The latest article from Piya Bose (Girls on the Go) –
Like me, the overnight train that I was travelling on, seemed to believe in slow travel. Shamelessly, without a care in the world, the ‘slow coach’ chugged in five hours late at Puri, Odisha’s famous sea side resort. This gave me more time to enjoy the rural landscape – acres of lush farms dotted with contented cows and little village boys racing with the train. This, being my fifth visit to Puri, I decided to do more than just be a beach bum and explore various art forms in and around the coastal town.
Later, as I strolled by the breezy beach promenade ‘Marine Drive’, interestingly named after Mumbai’s iconic sea front, I noticed that the surrounding market was bustling with scores of tourists haggling over prices of Sambhalpuri sarees and Kotki printed cloth.
I learnt from an elderly shopkeeper who was keen to talk about local craft forms, that most textiles are hand woven. The masters of weaving are well versed with centuries of knowledge of silk worm cultivation and most of their designs were inspired by temple architecture. He showed me some beautiful silk ‘ikat weaves’ where threads were tied and dyed to produce designed patterns on the loom while weaving. The designs were of birds, animals, seashells and temple spires. Beautiful and rare silk fabric produced at Cuttack embellished with verses from the Gita Govinda that is used to dress up idols at the Jagannah Temple, lined the shelves. Now that was a fresh way to look around a town that was noted more for its sea and fish!
Further on, I crossed shops where the tinkling of wind chimes made of sea shells greeted me. Shell necklaces and wooden effigies of Lord Jagannath and his siblings Balabhadra and Shubhadra were being sold in large numbers. Konarak Chakras (inspired by the Sun temple at Konarak) in fine filigree design woven with threads drawn of strips on silver as fine as a spider’s web, were a spectacular sight.
I paused to watch a man design animal shapes using coconut coir and wire. As he churned out camels, horses and elephants like a master magician, I marveled at the unsung brilliant craftsmen that the country has.
No visit to Puri is complete without a visit to the intricately carved temple of Lord Jagannath (Lord of the Universe). The economy of Puri depends largely on this temple and almost everyone is involved directly or indirectly in the temple’s activities.
The magnificient temple is situated in a narrow, crowded road filled with pilgrims and the air is thick with incense. My guide was a Panda (Priest) who took me into a fascinating trip into the temple’s history and architecture.
This shrine of Lord Jagannath (Lord of the Universe) is one of the four holy ‘dhams’ and is considered to be the holiest. The temple, he explained stands on an elevated mound called the ‘Nila Parvata’ (Blue Mountain) and has four gateways. Statues of lions, tigers, elephants and men on horseback guard these gates. The main shrine of Lord Jagannath, brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra are represented by three profusely decorated wooden images in black, white and yellow respectively, with glaring eyes, legless bodies and undersized arms. The shrine is inside a dark, stone room with a rather slippery floor, caused due to the water and oil used for bathing the Gods. Tread with caution when inside.
Cooking of the Mahaprasad (ambrosia) and its transportation around town is an art that deserves mention. Multiple huge pans of food are balanced one on top of another and cooked on a single flame. One can actually choose from a Bhog menu and I sat cross legged at the temple eating a delicious meal of pulao, khichdi, sweet rice, dal, an assortment of vegetable, chatni, payasm and malpua. A meal fit for a king!
Fed and content, I walked in the dingy lanes fringed with quaint, old buildings and watched temple workers carrying Mahaprasad to thousands in the town in earthen pots suspended in two baskets along the ends of a bamboo stick.
Giving in to my sweet cravings later, I tried out Chana Pora, Malpua and other delicious local sweets. This was definitely no time to count calories!
Next morning, I headed out towards Pipli, a little village an hour’s drive from Puri, renowned for its appliqué work. The drive through the coastal country side, past a coconut research centre, gently flowing rivers and ancient temples was deeply soothing.
