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Undiscovered India: Odisha

201212-a-odisha-india

Photo: Jake Stangel

The roadside billboard passes in a blur as we motor along Marine Drive, four friends and a driver in a rented SUV: Don’t mix drinks and drive.

“Did I read that right?” I ask.

A small voice pipes up from the backseat. “I suppose they think you’re better off mixing the drinks first,” Alagu deadpans, “and then driving.” Ba-dump-bump.

It is cock’s-crow early. To outrun the battering sun of an Indian spring, our little traveling party of friends—Terence; Alagu; her mother, Meenakshi; and myself—set out just after dawn from our goofy hotel in Puri, the one with plastic flowers spilling from dolphin-shaped planters and staff dressed in Hawaiian shirts. The grumbling that greeted my recommendation of an early departure has subsided into grudging acceptance. It is not yet 8 a.m. and already heat can be seen shimmering up from the asphalt in menacing waves.

We are in the eastern Indian state of Odisha—formerly known as Orissa—headed from Puri to Konark. A coastal resort popular with weekenders from Kolkata, Puri has the funky, rundown aura of a Jersey Shore beach town, or would were it not a major Hindu pilgrimage place. Imagine Asbury Park with the basilica of Lourdes in the middle of Main Street and you’ll get the idea.

In Puri hulks the beehive-shaped Sri Jagannath Temple, one of the four most sacred Hindu pilgrim centers and home to Lord Jagannath, a deity whose image could have come from the pen of a child. Impossible to avoid in Odisha, Lord Jagannath is an eccentric god who, though technically an avatar of Vishnu, is a one-off among the 330 million celestial beings in the Hindu pantheon. He has his own cult, his own consorts (his brother and sister, Subhadra and Balabhadra), and, essentially, his own state. Outside of Odisha, you seldom encounter images of the black-skinned, saucer-eyed animist idol with stumps for hands. Here he glares at you from every rickshaw dashboard, stall front, lobby counter, restaurant menu, and mudflap: Boo!

I say Jagannath is hard to avoid though, in fact, the actual idol, housed on the grounds of the 800-year-old temple, is strictly off-limits to non-Hindus, as is the compound itself. Thus the Hindus in our little party are indulging the Christians with a secular day trip to the great Sun Temple at Konark, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As always and at any hour in India the roads and roadsides are hectic with human doings. Bicycles pedaled by itinerant salesmen wobble past, their entire inventories—cook pots, plastic baskets, tea kettles, coconut graters, and coir mats rolled into thick tubes—cantilevered from the frames. By the verge, barbers in stilt-shacks crouch with twig besoms to sweep the dust—the movement of dust from one place to another being a quintessential Indian activity. Oxcarts buried under mountains of hay creep along, also, joining a procession of pushcarts, rickshaws, taxis, hand-cranked rolling chairs, and our blessedly air-conditioned Toyota Innova.

India may be at the center of a 5,000-year-old civilization that produced four of the world’s major religions and also the Bollywood goddess Aishwarya Rai and yet equally it is a place that can leave a traveler as slack-jawed in disbelief as in justified awe. Nevertheless I love it deeply and probably for these selfsame reasons. Over two decades I’ve traveled throughout the subcontinent, mountains to beaches, slums to India’s versions of Beverly Hills. And during that time what I’ve come to find irresistible about this vast nation of more than 1 billion is how casually it upends any effort I might make at sustaining preconceptions, how it challenges lazy or for that matter strenuous thinking, how handily it defies all rational process, and generally keeps a visitor on his or her toes.

There is nothing new in this. India has always boggled the minds of outsiders. Take, for instance, this morning’s destination, an immense worship place erected by largely mysterious means in the 13th century, deserted by the 17th, and by the mid 1800’s almost wholly cloaked in obscurity and sand.

Now rescued, restored, and extensively tidied up, the huge edifice looms imposingly in the middle of a treeless clearing not far from Chandrabhaga Beach. Massive, commanding, and structurally improbable, the temple is built to resemble a celestial chariot, mounted on 24 immense carved wheels that symbolize the seasons and months but with its parking brake permanently set. Scholars invariably note Konark’s symbolic representation of human existence and then pile on the cosmological meanings.

