A travelogue set in Puri, about the many journeys one is compelled to make there.
It is hard to speak the language of saints, and yet, I am here, my mouth following the chants, the words of nameless priests, the faceless scriptures resounding together, reaching rhyming lines that move through territories inside me in some cryptic sign. Here I am, the traveler with footprints among the mossy green and slippery stairs of temples blinking hurriedly, like street lights.
In my mind I know not how all of my footsteps move in accord with that of the others—pilgrims, saints and sinners. In my mind, I move wayward, between the earthen lamps and the half-sung lyrics of songs. In twilight hours, I look into the mad rush of bare-bodied, dhoti-clad priests and pilgrims in all shapes and sizes, intersect in dark chambers.
My strained legs move through sweat, half-light and the clay and dark soil of human feet. I am soaked in vermilion, the scent and fumes of lamps, sandalwood and flowers. I sit, transfixed, reading the miracles of empathy the prayers promise to be.
At the twilight hour, I think I have known these earthen lamps and their flickering flames. I think I have walked these chipped off, slippery stairs in a life before, knowing the blood, the lament and loss of parents, predecessors, uncles and aunts, sisters and friends, coursing through my veins.
I know in those dark chambers and beyond, in the muddy pathways that lead from one altar of deity to another, I will be looking for a new day in flame, trying to read the beads promising salvation.
Inside the crowded premises of the temple of Lord Jagannath in Puri, Orissa, I walk through the mud, soot and sweat of multitudes of men, women, children, their hands crossed in prayers, while I climb the old, steep stairs that lead to the alters of the Gods.
I have been there, done it all. Four days after my mother’s demise, at my in-law’s, I have looked at the crowded evening bazar for the mundane belongings that would have adorned my mother’s body—sankha(conch shells) and blood-red pala for her hands, vermilion for her forehead and temple, a sari, petticoat and blouse, an umbrella, a pair of sandals and a vessel carrying paan (betel leaves). In the big prayer room with a makeshift altar that all of us in the family had decorated with a portrait of her once smiling face, with garlands and incense, fruits and sweets, I have listened, in between muffled tears, to the priests chant mantras as they have quoted Hindu scriptures and explained how and why I would offer her these mundane belongings, imagining her presence, imagining her body that has already returned to the earth. In the prayer room, seated in the floor with the two priests steeped in rituals, I have mashed bananas with yoghurt and rice, trying to make morsels out of them, each in the size and shape of a small ball, offering each morsel to her soul as a ‘pinda’, satiating her appetite that was now as elusive as her existence.
I have touched the burning embers of the lamp our family priest has held out for us, while my father has attended to the day-long prayers of the last rites of his wife, seated with a couple of other priests and attendees in a pool of offerings for the Puja rituals. I have seen the family priest, holding my father’s weary, trembling hands while he has made him invoke the Hindu Gods, the departed soul of my mother, the elements of the universe while performing together the ‘homa’ in her name.
I have been burnt, soaked and bent by the fire, water and weight of rituals, while I look into them on the face. I climb aboard, finding my way into their singular beam of light, their voices like strangers, lovely, crooked, deep, young and old, as I ask them to tell me where I am. I ask them, while I roam around the temple and its precincts, while I fold my hands along with others, and look into the wooden forms of the deities. I ask them, shielding my five-year old daughter from the mad rush and ruthless, somber dark of the ceremonies inside. I am walking my way, having seen the inner sanctum, having prayed for my deceased mother to the trinity of deities, Jagannath (the Lord of the world), his consorts Balaram and Subhadra seated on the bejeweled platforms. I have seen the rituals at their greatest, giving me access to the deepest, humane suffering, suffering that is in no way dramatic or physical, but that which is innate and natural.
“Jay Jagannath (Hail to thee, Lord Jagannath)!” The Paandaa, one of the head-priests of the temple meets us inside the temple precincts, makes this utterance between intervals as he presides during the entire elaborate prayer rituals.
“Your mother left for her heavenly abode in the fifth month of the Bengali calendar, two days after Janmasthami, the sacred day of Lord Krishna’s birth. It was the Krishna paksha, I will tell you the other details after the puja is over. Every year, when you perform the annual rituals for her death, you have to remember these details as her only living child”, he says.
I look into his face as he touches my forehead to mark it with a tika, a small dot of ashes. He talks about understanding God and his own unique ways through understanding and acknowledging human suffering. He talks about peace and tranquility, which I know is the other name for this suffering. The peace he talks about cannot overpower the sorrow; I know the sorrow does not go away. In my mind, however, there is this unexplained moment of counterbalance between suffering and hope, between sorrow and the sense of absolution that overpowers it, and it is this moment of absolute tension and absolute stillness which I surrender to.
“How long have you been traveling In Orissa?” The middle-aged tourist-guide asks me while I stroll along the golden sands of theChandrabhaga beach, looking at the ocean and its sudden, circular burst of waves, clasping the tiny hands of my daughter with my own hands. The bus of the Orrissa Tourism Development Corporation halts at this beach stop for half an hour while all of us take a break for early morning tea and refreshments, look at the dawn break as the sun in shades of burnt sienna lifts the veil of mist that had surrounded the ocean and the seascape.
