Post 42 – Day 23 ‘The Black Pagoda’ (Pt 1)

Post 42a Post 42b Post 42c Post 42d

Puri just happens to be one of the seven most holy places for Hindus in India. In Sanskrit Puri means ‘town’ or ‘city’, and though it has been called by many names, in some early British reports it was referred to as ‘Jagannath’. At 9 o’clock in the morning the city’s broad Grand Avenue is already replete with expectant vendors and flowing traffic. The doors of all its side shops are long open, the multitude of entrepreneurs anxious at each doorway, beckoning both the curious and the uninterested to the snare of trade.

There were numerous traders offering brass pots, but none took my fancy. One shop dealt in antique tribal jewellery, but his prices eclipsed those on offer in Sydney. Across the avenue the advertising signage of the UCO Bank-Puri Branch and the Asoka Lodge vie for prominence. From the upper storey of the Debidutt Doodwawala Dharamshala building, built 1929, a middle aged woman stares blankly down at me. I do not recognise her. I cannot recall her face, so I return the anonymous woman’s look of unrecognition, of unacknowledgement. Yellow and black autobicycles gather in hope of custom, buses divulge pilgrims whose goal is the Shree Jagannath Temple complex in the distance. An old man selling coins offers an East India Company penny, each of its sides displaying a different date, one some time in the 1600’s the other a date 200 years later. Maybe the mint was just hedging its bets against the passage of time, or it was a long tea break between stampings. I decline his offer. Two young men riding a ‘Hero Honda’ motorcycle pause in front of me. They gaze coldly as if trying to determine my species. A shopkeeper calls my attention attempting to press into my hand a booklet of postcards, each one displaying an historic or religious feature of the city. His price is too high, besides I have unused postcards enough. He asks if I have any Australian coins to swap as he is a collector of foreign currency. “Now that’s an innovative take on being propositioned” I think to myself, my mouth twisted wryly. I mention I just happen to have an old penny, a special one, one with a kangaroo on it, and it dates from a time before ‘The Beatles’ formed. I’d be willing to swap it for an original East India Company coin, but not a fake. I wanted the real thing. He disappeared and thinking I had over-played my effort at a transaction I walked off, towards the Jagannath Temple. It could not be missed, its 65 metre high spire dominating the skyline, the endless assemblage of devotees entering and leaving its hidden precincts, and the ‘Aruna Stambha’ pillar standing at the temple’s entrance, the pillar’s base wrapped in bright pink and yellow striped cloth. The Aruna Stambha was once part of the Sun Temple complex at Konarak but was removed to its current site in front of the Jagannath temple’s ‘Lion Gate’ entrance by Maratha rulers in 1779.

Puri is famous for ‘Rath Yatra’, the festival of chariots where the images of the triad deities Jagannath Lord of the Universe, his brother Balabhadra, and his sister Subhadra are bought out of the Shree Jagannath temple sanctum and placed in a chariot procession. Unfortunately I was about six months too early as Rath Yatra typically occurs in the month of July. The Shree Jagannath Temple was built in the 11th Century CE, possibly on the ruins of an earlier Buddhist one, and is sacred to the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism. The area of the temple complex is about 37,000 m2, and is surrounded by a high wall, the Maghnanda Pacheri. Inside its walls are to be found 120 temples and shrines of various sizes. Four gates, the ‘Singhadawa’ or ‘Lion Gate’ prominent among them, give entry to the temple complex. But there are restrictions, rigidly enforced, on just who can enter. Practicing Hindus of non-Indian descent are not allowed entry. Buddhists and Jainas are allowed into the temple compound, if they can prove Indian ancestry. Foreigners are not allowed at all, though some have tried, only to be quickly evicted by the priests inside. However, visitors may view the temple’s precincts from the roof of the nearby Raghunandan Library. I had heard the library had seen better days, and me being a bibliophile who had already seen enough books eaten by neglect and bookworms, I forego the invitation to view the temple from the library’s vantage height.

Leaving my driver behind, instead I decide to explore the side street opposite the temple compound’s main entrance. Well, that was a mistake. First I am harangued by an elderly woman intent on a share of my money. I swear she was the identical twin sister of the old woman at Sarnath days earlier. Next a man, whose body was made to attain the most unnatural convolutions and deformities, danced and twisted aggressively about my ankles, and though I claim no knowledge of Hindi, Bengali or Oryan, whatever language he spewed forth was plain in its intent. He left me in no doubt that I was not his favourite person. My fist, the right one as it so happened, instantly clenched, but before I did something tactically unwise against an Indian national on his home soil, someone out of sight, said one single word. And my convoluted assailant was ‘out of there’, he was gone in a flash and did not return. I never did find out who my Good Samaritan was, but seconds later a man walked past me, and said clearly in English that my choice of streets was a poor one. He offered no explanation, and I was in no need of a second opinion. I turned about, assumed a nonchalant air as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and returned to the square in front of the Shree Jagannath Temple. A man caught my attention. It was the shopkeeper who had tried to sell me the booklet of postcards. He had been searching for me everywhere in the market place. He held a 1930 Indian quarter ‘Anna’ in his hand, the image of one of the later British King George’s on its obverse side. They were about as common in India as my old penny was in Australia. I traded it for my 1961 penny. It was a fair swap, and we shook hands.


