The last place I expected to get gypped was in a temple. The details are not important because I am a little fatalistic: maybe it was meant to be. This happened at one of the most prominent of Bhubaneswar’s 7,000 temples, the Lingaraj temple. Everybody I asked in Odisha has a negative impression of the pandas. A panda (religious servitor/priest) was hovering like a vulture even as our car was parking and he swooped down as we stepped out. A panda provides a guided tour of the temple premises. Woe betide anyone who thinks he can do without a panda. The ratio of panda to pilgrim is roughly one to one or stacked in favour of the panda—at least that seemed to be the case. It was taken for granted that I was a Hindu, of course, or else I would not have been allowed to step inside the temple premises. There have been instances of foreigners sneaking into Jagannath temple and being discovered later and manhandled before the temple was cleansed. Foreigners can view the deity from afar when it is taken out in the rath but cannot touch or climb the vehicle. Being married to a non-Hindu can be problematic: it is said that Mrs Indira Gandhi was disallowed entry to the Puri Jagannath temple as she had married a Parsi. Outside the walls of the Lingaraj temple, there is a special viewing platform erected from where those foreigners wishing to gaze upon the temple can do so. The day I went, at around ten in the morning, there was no one on that platform.
Pandas can be intimidating or hectoring and the experience can be discouraging. Renuka Chowdhury visited the temple in 2005 as tourism minister and had this to say of her half-an-hour long visit: “I am disappointed. I was terrified at Jagannath temple.” She was surprised at the degree of indiscipline and the state of the temple, which she found slippery. If there was discipline at Vaishno Devi and Tirupati, why not at Jagannath temple, she asked. The same year, the president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, who had taken his family to the temple, called a press conference afterwards to reportedly declare that he would never again go to the temple “where attendants engaged in the worship of the Lord dare to outrage the modesty of mothers and sisters in the presence of family members”.
Before I was taken to see the main Puri temple deities up close, our guide priest cautioned strenuously, saying “there will be many who will ask from you, but do not give”. There have been instances of priests scuffling for money leading to fisticuffs and bloody nose. Once inside the throng of the temple, things can get chaotic. Once a panda pressed a couple of tulsi leaves into my hand, expecting money in return, and when I didn’t give, he raised his voice. My Oriya is not all that good so it was lost on me. To get a decent darshan, pandas ask for money. Some pandas claim there is a direct correlation between the money you give him and the benefits you get from the deity. One servitor even said that the money that I had offered the deity was so little as to be unworthy. When I attempted to take it back, he clasped it firmly, refusing to relinquish the unworthy currency note, glaring at me. It is all so crass and demeaning of a great temple.