Why bother? The obvious message—that a single human life is barely a turn of the cosmic wheel—is only part of the reason pilgrims have been lured to this out-of-the-way bit of seacoast for the better part of an eon.

There is another. Last and most ambitious of the temples built in the classic Odishan tradition, the Sun Temple is so exuberantly ornamented with carvings that one noted Indian historian immodestly claimed it would be hard to find anywhere in the world “a more perfect example” of sculpture wedded to architecture.

Why indulge in modesty, though, when talking about a structure covered with sculptural decorations so X-rated they’d make a hot-tub orgy at the Playboy Mansion look like a Methodist Sunday social?

“Lively amorous couples,” is how the guidebooks invariably describe the buxom nymphets, leering satyrs, and nagas—or half-human, half-snake-beings—that proliferate on the temple walls. Amorous is one way of putting it.

Little in the realm of erotic fulfillment was left unexplored by Konark’s creators, who carved in impressive relief all over the walls and struts and wheels and platforms of the giant chariot not merely a journalistic depiction of 13th-century life—1,400 elephants deployed in the temple’s construction; foreign delegates presenting tribute, including a gift-wrapped giraffe, to the temple’s builder, King Narasimha I—but also row upon row of amorous types vigorously engaged in every imaginable variety of sexual congress.

By the time we arrive around 9 a.m., the monument grounds are already hot as a griddle. Dropped in a parking lot away from the monument proper, we dive in to negotiations with a gaggle of trishaw drivers for a trip to the entry gate.

Why this added step is necessary is not altogether clear (something to do with pollution) but the trip is brief and costs somewhat less than a dollar and adds a theatrical dimension to arrival. Deposited at the gate, we are beset by official guides, from whom for no good reason we choose a bleary sort in his fifties, a man with betel-stained teeth and yellowing eyes. Despite his generally unwholesome appearance, this “official” (that’s what he claims—the laminated license hanging from his neck has aged and cracked in the sun to a state of near opacity) cicerone has charm.

And this, perhaps, is the place for a public service announcement: when in India, one should of course avoid unsafe drinking water, street food, and rides on motorcycles (even a Humvee would be less than reassuring on Indian highways). Having taken these necessary precautions, it is perfectly safe to indulge in local guides.

Like dust, like mosquitoes, like Hindi headache music, guides are an inevitable part of Incredible India, forever sliding out from behind an ancient column with an offer you can’t resist. In the manner of late-night-TV shills, they often build disclaimers into their come-ons: Instant Refunds, Satisfaction Guaranteed. Despite the bogus factoids they dispense with liberal brio, these guides often turn out to be ambulating troves of history and lore. What is more, they inspire a certain admiration of the entrepreneurial spirit required to reduce the complexities of Indian history to traveler-friendly tidbits in one of the Three Main Tourist Tongues. (In India these are French, Italian, and German; I used to try getting around the guides by claiming to be from Denmark—who speaks Danish—until a multilingual 10-year-old at a monument commemorating the massacre at the Black Hole of Calcutta called my bluff.)

Clearly a herding dog in a previous incarnation, Mr. Sharma, our guide, nips at our heels, rounding us up and moving us around like ovine extras from Babe.

Huge as it is, the Sun Temple can be satisfactorily appreciated in roughly 90 minutes: the Wikipedia version. To see it fully would require five lifetimes, at least, and understanding this truth Sharma sets a brisk pace, keeping things snappy. He shows us the elephant friezes, the sentinel lions, the hole in the sky where the temple tower stood until a 19th-century collapse. He gently warns us to exercise caution on the parapets as we gawp at the sculptures. Then, suddenly and with great urgency, he says, “Stop!”

We are standing abreast of a bas-relief depicting a gentleman whose erect penis is of such impressive dimensions a sling is required to support it.

“Please to remember these points,” Sharma says, voice rising and falling rhythmically. “On the great Sun Temple at Konark, there are to be found 16 different types of the kissing!” he says. “There are 32 types of the enjoyment!” he adds. “There are 64 types of the love all around.”

This, we assure him, we will be pleased to remember. And then we palm Mr. Sharma 500 rupees (about $10) and he immediately melts into the crowds.

