Puri. The place has so many avatars. It has a strong traditional, religious and spiritual side. And it has a sunny and windy side to it with good weather, great sea food, large expanses of beach and an overall soulful ambiance. With so many definitions, it is not difficult to find your own corner in Puri and mine without doubt is one that has a part of the beach and sea food to dig into.
My journey from Bhubaneswar started at 7 am and Puri is about 60 km from Bhubaneswar. Along this stretch are a few places of religious importance. My first stop was at Pipili. Known worldwide for its traditional appliquÃ© handicrafts, it is a small town of barely 15,000 people. The plan is to visit the hanuman temple right on the Bhubaneswar-Puri highway. Not very old, the architecture of the temple is ornate and attractive. Colourful columns greet you as you enter the temple.
I quickly take a few pictures, offer my prayers and leave. I am eager to visit Sakshi Gopal, a temple dedicated to Lord Krishan. 'Sakshi Gopal' translated means "Lord is witness" and omnipresent. Little off the road, on the Bhubaneswar-Puri highway, it is tucked away in a village called Satyabadi, midway on the Bhubaneswar-Puri road. This place is of multifold religious importance and is built as a miniature version of the Jaganath Temple at Puri.
The temple surroundings are rustic with many coconut orchards around it. Shopkeepers are busy selling flower garlands, candles, incense sticks just outside the temple complex. There is no souvenir shop to collect anything at this place, except God's blessings. Exploring the temple's past, I learn that anyone who completes the religious journey of the four 'dhams' must visit this temple to make God a witness to his or her journey. The priest tells us that a visit to the 'chaar dhams' is incomplete, if after completion one doesn't offer prayers here. Taking pictures inside the temple premises is strictly prohibited. I manage some pictures from a distance outside of the temple. As I leave, I think of coming back here, when I complete my journey of the 'chaar dhams'.
Half an hour later, I reach my hotel at Puri. I was smitten with the balcony of my room, perfect for viewing, and which made me concur that it was one of the most gorgeous combinations of blue sky and beach that I had ever seen. The Jagannath temple, built in the 11th century by the progenitor of the Eastern Ganga dynastry, King Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva, it is part of the Char Dham pilgrimage which a Hindu is expected to make during his life time. Famous for its annual Rath Yatra (chariot festival) in which the three main temple deities are hauled on huge and elaborately decorated temple cars, its beauty can be appreciated by even those who are not religiously inclined. And yet, when you visit Puri, there is a magnetic force that takes you to the temples, even if you just want to enjoy the beach, sun and sand.
I quickly unpack, change and move deeper into the city towards the Puri Jaganath Temple. The expansive street in front of the temple is called the 'bada danda'. Hundreds of stalls sell sea shell ornaments, miniature idols of Lord Jagannath, traditional Sambalpuri sarees, fresh flowers, sweets and just about any other item that any local market offers. This is the largest market in Puri. Everyday it buzzes with the movement and chatter of tourists from across the country. But most of the crowd is from Odisha, speaking Oriya, the regional language and going about their routine shopping and chores.
I marveled at the temple from outside, clicked a few snaps and decided to enter from the main entrance called the 'Singha Dwar' or Lion Gate. The temple has four gates and strictly prohibits mobile phones or camera inside the premises. There are safe places where you can leave them behind for a nominal fee.
Once inside, it takes hours of hopscotch to explore the main temple and the other subsidiary temples surrounding it. The huge temple complex covers an area of over 400,000 square feet, and is surrounded by a high wall. It contains at least 120 temples and shrines. The temple's kitchen is considered to be the largest in India. Food is cooked here following rules as prescribed in the Hindu religious texts. Cooking is done with water drawn from a special well and all food is cooked in earthen pots only. The most awaited prasad is the 'abhada', offered at mid-day around 1 pm daily.
It is afternoon already. I spend around three hours going around the temple complex before leaving. Outside, after collecting my belongings, I buy some special 'khaja' (crispy patty made of flour and dipped in sugar syrup and a must buy) and head for my hotel.
The beaches of Puri add to your spiritual experience
The best time to sample the non-religious but lively side of Puri is the scene on the beach and soaking in the sight of the beachside streets at night. I head out for the beach at 5 pm. Abuzz with people still taking dips, I see a lot of alternate activity. People are taking camel rides, horse rides, building sand castles, and generally lolling around. I decide to just hire a chair for Rs 10 an hour and "take my position" to see the sun go down.
As the lights on the streets come alight, there is a new look to the entire place. I can see that the street food joints are thronged by people sampling a variety of fresh sea food. There are rows of stalls displaying fresh catch of the day - pomfrets, prawns, shrimps, crabs and fish. You just need to identify the ones you want and they will clean and deep fry it with spices and serve it with fresh lemon and chopped onion rings. I settle for prawns and crab.
Next morning, I head out again to the beach, to catch the early morning sun rise. Vendors are already in action selling tea and hot samosas. I take the horse and camel rides both on the beach, and enjoy the wind brushing across my face with just a sprinkling of tourists.
By 10 am I am out of Puri, heading back towards Bhubaneswar, carrying with me my yearly quota of spirituality.
How to reach: Puri is connected by road and train from Bhubaneswar. The nearest airport is Bhubaneswar which is approximately 60 km away
Best time to visit: Between November to February
Must eat: Puri mahaprasad called 'abhada' is a must try. Also, 'khaja' which is great to buy and take back for friends and relatives serves as prasad
Where to stay: Since Puri is primarily a tourist place, there are ample hotels that can fit any pocket. Room rents at budget hotels range between Rs 300 to Rs 2000. Rent may vary during the peak season. It is best to go for hotels along the beachside, as the area around the temple tends to get crowded.
What to wear: Don't forget to carry a wraparound skirt or pair of shorts for the beach areas, and for the round of temples preferably avoid any skin show. A stole or scarf would be good
Lipi lives in Delhi and when not mulling over life and day dreaming of becoming a global nomad, handles projects on higher learning for the International Institute for Learning in Management-Business School