I retreat to the car and we drive north to the Black Pagoda, the massive Hindu Sun Temple at Konarak. The road follows close to the sea, often in view of the beach, in part dissecting a large reserve for wildlife. We pass busload after busload of Indian’s intent on visiting the temple. There is no sounding of horns, the only sound that of vehicle engines and me humming and then singing to myself, over and over, an old English music hall song my mother had taught me. It was an amusing little ditty, the sort of inspiring work of musical achievement that empires are bolstered by, and that provide solace to folk stationed in distant colonies, a long way from home. I never did know its name but the song started off with the lines “Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside, oh I do like to be beside the sea…,” quite appropriate I considered, given our proximity to the sandy shores of the Bay of Bengal, surrogate Brighton as I thought it served, far flung from Great Britain as I was. Actually this was the only line of the song I ever did learn, and so a certain need for inventive repetition in its delivery was demanded on my part. The patience of my companions held out for about ten minutes.


Although damaged the Sun Temple remains an imposing architectural achievement, a monument to the imagination, its thousands of bas-relief carvings executed with precision, the sculptured human and divine figures often in erotic poses. Dedicated to the sun god Surya the main temple is conceived as a colossal chariot with twelve pairs of spoked wheels, drawn by seven richly adorned rearing horses in a galloping pose. But here the resemblance to a horse-drawn chariot ends, the massive structure consisting of a sanctuary and hall of monumental proportions. The sanctuary proper, the rekha-deul that once rose to a height of 70 metres, no longer survives but the multiple horizontal stages, or pidhas, of the pidha-deul temple roof are largely intact. Within the overall context of the temple’s ground plan are numerous design projections and recesses, these often inconspicuous, so that the visitor is constantly drawn and redrawn to explore the myriad details of the architect’s grand conception. The impact is one of sculptured and symmetrical perfection, its form likened to a truncated pyramid.

Konarak, also called Konark, from ‘kona’ (corner) and ‘Arka’ (sun), basically means ‘essence of the sun’. It was first mentioned in early Indian texts as ‘Mundira’ or ‘Mundirasvamin’. Prior to silting of the shoreline Konarak was a bustling port of the kingdom of Kalinga, but is now located several kilometres inland from the sea. Now listed as a World Heritage site, its ruins were excavated in the 19th Century. Originally built by the Ganga dynasty king Narasimha Deva I (1236-1264 CE), the Sun Temple was referred to as the ‘Black Pagoda’ by early western visitors due to the blackened nature that its stonework had acquired over many years. The stone is mainly khondalite, a naturally pink coloured stone with yellow streaks that is common to the temples of Orissa, however, it also incorporates laterite and greyish-green chlorite stone in its construction. The temple is aligned east-west, and the entrance is guarded by two rampant lions shown crushing war elephants, each of which lies on a human body. Konarak’s main buildings comprise the independent ‘Natmandir’ (natya-mandapa) or dancing hall that fronts the surviving jagamohana or pidha-deul. The huge pyramidal roof of the pidha-deul rose to a height of about 40 metres, but the now dilapidated rekha-deul collapsed in 1837. Off to one side is the separately located ‘Bhog Mandir’ (bhoga-mandapa) or hall of offering. The temple’s higher floors were reinforced using massive iron beams. A number of these now lie in the temple grounds, the largest measuring more than 10 metres in length, and 70 centimetres by 70 centimetres in cross section. The peak of the temple was said to be a magnet weighing over 48 tonne. The main temple idol was believed to float in the air, this owing to the effects of magnets positioned in the temple edifice.

The ruination of the temple has been attributed to several causes; incomplete haphazard construction leading to instability, removing of the temple’s stabilizing lodestone by the Portuguese (because they claimed it interfered with the navigation of their ships) resulting in collapse, wanton destruction caused by Muslim invaders in the 16th Century, and various mystical misfortunes stemming from the removal of the image of the presiding deity. The most popular of these theories is that its destruction was ordered by the Muslim general Kalapahad who attacked Orissa in 1568 CE, breaking most of the images in the Hindu temples he encountered, including those at Konarak. There are conflicting stories as to the disappearance of Konarak’s deity image, but regardless of the truth, with its removal temple worship and pilgrimage there ceased, subsequently the temple fell into decline and was eventually reclaimed by forest.


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