Apparently it had been arranged by the local office of my tour company that the ever-smiling guide from yesterday’s journey to the Chilika Lake is to meet us at the temple entrance. That grin had got to me, but if he was to be fairly condemned for any crime, it was most probably only one of being too enthusiastic to please. But today I am determined to provide my own archaeological interpretation and enjoyment of the site, and absent myself from company at the first opportunity. At a quickening pace I walk from the car park along the broad concourse that leads to the ‘Natmandir’ dancing hall.
My goal of increasing my personal space proves illusional for amongst the ruins I soon find myself in the company of a great many teenage boys and girls and family groups, and a solitary Westerner whose back is bent low by the weight of his camera gear, though his head is unencumbered by the weight of a protective sun hat. The sun’s rays strike down upon his head unobstructed. The woman I take to be his companion is of a wiser personage, the brim of her hat so wide that it flops about her ears and face so well, like a veil, that in her obscured state of visual acuity she is at risk of repeatedly colliding with the ruin’s masonry. I abandon her to her fate trusting that her god will provide a guiding hand, but I consider cautioning the man about the threat of skin cancer in this age of global warming and thinning ozone layer. He is preoccupied photographing some detail of an erotic sculpture, gives no recognition of my words of greeting, so I leave him to his own resources. If he ever finds himself under the surgeon’s knife, or his allotted span of life foreshortened by cancer owing to his lack of sensible outdoors attire, he might come to consider those photographs poor compensation.
The surrounding temple grounds consist of formal rectangular gardens, closely-cropped lawns, and scattered and well tended trees upon the trunks of which large black ants scurry in their endeavours, unbothered by gardeners and day-tourists. A web of scaffolding adorns one face of the pidha-deul, the building under reconstruction. Someone has placed a small ‘Made in China’ label on the first tier, each of the many passing feet ignorant of the label’s offending existence. Guards in ubiquitous khaki coloured attire rigorously patrol the ruins, occasionally shouting at some child keen to climb the temple’s stonework. Grey squirrels run from the cover of dwarf shrubs to glean crumbs left by picnickers, their foraging unnoticed by nearly all. Two families ask for photographs. Having satisfied their requirements, and completing several sentences of pleasantries, I wander at leisure around the tiered structure of the pidha-deul, its intricacy sufficient to allow me refuge from the milling crowds continuously disgorged by arriving buses.
To one side of the complex is a massive sculpture of a war horse crushing an enemy, the attendant sculptured figures on either side headless, their heads nowhere in evidence. It affords a shaded and restive spot from which I can contemplate the breathtaking majesty of what has survived the wrecker’s hammer, except it turns out to be the haunt of another holy man, who insistently follows me in the hope of obtaining a donation in return for his blessing. I protest that I am a strict devotee of the teachings of ‘Deep Ecology’, a believer in the primacy of all beings and an opponent of anything resembling a Kali temple, and although my ancestors liked to ornament their bodies with blue woad, his attempted daubing of paint upon my forehead was both spiritually and culturally irrelevant. His insistence was shameless, my protestations useless. He daubed the paint, and I payed the donation. I knelt and clutched at some dirt, but before I could sprinkle it on his arm, my sage-like intent being to explain that Mother Earth was the cosmic essence of what we were, are, and will be, the bent man with the cameras came into view, and my holy man was off, having found a new subject in need of consecration.
