Dr. Srutimala Duara
People say you cannot go to Vaishno Devi just because you want to, you have to get a call. So is the trip to the Jagannath Temple of Puri. You have to have a call from the Lord that will suddenly take you to his door to have his darshan. I don’t know how much of truth there is in this belief, but if you have strong belief in this belief, then I guess it is true. I am not a very religious minded person so far as visiting temples are concerned, yet I had the opportunity to visit the much sought after temples in the list of “jagrata” - Vaisno Devi, Tirupati, Mahamaya among a few others and the holy places of Rameswaram, Haridwar and a lot of temples and monasteries all over India from the north right to the tip of Kanyakumari in the south. But the place which is so near to my state of Assam and so frequently visited by majority of travellers – Puri, is one place I had not visited. Perhaps my time had not come. But on February 20, 2015, Lord Jagannath, without giving me any clue, had fixed an appointment with him for me. With my ma and my husband I was to go to Bhubaneswar to attend a memorial lecture in my father’s name – my father who had long back planned a trip to Puri with me but it never got materialised. B. M . Das Memorial Lecture was to be scheduled on February 22, and so as soon as we landed in Biju Patnaik Airport of Bhubaneswar at 1:00 p.m., we took a pre-paid taxi and went straight to Puri. By 2:15 p.m. we were at ‘Hotel Puri’ that I had booked online. It overlooked the sea. Ma had thought of visiting Jagannath temple the next morning, but I wanted to visit that very evening. And when I asked at the reception if anyone could find a ‘panda’ for me, an old bell-boy said that he knew an Assam panda and that he would come to our hotel room.
At 5:00 p.m. a smart young man in his trousers came to our room. Frankly speaking, though I was always very wary of these pandas, this man took me by surprise. When I asked him about the darshan and the total cost, he said simply, “Rs. 50 is the ticket and Rs. 60 for the saki and dhup as well as for offering money at various puja sites.” “What about you? How much should I give you?” I was expecting some thousands to be quoted as did the pandas in Haridwar. To my surprise he said, “Up to you. I have no demand. You should be satisfied that you had got what you had come for.” He spoke good Assamese but his surname indicates he is Odiya – Gopinath Mahapatra. I could not resist asking him – “What is the difference between going with a panad and without?” He replied, “It is like going to a place of tourism, roaming around, without knowing what the place is about. Moreover, if you go without a panda, you will be hounded by the priests there, asking you to offer money more than you’d like to offer. You will be bound to give, but come back dissatisfied with the whole thing. The purpose of your visit will be lost.”
I realised that was how I felt on my visit to Haridwar, hounded by priests asking for more and more money. Giving us his phone number as 9437050365, he asked us to take an auto to the West Gate at 6:00 p.m. and said he would be waiting for us. I asked if there were good shops around. When he said there were, the over-enthusiastic shopper that I am, decided to reach before 6:00 p.m. so that I would get time to look around the shops. However, the auto stopped about 200 meters from the main gate, as autos were not allowed from that point. The road was narrow, and so dirty that I lost my enthusiasm for shopping. I wish the lanes leading to such a renowned place of worship were clean. I guess the people were too religious with the focus on reaching the deity to notice the stinking filth on the way. But I found the environment too reeking to walk the way to the West Gate. We took a rickshaw so that we could reach with a clean mind, especially clean body. We got down in front of the West Gate and opposite to the gate is a building with a sign-board ‘Assam Panda’. The temple with its ancient look was awe-inspiring. I simply wanted to rush into the complex, and so I called Gopinath Mahapatra. His voice came through – “I can see you. I will be there.” The panda who came to meet us in our room in his trousers and shirt and looked very unlike a panda was transformed in appearance as the panda who came out of the building wore a dark pink dhoti and chadar – seemed to be one piece. He took us inside the building from where he came and showed us a place to leave our sandals and shoes. We handed over our cell phones to him as phones are not allowed, and photography is prohibited.
We crossed the road, and washing our feet and hands outside on the roadside with the tube well waters, we walked in following our panda. The temple complex was really grand in its antique look. How I wish I had my cell phone with me! So used to clicking away here there everywhere that I felt stripped of something very vital to my being without my cell. But perhaps I was able to retain more details of the ancient structures and the surrounding in the memory cells of my brain than the memory chip of my cell phone could have captured. I took a good look at the temple complex as we waited for our pink panda who went to get our tickets and also the saki and dhup. He brought two big ghee saki for my ma and husband, and a packet of dhup for me. I told him I never offered any saki in any temple as I have this fear of the saki being blown off after I lit it and that would mean bad luck. I feel safe with dhup. In fact I feel quite comfortable to stand before the deity with just my palms lifted in prayer and my heart feeling God inside.