“I came to Puri a couple of days back for some puja rituals, and would love to see some sites in Bhubaneshwar. This is my first time here”, I replied to the guide, scrutinizing his day-long agenda in a small diary he is carrying.
“Good for you, then! Our beautiful state is an important religious destination with so many rich treasures! There are the famous beaches and natural wonders, there are so many vestiges of structural art and rich history and heritage in our temples, shrines, monuments and relics. And if any one among you has not yet been here during our famous religious carnival of ‘RathaYatra’ in July, you sure have missed a great ceremony.”
He is guiding a bus full of enthused, bored, irritated, smiling, grumpy-faced passengers to a narrative tour of the religious, historical, scenic sites of the city of Bhubaneshwar, sites that are close to the city limits—the Sun temple of Konark and its architectural splendor, the Buddhist relics and ruins at the majestic hilltop complexes of Udaygiri and Khandagiri caves, the Dhabalgiri, a historic shrine that bears testimony to King Ashoke and the devastating war of Kalinga, and an array of Hindu temples in between these sites, including the Lingaraaj temple and Raamchandi temple.
The women, fair, dark, young housewives accompanied by their enthused, agile husbands and children line up to get down the stairs of the bus. Middle-aged men and women, old, wrinkly men and women with walking sticks follow them, walking under the misty, humid, drizzling sky of late summer, walking past the mud, dirt, cow dung in the narrow streets and alleys and the worms and flies buzzing over them. The quest in their eyes to explore the religious landscape of the region is evident, as they walk inside the temples, barefoot, their feet sticking in the mud, their gestures, reverent and stoical, as they set their feet inside the temple premises. I walk right in, following their muddy footsteps, holding my child’s truant hands, carrying her in my arms, endlessly answering her questions. I stop periodically at the decorated sanctums, the front porches and the crowded halls where people stand, sit in various poses to taste the prasaad, the offerings to the Gods.
I try to follow the tourist guide’s cues, soaking in the rituals while also marveling at the distinct, unique architecture of the temples, my eyes following the bejeweled Gods, the porches with pyramidal roofs and the beauty of their nat-mandir (dancing hall) premises. In my mind, I absorb the sound of the bells, the conches, the music and the beats, remembering the devdaasi’s (female devotee dancers) of the temples, who danced in old days to the soft, numinous rhythms, the ritualistic dance steps to appease the Gods, and also to their own secret music, coming from inside, springing from an unexplained source, deep within. In this instant, I remember my mother’s unsung songs which she uttered time and again as tuneless lyrics, her tanpura, which now stands angled and rusted in an overlooked nook of her small bedroom, her collection of poems and quotes of famous poets in Bengali which remains buried under stacks of old books, newspapers and old family albums in the study room.
I have writhed in her bedroom, grabbing the bed sheets, the wardrobe full of both of our old, unused clothes, clutching the tanpura and its cold, wooden contours. For days following her death, I have meandered through her kitchen, her bedroom and her study like a ghost—lonely, despairing and lost. Here, underneath the huge pyramidal roofs, the gigantic expanse of the temples, as I try to feel the soft music, the igniting energy of her presence, the luminous realm of her soul, I feel myself lost, like a perplexed childhood dream, amid the music and the beats, the mantras, the chanting and the scriptures. I close my eyes, floating alone in the weightless space of grief, loss and bewilderment, while a nameless spherical ball starts spinning around the suffocating dark inside my closed eyeballs. While it continues to spin more and more vigorously with each turn, I gradually become aware of a deep, mystic, untouchable core of my existence, awakened by the music and rhythmic chanting inside the temple sanctums. It becomes a sure, ineffable center of my being, a center of my connection to myself, my loved ones on earth, my loved ones who have crossed over the boundaries of life, as I surrender to its steady flame and to the unpredictable swirl of life around me.
“You have come to one of the chaardhaam’s, the four core destinations for Indian pilgrims. Once we are here, we count each of our footsteps in this auspicious land”. My mother-in-law reminds me in each of our temple visits since the past couple of days.
“It’s a wonder I never came here before. My father made umpteen visits to Bhubaneshwar for his work. My parents came here so many years back. Not me, though I had planned to, so many times”.
“Well, it is the auspicious land of Lord Jagannath. You can never land up here, unless it is the plan of the Lord himself.” My mother-in-law replies.
In between her pious utterances, her preparations for meditative quiet and gentle prayers, we have reached the quaint, tranquil premises of the Sun temple, Konark. We walk through the long, horizontal entrance that leads to the temple, a historical relic standing as a fortress of solitude, watching over its curious visitors and the soothing green that surrounds it.
“King Narasimhadeva had built the temple in the thirteenth century. It has a huge history of honor, vanity and sacrifice. What you now get to see, however, is only a historic ruin. But even from the ruins, you can feel the grandeur of religious architecture.” The tourist guide is proud, content to narrate stories to the visitors and quite confident in his knowledge of the treasures of his state.
