It is early in the morning and the sun seems to have missed its date with the world. I wake up gingerly, surprised that it is still dark, because dawn usually visits Puri, Odisha, very early. It is hazy as we drive past the empty boulevard along the beach. Every inch of the road is lined with sea-facing hotels, and they are all wrapped in a cloak of silence. The city slowly stirs to life as the sun strides up the sky, its rays glancing off the 200-foot tower of the Jagannath Temple, its centre of gravity.
The holy city of Puri is the last stop on the chardham pilgrimage that Hindu devotees undertake—the other sites are Dwarka in Gujarat, Badrinath in Uttarakhand, and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. I enter the temple and find that it is bustling. An entire city seems to be inside the complex: tourists, locals, priests or pandas, all vying to get a darshan of the lord. We weave through the crowd and manage to find a little corner to silently commune with the troika of deities. Mesmerised by the sight of these larger-than-life, brightly clad wooden idols of Jagannath (Vishnu, or his avatar Krishna), Balabhadra (Balarama, Krishna’s elder brother), and Subhadra (Krishna’s sister), I nearly forget the jostling and elbowing. When we step out of the shrine into the vast courtyard, I realise I have 4,00,000 square feet of the complex to explore.
The 11th-century Jagannath Temple, built by King Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva of the Eastern Ganga dynasty, is believed to have been designed by Vishwakarma, the divine architect. More than 120 smaller shrines dot the temple complex, girded in by a 20-foot-high wall.
The main shrine has an imposing tower, crowned by Vishnu’s sacred instrument (the srichakra). The temple is divided into four sections. Besides the main sanctum where the deities are placed on a throne of pearls (ratnabedi), there is a dancing hall (natamandapa), the offerings hall (bhogamandapa), and the front porch (mukhashala). But it is the kitchen where the bulk of the activity is concentrated. One of the largest in the world, more than 50 types of offerings are prepared for the deities in earthen pots, with water drawn from the two wells in the complex. Goddess Lakshmi is supposed to supervise every morsel prepared here.
Legends about the temple abound. The most fascinating one is about the discovery of the deities. A priest tells me that King Indradyumna, who ruled over the Malwa region in central India, commissioned a carpenter to carve the idols from a radiant log of neem wood floating in the sea. The carpenter’s only condition was that he be left undisturbed inside a locked room until he finished the idols. When the artisan failed to come out for two weeks, Indradyumna’s queen presumed him to be dead and asked for the door to be opened. The carpenter turned out to be Vishnu, who abandoned the idols unfinished: As a result, none of the idols have hands.
Jagannath and his siblings make their presence felt in several aspects of Odisha’s culture, especially as motifs in pattachitra scroll paintings and the many types of handloom saris woven here. Several of Puri’s festivals, including the Rath Yatra, are focused on the temple. During the Snana Yatra, the deities are brought out in a ritual procession for their annual bath. After the ceremony, they are taken for a fortnight to a secret place, as they are believed to be recovering from a fever (daily 5 a.m. to 11p.m., except during the Snana Yatra).
Puri’s identity is defined by the Jagannath temple, but it has begun to offer more secular pleasures. Fast emerging as the Goa of the east, Puri is a convenient beach getaway for tourists around the coast in the evening to find it bursting with colour and people. Kites and balloons vie for aerial space, while camels dominate the scene on the ground. In Puri and Konark, the shores are usually full of sand art sculptures: Most artists try to carve socially relevant messages into their designs. The best time to see sand art by artists from all over the world is during Puri’s annual beach festival in November-December, though the 2016 edition was held in January. Several local fairs coincide with the Rath Yatra and the run-up to New Year’s Eve, but the beach festival remains the most popular.
A mere 20-minute drive from Puri takes me to a world of beauty, paint and colour. I’m at the crafts village of Raghurajpur, a hamlet outside Puri (15 km north). Raghurajpur is home to craftsmen who preserve the 900-year-old art form of pattachitra. Their homes, clustered together, have fascinating wall murals; the verandas serve as studios. I stop by to watch a chitrakaar at work, painting Krishna with his gopikas.
Before the artist can put his brush to the pata (cloth), an elaborate ritual is followed to prepare it. The cloth is soaked in water with tamarind seeds, and coated with a paste of chalk and gum. Another layer of cotton is added to it, which is rubbed with stones to achieve a glossy finish. The artists usually prepare their own natural colours and use very fine brushes. Their subjects are stories from Indian mythology, but an artist tells me that it is Jagannath who inspires them. During the deities’ annual fortnight off, devotees worship a pattachitra of the trinity.
