I make an annual pilgrimage to Odisha. I come for the Literary Festival that The New Indian Express (TNIE) organises in Bhubaneswar every October-November, but—while there—I never fail to ‘matha theko’ at the Jagannath temple in Puri. I first visited the temple city as an adolescent, with my parents. From that visit, I vividly remember the beach, yummy meals of fish and rice, the hotel we had stayed at, and the passing crush I had on the owner’s son (back in these hormonal-ridden years—with the mind hypersensitive to the value of every novel experience—crushes came and went faster than the breakers at Gopalpur).
The temple barely figures in my memories. All I remember is an enclosed corridor that was slimy underfoot, and which I entered fearfully, clutching my father’s hand. The real scare came when we emerged into light, and I realised it was some other man’s hand I was clutching. Somewhere out there in the dark, my hand must have slipped out of my father’s grasp and I must have hung on to the next adult hand I found (the owner of which, bless his soul, held on till we were out in the open).
With only that in my recollection tray, I didn’t really know what to expect when my colleagues at TNIE told me, back in 2012, that I must visit the temple while in Odisha. (For the uninitiated, Puri is just a 1.5-hour, verdant drive from Bhubaneswar.) The arrangements were made and off I went. I was told there was a gentleman who would ensure I got “a good darshan”.
It was very Mission Impossible; all I had was a number that I had to call when I reached Puri. I made the call; the voice at the other end told me to leave everything in the car and walk to the temple entrance from where I should call once again. I obeyed blindly. I even left my shoes in the car and blistered my way to the temple (a Puri novice, I realised too late that I could have hopped onto a rickshaw).
The man of the moment, Ipshit (I finally learnt his name), met me at the entrance, took my phone from me and thrust it into his pocket before gesturing for me to follow. There was nowhere he couldn’t go, I saw as I trotted behind him, bypassing the crowds, entering shrine after shrine. He told me the story of each little temple, and told me to pay no money anywhere. The last stop was the sanctum sanctorum. I paid obeisance to the Trinity, overwhelmed as much by the experience as the energy radiating from the devotees who packed the shrine.
That was five visits ago. I was back yesterday, struck anew by the dedication of the pilgrims who come from all over to visit the temple in the month of Karthik. Some can barely walk, but they’re there, arms raised in the air, crying out to their god. I can’t claim to feel the same devotion but I love the place. And yes, Ipshit is a friend now. So Jai Jagannath.