We follow his footsteps, and a few minutes later, are lost in the mystic expanse of the temple’s architecture and its beauty. Soon, we are lost amid the crowd of nameless men, women, families, groups, walking all the way to the cement stairs that lead to the main temple and its ruins, to the colossal chariot with seven horses and twenty-four wheels, carrying Surya, the Sun God across the heavens. I look with childlike awe, at the sculptures on each side of the giant chariot wheel, each of them depicting a legend, lore, story.
I wander among the luscious green and the legends, stumbling upon sculptures depicting men and women forms, rapt in various positions of lovemaking and coital consummation. In old pictures and books, I had seen some of these sculptures before, as a curious child, as a teenager, questioning the nudity, the erotic content of the postures. I remember how my mother, young, beautiful and demure, had posed with her friends in front of the huge chariot wheel, taken sepia images of the mythical, legendary sculptures, the erotic sculptures. When I was a child, I used to ask her, embarrass her with questions regarding the female anatomy apparent in the images.
“You will understand all this when you grow up, dear. The body is like a temple, and sacred places like these celebrate both the body and the soul”, she had answered, smiling at my ignorance and unbridled curiosity.
The spiritually inclined couple that my parents were, I have always seen them fold both their hands in pranaam whenever they had mentioned religious zones. This pious land of Lord Jagannath (the supreme God of the earth), the Sun God, Lord Vishnu (the cosmic sustainer of the universe), Ma Durga (the Mother Goddess) and Lord Shiva (the Lord of Lords) has always meant the cherished religious epicenter to them.
I stand like a dazed onlooker studying the rapture and abundance of love and life celebrated through these mythical, erotic sculptures. Today, years after, I understand that my mother had such aptly summed it all as ‘celebration’. Here, in this cradle that rocks ancient Vedic mythology and cultural history, I see myself as God’s own child, looking at the legends and myths of Gods, men and women in unison, enamored in love and enacting that love like one, unified being. Within the tapestry of the universe, amid its mysteries, darkness, glimpses of light, I can smell the essence of that free-flowing, unifying love, rushing, gushing inside of me. The sacred, the numinous is there in front of me in its brilliant hues, fine formations, intricate rhythms, its beauty invading my heart like a radiant, beautiful reminder of the sanctity of this life. I pray, I am moving with its multiple ripples, growing bright, deep, rich and wide.
“Tobu monerekho/Jodi durejaaichole, monerekho/Jodi puratonopremdhaka pore jay nobopremojaale/monerekho/ Jodi thakikachhakachhi, / Dekhitenapaao, chhaya-r moton, achhinaachi, monerekho/Tobu monerekho./ Jodi jolasheankhipaate/monerekho,/ Ek din jodikhela theme jay modhu rate/monerekho…” (And, still remember me, if I go far, far away, remember me. Even if the trappings of a new love shroud old ties of love and attachment, remember me. If I remain close, yet distant from you, lonely and unrecognizable, like a shadow, remember me; still, remember me. If tears drench your eyelashes, remember me. One day, if the journey of this life ends at the stroke of night, still remember me).
Gitabitaan, Rabindranath Tagore
Underneath the early morning sky, I walk away, barefoot, dipping my toes under the sand as I watch the Puri beach from the shore, the enthused bathers, the morning walkers, the pilgrims, the children and their exquisite poses. I look at the ashen clouds, dancing over the horizon, forming a silhouette against the clear, sun-drenched sky. I look at the waves of the sea crashing against the wet, golden sand, their relentless, rebounding, tenacious strokes, forcing their way to the shore. The sky, a painter’s delight, overlooks the vigor and buoyance of the sea with its gentle, calming beauty. Somewhere along the way, I become one with the rolling waves, crashing, breaking, gushing, screaming like the searing voice of old love, dancing and kissing sparkles and songs like the youthful, new love.
My closure has almost come full circle; I have come back to the nooks and corners of my childhood den, I have watched my mother’s lifeless body taken away from the verandah which had once been a sanctuary for our bonding. I have fed morsels of rice and cooked food to crows cawing at the bank of river Ganga as a gesture of ‘giving back’ her love. Like a wounded childhood lover, I have risen from the mighty storm of my grief, loss and downpour of tears, blossoming into this welcoming world of beauty, truth, prayers and sublimity.
My daughter gets busy in her own small world, carving houses and castles with her fingers dipped in the sand. Looking at her small body, love fuels my heart. Love, the child inside me, the butterfly dancing, scampering through the veins, arteries, gushes out, with wide, open arms. My pain is a dusty clump of dead, walking hand in hand with the living molecules of my own.
Lopa Banerjee is in her final year of a graduate program in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She has written a a book-length collection of personal essays, and also a poetry compilation. She is a regular contributor to Cafe Dissensus, an alternate journal of literature and the arts. Her poetry, essays, and book reviews have also appeared at Fine Lines, Prairie Fire, About Place, River Poets Journal, Indian Review, Yahoo Voices, The Mind Creative, 13th Floor Magazine and Incredible Women of India.