I pause in front of a temple to pay my respects, when a group of artists invites me into their home. On the colourful walls there is an eclectic mix of various art forms. Aside from the narrative patas, there are palm-leaf engravings with divine portraits, and tussar paintings featuring tribal motifs. Trees, flowers, and birds border the paintings, while the portraits are characterised by fine brushstrokes. I see various masks and wooden toys, even some made of cow dung. I could spend the whole day in Raghurajpur watching the artisans work, but it is time to leave.
The 13th-century Konark Sun Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its erotic carvings, is about 35 km east of Puri. The magnificent granite temple is designed like a chariot drawn by seven horses with 24 massive wheels with intricate carvings on them. Built by King Narasimhadeva I of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty, it was called the Black Pagoda by the British. The sun’s rays strike the erotic sculptures as my guide nonchalantly points out every sign of passion on the walls.
The temple faces east, so it is best to visit it at sunrise to capture photographs of the first rays falling on the sculptures. The Konark Dance Festival is held against this dramatic backdrop every February. Tourists visiting Konark also head to the mouth of the Chandrabhaga River (3 km east of the temple), which once ran by the shrine, but has now changed course.
Nothing beats a sunset cruise. I leave Puri late in the afternoon and head towards Satpada, a small town along the banks of Chilika Lake, one of the largest brackish-water lagoons in the world. The 50-km journey to the jetty at Satpada (which means “cluster of seven fishing hamlets”) takes about an hour and a half. We have a boat to ourselves and we go cruising along the vast expanse of the lake, looking for the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins. We stop by to see some locals, who show us cultured pearls from oyster shells, trying to con us into believing they were obtained through deep-sea diving. We nearly fall for it.
Our boatman takes us to Rajhans Island, where we can see the lagoon on one side and the Bay of Bengal on the other. We stop for a while, continuing to hope for a glimpse of the dolphins. An hour later, we are greeted by the sight of a couple diving into the water. Their friends swim close by, fins peeping above the water’s surface. Although this stretch of Chilika is not the haunt of migratory birds, we also see flocks of ducks in the distance.
Puri is full of resorts, and almost all the hotels are located on the road leading up to the beach. I stayed at the Sterling Golden Sands, where the Bhargavi River joins the sea. The beach is very clean. The rooms are large and comfortable and guests can choose between single and double rooms, or studio apartments (255/2 and 255/3, Sipasarubali Village, Baliapanda; +91-6752 254093/94; www.sterlingholidays.com; doubles from ₹3,299).
Toshali Sands is a luxury beach resort, located on the Konark Marine Road just outside Puri. Its private villas and cottages allow you to steer clear of the noise and clutter of the city (Ethnic Village Resort, Konark Marine Drive; +91-9937003223; www. toshalisands.com).
If you are on a small budget, stay at Hotel Gandhara, which offers clean rooms, Wi-Fi, and a swimming pool (Chakratirtha Road; 06752-224117; hotelgandhara.com; doubles from ₹2,500).
Puri draws tourists around the year from across the country, so it isn’t hard to find a cuisine of your choice, whether Bengali, or continental or Chinese. For a taste of Bengali food, visit the trusted Bhojohori Manna; for seafood, head to Peace Restaurant. A Chinese couple from Kolkata has started Chung Wah. Several cafés serve continental breakfasts and snacks like pasta and pizza. Try Wildgrass or Honey Bee Bakery and Pizzeria for fast food.
Appeared in the April 2014 issue as “Juggernaut Journey”. Updated in October 2017.
Puri is a coastal city located in the Puri district of Odisha state, about 60 km south of its capital Bhubaneswar, and 500 km southwest of Kolkata.
Air The closest airport is Bhubaneswar, which is connected to most major Indian metros.
Rail Puri is a major railhead, which is connected to Delhi, Kolkata, and Varanasi as well as other towns.
Road There are several luxury buses between Kolkata and Puri. The journey takes a minimum of 10 hours and fares begin around ₹500.
Cycle rickshaws ply around Puri, as do several private taxi operators. You can take a bus to Satpada or Konark. Most hotels can arrange transport within the city. Several operators also offer bus tours that take you to the various temples.
The best time to visit Puri is during the winter (Oct-Feb), when temperatures hover between 10-18°C. However, the sun sets by 5 p.m. and it becomes pitch dark within the hour. Summer (Mar-June) temperatures can soar to 45°C. The monsoon (July-Sept) is moderately heavy. Puri is prone to cyclones, so always check weather warnings in advance.
Lakshmi Sharath is a travel writer and blogger from Bangalore who quit her corporate career in media to travel. Her passion is all about exploring the nooks and corners of the world and telling stories.