In Pipli, I was immediately caught up in a whirlpool of colours. The craft of appliqué involves stiching of one cloth over another and in most cases using plenty of glass work. This was originally started to serve temples, providing intricately stitched coloured covers for deities. Traditional motifs like peacock, fish, flowers and geometric designs are cut out of brightly coloured cloth and sewn on to a cloth background. These artists produce the chariot covers and giant umbrellas used in the annual Rath Yatra at the Jagannath temple.
A fair bit of shopping later, I headed off to Raghurajpur, another artisan village 14kms from Puri.
I realised I was totally off the beaten track as there were very few tourists in the vicinity. The idyllic setting of the village on the southern bank of the Bhargavi River surrounded by trees, looked straight out of a fairytale. This village has attained a considerable amount of international fame for being home to a community of artisans who produce Patta Chitras, palm leaf engravings, stone carvings, papier mache toys and masks, cow dung toys, tusser paintings etc.
Being the only tourist around, I found myself surrounded by many of the families, all of whom wanted me to see their art. Visiting the homes of several artists, I was amazed to see the quality of the beautiful paintings. One of my finest conversations was with Gopal Maharana, descendant of the original family employed years ago by the King to decorate the Jagannath temple. In fact the clay hut in which he stayed was also a gift from the King. I marvelled at the international accolades that lined the shelves of his humble abode.
He explained to me that the village is most famous for ‘Patta Chitra’, a classical Odisha painting. The Patta (cloth) is specially prepared and coated with earth to stiffen it and finally finished with lacquer after painting, producing colourful motifs. They are now used as wall hangings. The subjects are mostly from the Jagannath cult and famous epics. He showed me a thin brush that he used to paint the Pattas and explained that it was made from the hair at the back of a mouse’s neck. He even showed me a mouse trap that he used to catch mice and kill them for the hair!
Another prevalent art form in the village was palm leaf paintings, the use of which dates back to the medieval period. I watched a lady skillfully inscribe text and design on the surface of a palm leaf and then apply a paste of tamarind seed, oil and charcoal. She explained that once the residue was rubbed off, the groove would stand out after which vegetable and mineral colours would be used to brighten the effects.
The village itself is an interesting work of art. Two rows of neat houses face each other and in the centre is a line of temples, as well as the Bhagbat Tungi, the community meeting place of villagers. All the houses were living art galleries and had ancient paintings on the walls outside, depicting scenes from various religious texts and rural life.
At the end of the rows of houses is a school where the Gotipua form of dance is taught. An earlier form of Odissi, here men dressed like women danced outside temples. Incidentally, the revered Odissi dancer Kelu Charan Mahapara is from this village. At the entrance of the village is a titanic amphiteater, where Odissi performances are done. As I was heading out of the entrance I noticed some men cooking meals in enormous pots on a wooden fire. I found out that they were cooking for the entire village and got paid by each family for cooking everyday. The concept of community meals both at the village and the temple level was striking. Very reluctantly, I bid farewell to the little colouful village and headed back to Puri.
I ended my trip with a long walk on the breezy beach, feeling at one with nature. The simplicity and humility of all the artists I had met had forced me to introspect into my own fast paced urban life, where the sensex ruled supreme over our senses.
At a distance, I noticed a sand sculptor immersed in creating exquisite life sized sand carvings of various Gods on the beach, oblivious to the applaud of the crowd that watched him work. What puzzled me was why was he taking such pains to create these beautiful sculptures, knowing fully well that the next big tide will destroy his creation completely?
I suddenly remembered the Tibetan practice of monks creating exquisite sand ‘mandalas’ (intricate geometric representation of the world in a divine form) over several weeks and then ritualistically destroying what they had created and immersing the sand in a body of moving water, back to nature. This signifies the impermanence of materiel life and the purpose is to reflect on something larger than one’s own small, perceived world.
Suddenly, in the backdrop of temple bells and the crashing of the restless sea in the darkness of the night, the meditative nature of art and the humility of a true artist started making sense to me.
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