From Konark we drive on to Bhubaneswar—quiet, eccentric, and leafy, it may be the place in India I have been seeking for years. That it took me so long to get around to visiting this most manageable of cities—an overgrown village passing itself off as a capital—likely owes to India’s embarrassment of riches. There are so many forts and palaces and ruined 13th-century capitals and forbidden lakes and Himalayan redoubts and colonial hill stations and drowsy backwaters to see first that Odisha never seems to make anyone’s Top 10 list.

Yet back in New York I’d been urged to visit by the novelist Gita Mehta, the daughter of Biju Patnaik, a nationalist hero and chief minister of the state, and sister of Naveen Patnaik, who now holds that same job. Once a gadabout on the international society scene, Naveen returned to India in 1997 and took up the family business.

It is hard to say whether the improvements we note in the city are to his credit, but certainly they bear the aesthetic stamp of someone with a jet-set résumé. Bhubaneswar is no Disney India, yet neither is it the usual calamitous or polluted or falling-to-pieces mess. (Think Agra.) The early temples and monuments are fenced and well-tended and surrounded by clipped lawns inset with cannas and marigolds laid out in Victorian carpet-bedding schemes.

The once-crumbling, tiered embankments of Bindusagar Tank—said to contain water from each of India’s sacred rivers—have been fortified and planted with herbal and medicinal gardens where the plants are labeled as though this were Colonial Williamsburg. The highways are paved and that in itself is a delightful anomaly in India, where I once saw with my own eyes a pothole swallow a car whole.

Traffic police in Bhubaneswar stand in elevated kiosks clad in uniforms with epaulets and lavender gloves. As they windmill their limbs to keep traffic flowing you can’t help thinking you have wandered into a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta starring the 1980’s band Devo.

It should be stated quickly that there is precious little to do in Bhubaneswar—it has nothing resembling the swank dining spots in Delhi, no relentlessly hip boutiques like La Scarpa or Le Mill, in Mumbai, not even a whiskey bar. A sense of the available options is suggested by the recommendation I received from Mehta that I might try visiting the zoo. (And it’s a cool zoo, with a drive-through safari park whose resident white tigers flop around with fat tongues lolling, though hardly cause for flying halfway around the world.)

If, however, like me, you happen to think the greatest pleasures are often to be found in the least trammeled places; the most fascinating sights, those you could never in a million years have conjured in imagination; the most compelling design innovations, things devised 10 centuries ago, then Odisha is the place.

In addition, it’s in Bhubaneswar that we find ourselves happily pulling up to the Trident Bhubaneswar, a business hotel that is surely one of the better-kept secrets in India. A white-walled minimalist gem, the Trident was built in the 1970’s and could be a posh ashram, a costly rehab center, or a planetarium complex on the campus of some fine California state university.

Constructed around an interior courtyard and pool, the Trident is set amid 14 walled acres of manicured gardens replete with a mango orchard, a gravel jogging path, a lathhouse, a potager, and tennis courts.

The walls and the lobby of a place that unaccountably serves a population of businesspeople who seldom stay more than a night are decorated with finely carved copies of the ancient sculptures you see in the temples. Lissome apsaras play flutes in a smart, wood-paneled lobby bar that—following a dusty day of scrambling around ninth-century stupas, and a cold caipiroska—I judge to be my new favorite watering hole on earth.

Our mornings in Bhubaneswar are spent mooching around the local sights, peering into the Lingaraj Temple from a viewing platform, lingering in the welcome cool of a large tree at the Rajarani Temple, where a team of cleaners hanging from scaffolds is scouring the façade. Afternoons, we escape the worst of the heat by the pool and then set out late for the shopping district to hunt down examples of the local weaving.

It was 20 years ago that I was first alerted to the elegance and subtlety of Odishan weaving by Martand Singh, then the guiding force of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and a man of tastes so refined as to make the rest of us seem like bumpkins and clods.

At a sale of saris Singh, universally known as Mapu, collected from throughout India and installed in a New Delhi gallery, I was encouraged to choose from among the lengths of lustrous stuff what looked like the plainest of all the saris.

