From epic paintings on mud walls to etchings on palm leaves, you’re likely to find every kind of offbeat craft in Orissa. You only need to look
I have come to believe that it is not travellers who choose their destination, but the destination that handpicks its travellers. That was the only explanation I could find for my fifth unplanned visit to Puri, a tiny coastal town in Orissa.
Whatever divine logic it was that managed to tug me from Mumbai near the Arabian Sea to this rustic hamlet by the Bay of Bengal, it prompted me to understand the place from a fresh perspective.
My overnight train to Puriwas five hours
Puri is 65 km by road from Bhubaneswar, the state capital. You can get to Puri by a state transport bus or tourist bus. Private taxis are also available.
Deccan, JetLite, Kingfisher Airlines and Indian have daily flights to Bhubaneswar from Mumbai.
The Konark Express plies between Mumbai CST and Bhubaneswar. The journey takes nearly a whole day.
But instead of being irritated, I found myself enjoying the rural landscape—acres of lush farmland dotted with coconut trees and little village boys racingwith the train—that I would have missed if my train had reached on time.
Nevertheless, I was glad to finally touch base and settle into the palatial but value-for money Birla guest house that was right on the beach.
The sea was calling out to me and despite the heat I took a long walk on the promenade called Marine Drive that closely resembles its Mumbai counterpart.
The tourists were mostly sari-clad mashis and pishis from Bengal swimming in the sea.
There are holiday homes along the beach where you can rent a flat for all of Rs 100-150 a day .
The market place by the beach was bustling with activity. Scores of tourists haggled over prices of Sambhalpuri saris and Kotki printed cloth. It was here, as I conversed with an aged shopkeeper, that I got deeply interested in the state's craftsmanship.
I learnt from him that most textiles are hand woven. The masters of weaving are well versed with silkworm cultivation and most of their designs were inspired by temple architecture.
He showed me some beautiful silk ikat weaves in which threads are tied and dyed to produce designs (of birds, animals, seashells and temple spires) on the loom while weaving.
Beautiful silk fabric produced at Cuttack embellished with verses from the Gita Govinda, lined the shelves.
Further on, I crossed shops where the tinkling of shell wind chimes greeted me. Shell necklaces and wooden effigies of Lord Jagannath and his siblings Balabhadra and Shubhadra were being sold in large numbers.
Konark chakras in fine filigree design woven with silver threads as fine as a spider's web were popular among shoppers.
I paused to watch a man craft camels, horses and elephants using coconut coir and wire. I marvelled at the unsung master craftsmen that this country has.
The life of the locals in Puri revolves around the Jagannath temple. The economy of the town depends largely on this temple and almost everyone is involved in its activities.
The magnificent temple is situated on a narrow, crowded road filled with pilgrims. The air is thick with incense. My guide was a priest who took me on a fascinating tour of the temple's history and architecture.
This shrine of Lord Jagannath (Lord of the Universe) is one of the four holy dhams and is considered to be the holiest. It is believed that one can achieve maximum results with minimum effort by simply visiting the shrine. Needless to add, I was glad I made the trip.
The most interesting activity in the temple is the cooking of the mahaprasad or ambrosia. Five to six varieties of food are offered to the deities every day, five times a day, and then distributed to thousands of devotees.
During the famous Rath Yatra, as many as 2,50,000 are fed daily You can actually choose from a bhog menu; I sat cross-legged enjoying a delicious meal of pulao, khichdi, sweet rice, dal, an assortment of vegetables, payasam and malpua. A feast befitting a king!
A riot of colours
A couple of days later, I headed to Pipli, a little village renowned for its appliqué work that is an hour's drive from Puri. In Pipli, I was trapped in a whirlpool of colours. Appliqué involves stitching one piece of cloth over another. It is also distinguished by the use of mirrors.
The craft was originally used to adorn temples and bedeck deities in intricately stitched, colourful cloth. Traditional motifs like the peacock, the fish, flowers and geometric designs are cut out of brightly coloured cloth and sewn on to cloth.
The artisans who produce appliqué also make the chariot covers and giant umbrellas used in the Rath Yatra.
Where crafts are a way of life
A fair bit of shopping later I set off to Raghurajpur, another artisan village 14 km from Puri. The idyllic village, set on the southern bank of the Bhargavi River, has attained international fame thanks to a community of artisans who produce patta chitras, palm leaf engravings, papier mache toys and masks and paintings on tusser silk. Nowhere else in India would you find an entire village engaged in handicrafts.
One of my memorable conversations was with Gopal Maharana, a descendant of the family employed years ago by the king to decorate the Jagannath temple. The clay hut in which he stayed was also a gift from the King. International accolades adorned its mud walls.
Maharana explained to me that the village is most famous for patta chitra, a classical Oriya painting. The patta (cloth) is coated with earth to stiffen it and painted with motifs from the Jagannath cult and famous epics. It is finally finished with lacquer. He showed me a thin brush that was used to paint the pattas and explained that it was made from the hair at the back of a mouse's neck. Ahem, ahem.
Palm leaf paintings, which date back to the medieval period, are also practised in the village. I watched a lady skillfully inscribe a design on the surface of a palm leaf and then apply a paste of tamarind seed, oil and charcoal. She explained that this would help the groove stand out.
The village itself made for an interesting study. Two rows of neat houses faced each other and in the centre was a line of temples, as well as the Bhagbat Tungi, the meeting place for the villagers. The outside of the huts were painted with scenes from the religious texts.
Each wall was a work of art and I wondered how many years it must have taken to create these legends. Very reluctantly, I bid farewell to the little colourful village and headed back to Puri.
Piya is a corporate lawyer who makes a case for travel