Suitably pigmented and blessed I tried finding an uninhabited enclave amongst the small collection of lesser temple ruins behind the remains of the collapsed rekha-deul. But no, this also proved to be haunted, this time by two Indian college undergraduates. They were really friendly. They didn’t ask for money. They just wanted to know where I came from, but on finding out, out came the predictable question, ‘why are Australians attacking Indian students?’ By now I was well-practised in my response. I started with the polished explanation I had used to inform my new-found excitable friend from Kendujhargarh, that the students were sadly, but simply, victims by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that my family doctor was Indian, how the attacks had been misreported in the Indian press, how India and Australia were like brothers and sisters owing to our pathological addiction to cricket, how our forebears had fought Anglo-Saxon oppression, how both countries were passionate democracies, how we drove on the same side of the road, and how a particular trading partner to our north loomed large in our defence thinking. But to freshen up my case I threw in mention of our shared plate-tectonic ancestry being that India and Australia were linked by our partnership in the super-continent of Gondwana, how India and Australia share fossils of the extinct Permian Period plant genus Glossopteris, though each country possessed a plethora of indigenous languages we both spoke English, how our two countries shared the dolphin genus Orcaella in our species lists of marine mammals, that Australia and India were signatories to the RAMSAR agreement on sites of significance for migratory waterfowl, and that snakes loomed large in our respective folk lores. In addition, I played the card of the news from the latest edition of ‘India Today’ that Australia is selling uranium to India and that our countries, now the very best of friends, will be undertaking joint military exercises. My response, a little twisted in the presentation of the facts that I admit it to be, was nevertheless unassailable. The only oversight being that I forgot to mention how our two countries had jointly nominated the Republic of Indonesia as a member of the United Nations; and my only regret being that if I had visited India twelve months later I could have thrown in the recent study outcome by German scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology that found DNA evidence for an Indian influence on Indigenous Australians 4,000 years ago, and which I interpreted as evidence for co-habitation.
No matter, my presentation had been factually overwhelming, I had them in the palm of my hand. That is until they asked me about my car; its make, colour and various other production details. Seemed an odd sort of a question to ask someone you’ve never meet before so, not wishing to give offence, I answered. I made the mistake of keeping to a line of truth. I also made the mistake of offering details of the car’s disposition that they had not requested, answers to questions they had not posed, in particular divulging its age. My fault, a habit that has often proved my bane, was that I did not know when to keep my mouth shut. “Twenty years”, I stated proudly, “twenty years and hardly a skerrick of rust, barely 350,000 kilometres on the clock”. That blew away any personal credibility I had established based on my earlier response to their question concerning attacks on students. They had the view that everyone in Australia was comfortably well off, and consequently were incredulous as to the age of my car. “No one in Australia owns a twenty year old car,” they responded. “No one in India owns a twenty year old car.” From that point on any attempt I made to re-establish the sincerity of my discussion was met with polite stares, me prolonging a conversation they had tired of. Pity, as I was just about to ask them if either were married. I was still in the market for a possible partner for my daughter. Perhaps I should have told them my car was a Volvo.
But the trivial issue of the age of my car aside, the issue of student attacks was a serious one. It turns out that nearly half a million people in Australia claim Indian heritage, and Indians are the second largest group of international students at the tertiary level studying there. The reports of attacks had had repercussions in India of which I was blissfully unaware. From 2004 to 2009 the number of Indians studying in Australia rose from 30,000 to 97,000, these predominantly studying at colleges in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Many seek permanent residency. In 2007-2008, in the state of Victoria alone, 1,1447 students had been victims of crime including assaults and robberies. This led to student protests in Australia and India. In New Delhi, in 2009, demonstrators outside the Australian High Commission burnt effigies of the Australian Prime Minister. The Indian parliamentary member, and member of the Indian far right ‘Shiv Sen’, Manoher Joshi, warned that Australian’s living or travelling in India would face revenge attacks if Indian’s living in Australia continued to be attacked. The left wing ‘All India’ student federation conducted a candle march demanding action against those responsible for the attacks. In June 2009 Indian student organisations called on the Indian government to declare Australia an “unsafe destination for Indian students”. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad political party said it would consider a boycott against Australia over the bashings if authorities there did not do more to protect Hindus in Australia. In 2009 there were rallies in Sydney by Indians and their supporters.