It was dun-colored tussah silk, woven in the ancient resist-dye pattern called ikat, its border decorated in a kumbha, or temple pattern. The sari’s severe geometry was softened somewhat by the feathering of the weft threads; if it didn’t look exactly like an Agnes Martin painting, it surely called one to mind.

That particular sari, Mapu said, had taken its weaver roughly a month to create. It cost me, as I recall, about a hundred bucks.

It says something about the current precariousness of ancient crafts in a country whose constitution enshrines the work of handloom weavers that the price would be little more today. Certainly I experience no sticker shock when a salesman at Mehers’—a multistory Bhubaneswar emporium run by the merchant weaver (and designated national treasure) Chaturbhuj Meher—thumps on a table for my perusal a heap of astonishing woven goods.

My tastes have evolved since that original purchase and while my eye still finds pleasure in the severity of that single ikat, I delight equally in the lushness of weaves from Bomkai, Nuapatna, Sambalpur, and Sonepur.

If discovered at some gallery of contemporary design such as the Frozen Fountain, in Amsterdam, or New York’s Future Perfect, the things I see here would surely set the blogosphere buzzing. Which genius from Eindhoven, which RISD wunderkind came up with designs of so much restraint and elegance, such obviously computer-generated intricacy?

The answer, in this case, would be an illiterate weaver working a pedal loom in the back of beyond. “Tribals in the forest area find this in the rocks,” S. K. Patra, assistant director of the Weavers’ Service Center, says flatly when I visit him one morning, referring to dyes local tribal people grind from rock to achieve a Martian shade of saturated red.

It’s sad but probable that the mineral wealth the government counts on to ensure Odisha’s economic future will spell doom for traditional crafts. The story is the usual one. As the mining sector booms, conglomerates gobble up forests and hilltops, and bulldoze riverbank villages in a state that was a sleepy backwater not at all that long ago.

To judge by changes wrought in other cities over the decades since India liberalized its economy the pleasantly dozy aspect of Bhubaneswar is not destined to last. Yet for the moment the balance holds and there are few glass mini-malls to spoil the urban scene, no oppressive Orange County–style concrete cloverleafs and little enough development that the night skies are not so dimmed by pollution, as in some Indian cities, that the moon resembles a 40-watt bulb.

Dining one evening by the pool at the Trident, we are well into dessert (mango mousse, thank you for asking) before someone notes that our waiter has forgotten to light the candles. It has hardly mattered, the starlit sky is that clear and bright.

At various times both the Ford Foundation and intach made efforts to get the area of Bhubaneswar’s old city, centered on the massive Lingaraj temple, declared a heritage zone, a Plan B that never worked out. Despite the apparent lack of official protection, the Lingaraj (off-limits to non-Hindus, though there’s a viewing platform adjacent to the temple), the gorgeous Rajarani, the spooky Mukteswar, and the ninth-century Rameshwar Deula, known as the Mausi Maa temple, among many others, remain undisturbed and serene, caught in a state of preservation that may be deliberate or may not.

Visiting the pond, or tank, at Mausi Maa one morning on a solitary outing, I stop beside a gnarled ancient shade tree turned into a shrine. A blackened statue of the sacred bullock Nandi faces the tree. Three artfully arranged lotus blossoms with their petals bent down form a saddle cloth for Lord Shiva’s mount.

The scene is so anachronistic it feels as if I’ve drifted into a Satyajit Ray movie, color draining out of the frame, time slowing to a gentle halt.

A young girl with a long braid wanders up to the tree, steeples her palms and lays a marigold garland across the back of the seated bull.

As always when intruding on someone else’s private devotion I feel a rush of shame and hasten away, passing on the way back to the hotel a pavement astrologer setting up shop by the road. Dressed in saffron pajamas, he is scurrying to string a tarp signboard between two trees.

In its slackened state it is hard to make out the words. Luckily we are stuck at a red light and by the time it changes and the driver eases off the brake I can make out the astrologer’s message. Present, past, future already fixed, the sign reads, and, while I know what he means I prefer to put my spin on that particular message.

If past, present, and future are already fixed, then why worry? Why squander a moment of our brief time here on troubles and care when there are 32 types of the enjoyment and 64 types of the love all around?

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