested upon. I explained to him that I just wanted to look around randomly, but he blocked me from exiting and told me that he could bring me to his house-cum-factory where more products would be available and the cheapest price would be guaranteed. So I followed him, turned into a narrower street and entered a newly constructed terrace house. The handicrafts were piled up on the floor in every room. I asked for a few things on my mind, but they didn’t even interest me remotely – the dresses were thick and chunky, the yoga mats were either too big or too small, and the small presents showed substandard quality. In the end the owner became desperate and led me to another room with paintings. For the first time that I could remember of, I became interested in a “religious” scroll made of two layers of dried palm leaves, whereby individual Hindu gods were painted on two foldable halves of small circles secured with cotton strings. The owner demonstrated to me how the needles were used to trace the outline first, followed by rubbing in with black ink, which was a bit similar to tatooing. It was the most creative artwork I had ever seen, because upon flipping down the upper semicircle, some childish cartoons appeared while flipping up the lower semicircle revealed the renowned Kama Sutra poses. This souvenior definitely made my detour at Pipili worthwhile! The owner told me that there were more house factories like his, but it wouldn’t be safe to explore alone, therefore I left Pipili hurriedly. I can’t believe I have written so much about such a mediocre place, but due to road construction, I had to take a rickshaw and cross the busy highway to a temporary bus stand, where I started my next journey to the sun temple at Konark.

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Figure 29: pipili village

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