City of temples and textiles

Bhubaneswar

City of temples and textiles

Of gods and goddesses: The Siddheswar temple dating back to the 12th century. Photo by author

Bhubaneswar revealed itself to us slowly and pleasantly. Exploration of this ancient city, constantly surprised and kept us in awe. Unlike Bangalore, (although I love the city) which is usually clogged with traffic and is not clean enough, our first brush with Bhubaneswar was nothing but pleasant, with broad roads and pavements, very little traffic and clean surroundings welcoming us.

To add to the splendour, were  colourful murals depicting the tribal art of Orissa, very much like the worli paintings in terracotta and black and of gods and goddesses of the pattachitras. One wall  displayed the textile traditions in sari borders and pallus. Exuding warmth, the city accepted us gladly with no one to hassle our wallets or our conscience. Our journey finally began.

The connections Orissa shares with Indonesia and Malaysia are striking. I had always known about these links, partly because Indians in Malaysia were known (rather derogatively) as klings. The term has its origin in Kalingans since there were trade links between the region and Orissa. The ikat weaves, an intricate technique in which warp and weft threads are tie and dyed in such a way so as to produce patterns when woven, practiced in Orissa is also known to have originated in Indonesia. Also, once every year, there is a Bali yatra held in Orissa where boats symbolising travellers from this region, are set afloat on the river. The connections are by no means tenuous.

Temples galore
Known as the city of temples, Bhubaneswar is supposed to have had a staggering 7000 temples built between the 7th and 10th centuries. We saw a few, each built at a distinctive time in the evolution of the Orissa temple style. The earliest one was the Parasurameswara temple from the 8th century, which was small, compact, beautifully preserved and had a rectangular jagamohana or porch and square sanctuary, juxtaposed rather charmingly. But, it was quite evident that they were built at different times because of the difference in character. While the interior was plain, the facade had animated carvings of domestic elephants capturing their wilder kith and kin, a serpent and an absolutely charming pot-bellied Ganesa.

The next temple, Vaitul Deol belongs to the same period. It has an air of mystery, having supposed links with tantricism. The interior carvings are supposed to be eerie and invoke fear, thanks to the terrifying eight armed chamundi glaring at visitors. But due to renovation and the tarpaulin covering her, she did not quite create the impact on people, she usually does. The tower, however, was richly patterned.

We also came across a stone post in front of the temple, to which sacrificial offerings were tethered.

Just a stone’s throw from the Parasurameswara temple are the Mukteswar and Siddheswar temples, dating back to the 10th and 12th century respectively. Both are well maintained, set in the midst of green lawns. The former has an elegant arched gateway or torana with sculptured female figures. Because of the limited dimensions of the temple, it seemed exceptionally well-proportioned. I noticed that priests in the temples were clad in brightly coloured lungis. The tank at the back of the Siddheswara was host to young men and boys splashing water in the intense heat.

Next is the Lingaraja temple, a vast complex of more than a hundred shrines in a large courtyard and is dedicated to Tribhuvaneswara — lord of the three worlds. It is a temple out of bounds for non-Hindus. Authorities are so rigid is this injunction that even the late prime minister, Indira Gandhi was not allowed inside as she had married a Parsi.

There is a platform outside the precincts, which oversees the temple courtyard. Our guide deputed a priest to take us through it. It being the beginning of the holy month of Karthika, devotees thronged the temple, making prayers next to impossible for us. The temple has four well defined structures, corresponding to the Vimana, the jagamohana or pillared hall or mandapa, the dancing hall or nat mandir and the hall of offerings called as the bhog mandir .

The jewel in the crown is the Rajarani temple in Bhubaneswar, its name derived from the striking colour of the sandstone. It is small, compact and reminded me, in its gemlike intensity, of the Somnathpur temple, my favourite Hoysala temple in Karnataka. It has a striking spire, decorated with miniature replicas of itself and fine carvings of the dipkalas — the guardians of the eight directions.

Haven for fabrics
For a change, let’s go beyond temples as the city is not about them alone. The tribal museum is one of the best I have seen. It houses an impeccable display of artefacts, both daily and ceremonial, of the tribals. On the walls of the building are pictographs, which essentially represent the area, outlined with a square or a rectangle. They are executed in rice paste on the red ochre of the walls and are striking. Another interesting place and a must-visit is the state museum.

Orissa is also home to one of the finest traditions in textiles. Their saris, extremely elegant, highlighted by distinguishing woven patterns or borders are worth collecting. Others are rich and opulent with glorious colours and rich pallus. Also, the state is well-known for the art of pattachitra, as its folk painting is called. It is done on a cloth, which artists prepare by coating the same with a mixture of chalk and gum made from tamarind seeds, giving it a leathery finish. On this, they paint with stone and other colours. The figures are highly stylised paintings of the temple at Puri, around which this art has evolved, depicting epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Predominant paintings of Lord Jagannath with his older brother Balarama and sister Subhadra are also part of these creations.

Bhubaneswar also showcases filigree work in silver, supposedly from Cuttack. I saw a marked resemblance to the work done in Sulawesi in Indonesia. Close to the city are several sites of archaeological and historical interest such as the Jain caves of Udaigiri and Khandagiri hills. These hills are attractively honeycombed with 1st  century Jain monastic dwellings, some with sculpted friezes depicting courtly life such as musicians, dancers and royal retinues. The city is therefore, a good focal point for visiting other famous landmarks in Orissa, namely the awe inspiring Sun Temple in Konark and the Jagannath temple in Puri, which has gifted English language with the word ‘juggernaut’.  Visit Bhubaneswar to soak yourself in rich history.

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