It was not so much that I was being aggressively questioned by Indians bent on revenge. Rather, it was more like being approached by devoted family members, who from a position of deep hurt, could not understand why family should attack family. You only had to see the sports commentary in Indian newspapers to gauge the impression that even if Australia was not a physical extension of the Indian landmass, for many it formed an inextricable part of their psyche.
The water at Puri Beach is warm and the waves smaller than yesterday but of a size still worth riding. The hour is late but I hazard my chances against the possibility of early feeding sharks. A few brave Indians take their chances wading knee-deep for several minutes in the surge zone. The only marine denizens I encounter are two empty potato crisp packets that float by. Fewer onlookers are there to greet my return to dry land. I douse my eyes, ears and mouth with bottled fresh water, but as I hand it back to my obliging consort, a group of young men approach. Being confronted by a group of men always gives cause for a degree of concern, and I’d already experienced several interesting interactions down by the Ganges at Varanasi. But in this case these failed to live up to my anxiety levels, and neither were they after money nor cared to enquire about student attacks. They quickened their pace as they got closer, but just kept walking, yelling joyously out “Krishna, Radha”, laughing all the while as they passed, and then at some distance one turned. “Krishna”, he called. And that was the beginning and end of my mysterious interaction with them. I looked to my partner, she as equally puzzled as me by the experience. We walked together some length southwards along the beach to investigate a large concrete hotel complex being constructed at the edge of the beach esplanade, and then turned to cross to our hotel. It was at this moment that a car speeds by, “Lord Jagannath”, one standing occupant proudly cries, “Lord Jagannath”, his arm outstretched, his fist clenched in the air in salute. I raise my arm in brotherly recognition. He is the guy from the beach, the others in the car of the same group. It’s just like Sydney on a Saturday night, just like the night scenes from the movie ‘American Graffiti’, kids in hotted up cars cruising the city in pursuit of excitement, of meaning; before they went off to fight and die in Vietnam.
I am not the only person to have entered the beach’s waves at Puri. Here once bathed Jayadeva, illustrious author of the ‘Gita-govinda’, the ‘Love Songs of Radha and Krishna’. As Jayadeva bathed in the water, Lord Krishna in his absence had come to complete the composition of song 11; “To purge me of passion’s potent poison, place your noble foot upon my head, a crowning jewel”. It was divine intervention. If only all writers were so graced?
The Gita-govinda is a beautiful Sanskrit 12th Century court poem, which became a classic of Vaishnava devotional literature; deluged with eroticism as its pages are. Its grasp of the erotic is up there with the Biblical ‘Song of Songs’. Jayadeva crafts the Gita-govinda for an audience that delights in the cultured sentiments and savouring of erotic love. In the work Jayadeva transforms Lord Krishna from a great warrior to the greatest of lovers, and the figure of his consort Radha is manifested as an exemplary metaphor of union with god. Within its text Krishna plays the part of a lusting cowherd, Radha that of an impassioned milkmaid. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.
A few lines, from song 12 of the Gita-govinda, paint the image of Jayadeva’s theme:
“Let obliging words stream from your sweet mouth,
your face a moon, its nectar flowing;
As if it were our separation, I’ll draw back the drape that prevents your breasts from showing;
Obey me now, right now, dear Radha….
I’m flustered by cuckoo cries ringing in my ears;
so calm me down, my pretty one, and sing
A song harmonious with the music of your hips;
at long last let girdle bells ring.
Obey me now, right now, dear Radha…..”
It gets better. But you get the picture.
As a young man in Orissa, Jayadeva consecrated his life to the praise of Krishna, Lord Jagannath, the deity installed at the temple at Puri. There, in the Shree Jagannath Temple, Jayadeva sang songs of devotion to Krishna, his beautiful wife Padmavati dancing in accompaniment. Over time the perception of Jayadeva has evolved from that of courtly singer and poet to pious saint, a wandering singer of psalms of spiritual adoration. Legends of the devoted couple, Jayadeva and Padmavati, serving Krishna together, have become accepted history, the Gita-govinda now a liturgical text performed in song and dance each evening in the Jagannath temple at Puri. What began as a love story for court performances has become an allegory of spiritual relationship with Krishna, Lord of the Universe, the mere hearing of the words of the Gita-govinda claimed to lead devotees to the attainment of liberation from the world.