As we followed our panda, the stone steps became more and more slippery. The ghee and oil have rendered the steps very greasy. Gopinath Mahapatra held my ma’s hand and led her to the inside of the temple while I went hand in hand with my husband, supporting each other. The huge figures of Jagannath, Balaram and between them Subhadra, all made of neem logs, loomed in front of us. We were so close, just touching distance, that the deities seemed unreal or maybe too real to believe that we were there.
Idols of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra (Photo: Author)
Our panda asked us to bow before each and offer Rs. 10 each to the three deities – actually to the three priests sitting at the feet of the three deities. “They will ask for more, but just give Rs. 10. It is only a token.” Mahapatra said quietly. He was right. As I offered Rs. 10 to Jagannath, the panda sitting with a plate of notes before him said to me, “Such a Lord of the world and you are giving him only ten rupees? Give a thousand or hundred at least.” I could not help retorting, “He owns the whole world. For the Lord Rs. 1000 will be just as little as Rs.10. It’s just a token I have offered.”
We waited for the aarti that was just about to begin in 15 minutes. People were waiting outside the room beyond the steps. We were inside with our Panda. As I stood with folded hands, having the time to stare at the deities, my heart filled up. The aarti began. It was a quiet affair. I thought I’d get to hear drums, pipes and shankha resounding. But the first aarti was with camphor being lit before the three deities by three priests. Next, more saki were lit together and rotated before the deities in a quiet and solemn manner.
After the darshan, we came out and our panda took us to show the naamghar. In front of it was Garuda, the vahan of Vishnu or Jagannath that perched atop a rounded column. Mahapatra led us to the column and asked us to embrace it by pressing our chest and stomach against it. It was quite an exercise as the lower part of the column was broad and came up to some height. But as the priest said that pressing our stomach and chest against it relieves one of stomach and chest disease, I pressed myself hard against it. “Don’t you feel good?” Mahapatra asked with so much of conviction that it rubbed on to me and I said “Yes”, and then asked, “Is there some magnet inside” Maybe some substance scientifically proved to...” I let my words trail away. My son who questions everything, is sceptical about everything, rejects things that has no scientific explanation, has, I realised, influenced my thought process in a big way. Usually parents influence their children but in my case I guess my son’s scientific bent of mind, his belief that religion is helping the weak, the poor and the needy than spending loads of money offered to the gods, have in some way seeped into my beliefs.
We walked out to a spot that our panda asked us to go in and offer another Rs. 10. It was the place of “char Dham” comprising Rameswaram, Badrinath, Puri and Dwarka. Here too the priest asked for Rs. 100. I religiously followed our panda’s instruction and offered Rs.10 there too. We had now Rs. 20 left from our total of Rs. 60. The two ten rupees notes were to be given to the dhup saki seller.
Our panda then led us to watch the most amazing sight. People were squatting everywhere with their eyes on the temple structure. But there was time yet. So we went to the government office in the complex where you can give money for different kinds of “bhog”. It went up to lakhs of rupees and came down to Rs.1106. My mother paid Rs. 1106.
We were taken up the stairs to the terrace of the office. Ma was too tired to walk up and so she was given a place on the steps. The sight that all were waiting for was the performance of an expert who would be taking down the flag atop the about 242 feet round structure and put up a new flag. Soon we watched with bated breath as a boy climbed up the structure with his back towards it so that the flag did not fly off. Just watching him made my head reel. The woman standing next to me was continuously commenting to her husband, to herself and to her little daughter who hardly understood the concept of God “Jagannath has made it possible for him”, “Jai Jagannath”, “Isn’t his head reeling?” “He is facing us”, “Can you see he is looking at us and climbing?” “God is with him climbing up”. It was truly an amazing feat. Mahapatra had informed me that a few families carried on this work of changing the flag everyday at 6:30 p.m. Persons of 16 to 32 years of age could perform this work. Rain, hail, storm, thunder, nothing could stop one from changing the flag climbing atop. The flag that is brought down every day is distributed either by tearing it to pieces or at times the whole flag. I feel so blessed that Mahapatra brought a flag for me along with a big box full of dry Prasad. The flag now flies on my veranda on the second floor of my home.
[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Publisher.]