The Pujo festivities have now died down and I finally have a chance to write about my last few weeks. As I mentioned earlier, Durga Pujo is the biggest holiday in Eastern India–and the festival is massive, a scale I could have never imagined. My parents flew in for the 10 day holiday and we visited a few pandals, explored the city a fair bit, and made a trip out to Odisha, a beautiful state known for its ancient temples and vibrant craft traditions.
I studied Odishan temples in my Arts of India class several years ago and have been wanting to see them ever since. Intricately carved, beautifully designed–and most importantly, impeccably preserved, the temples of Bhubaneswar truly were a magnificent sight.
Odishan temples are especially valuable to art historians because one can clearly trace the stylistic development of the temple’s architectural form. Patronized in close succession of one another, these temples help us understand how the first permanent temple structures harkened to the natural shapes of caves and mountains–and then slowly developed into what we know as a temple today.
More than just temples however, Odisha had a fair amount of other attractions. I particularly enjoyed the Udayagiri Caves, a 2nd Century BC structure that was used by Jain ascetics as a monastery. (Quick note: Do not go to Khandagiri Caves unless you want to become completely disillusioned with the state of historical preservation in India)
Odisha is known in history as the land of Kalinga, the empire that stood up to Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor. It was after the battle of Kalinga that Ashoka converted to Buddhism and proceeded to make Buddhism the first missionary religion in the world, spreading the word of the Buddha from Sri Lanka to Nepal. (Ashoka’s life was an incredibly interesting one–I would highly suggest reading up on his legacy)
Other than the capital city of Bhubaneswar, we went to Konark and Puri, two famous temple towns. Though Konark’s Sun Temple is no longer in use (in fact the inside has been shuttered up), the facade itself is marvelous as the entire temple takes the form of a rath or chariot. Some of the decorations on the outside of the structure are similar to the erotic carvings at Khajuraho. Contemporary India has an uncomfortable relationship with its erotic artistic traditions–nonetheless, I found the sculptures tasteful and interesting.
As for Puri…I enjoyed the beach and exploring pattachitra painting at nearby Danda Sahi, but was rather disappointed at the famed Jagannath Temple. While the temples in Bhubaneswar and Konark are dormant, the Puri Jagannath temple is very much a place of worship and pilgrimage. Thousands of worshippers visit the temple daily–unfortunately, they are unable to pray in peace due to the throngs of pandas, or local priests, that insist on donations and basically refuse to allow darsan of the deity without a monetary donation! I found the entire situation rather exploitative and was troubled at the state of temple affairs.
In Odisha, we were also able to visit a few crafts villages (Danda Sahi and Pipli) where artisans continue to paint and weave in the same ways as their forefathers. We purchased quite a few paintings and the work was absolutely exquisite! I was able to spend quite a bit of time speaking with the artists about their motivations, stylistic choices, and the role of women in their workshops.
After a busy few days of traveling, we spent the weekend of Durga Pujo break at Belur Math, back in Bengal. The international headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math is a peaceful and beautiful place and all of us benefited from a few days of rest and rejuvenation. I was so glad to see Mummy and Daddy and really enjoyed our time together–hopefully they will be visiting early next year again!