In popular Hindu tradition the youthful aspect of Lord Krishna is particularly adored. As a youth Krishna lived in the town of Vraja, and in the nearby woods of Vrindavana found pleasure and delight with the women of the town. Stories of Krishna’s love for the women of Vraja are known from as early as the 5th Century, the best loved version appearing in the ‘Bhagavata Purana’ of the 10th Century. Although Radha rises to a position of pre-eminence amongst the cowherd women references to Radha do not appear until about the 12th Century. It is another three centuries before she assumes the position of Krishna’s favourite in the mythology of the god. It is then that Radha becomes the transcendent model of the ideal devotee, that of Krishna and Radha the ideal lovers. But their love is an illicit one, for Radha is a married woman. Their encounters find expression in the idyllic groves of Vrindavana, this a sylvan forest festooned with flowering trees and entwining vines, humming bees and impassioned birds calling to their mates. The setting of Radha and Krishna’s frequent dalliances is a natural one, exuding the life of plants and animals, devoid of the buildings of man; the other half of India, the part where few foreign acolytes of its culture tread.
Amongst the devotional movements and figures centred on the ecstatic love of Radha and Krishna rises the historical devotee and saint, Chaitanya. Chaitanya is believed to have lived from 1486 to 1533 CE and is often said be the founder of Bengal Vaishnavism, this being a collective term for those Hindu traditions in which Vishnu and his various ‘avataras’, such as Krishna, is considered the supreme deity. More correctly Chaitanya revitalised Krishna worship in eastern India. Devotional texts emphasize that Chaitanya was an incarnation of both Krishna and Radha, a duel entity that incorporated in one body the essence of their ecstatic union. The popular worship of Krishna, as practiced by Vaishnavan devotees, is known as ‘kirtan’, and consists primarily of the joyous singing of devotional songs and the repeated chanting of Krishna’s name. Chaitanya practiced kirtan in public, sometimes to all hours of the night, his ecstatic revelling, and that of his joyous followers, not always to the liking of townspeople nearby seeking sleep. Chaitanya moved from his home in Bengal to Puri, and in his teachings there taught that to attain the highest of man’s goals, ‘Krishnahood’, one must adopt the attitude of the cowherd Radha, constantly mediate on her love trysts, and consider Krishna only in the aspect of profound lover. The mere thought of Radha and Krishna’s earthly relationship brought Chaitanya to moments of ecstasy. Thoughts of Krishna sent him into devotional frenzy. He saw Krishna everywhere, and many descriptions of Chaitanya depict him as a lovesick girl, down-stricken by her lover’s absence. And as with many who are stricken by love, he neglected his wellbeing, needing constant attention so that he would neither injure himself nor neglect the need to eat and wash. He died in 1533, and continues to be celebrated because he revealed the beauty of devotion to Krishna. Later generations of devotees believe that he is an incarnation of Krishna himself.
It is my last sunset on the beach at Puri, for tomorrow I must leave at 5 am for Bhubaneswar. There is no sound to hint at the great buildings behind me, cold in their modern facades of brick and cement. Here on the beach there are no biting sand midges or mosquitoes to disturb me from the tranquillity. My ‘Radha’ sits beside me. The view in the fading light out into the Bay of Bengal is deceptively peaceful, as if there is an inherent harmony held within its moonlight-tipped waves. But in 1942, when Britain’s navy had been swept from the Indian Ocean, once considered its personal lake, the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryujo and six shepherding cruisers raided the Bay of Bengal. They sank 23 allied ships. Japanese submarines, the surrogate sharks of war, sunk five more.