Decoration

Puri, an old temple town, is a hodge-podge of architectural styles from many periods. But the Grand Road, the road along which the massive vehicle of Jagannath passes, is lined with buildings from the last century. Early 20th century architecture is very decorative. Even ordinary houses here have ornate plaster work balconies: botanical curlicues and peacocks are common, as are very bright colours. And what I saw were not ordinary houses.

When it comes to the ashrams, the decorations become mesmerizing. Mythological scenes abound. What could be done earlier in expensive stone or fragile earth, was now done in plaster. Some are executed in the then newly popular westernized style picked up from Raja Ravi Varma and his followers, but others recall temple statuary from the region. But the exuberance of the colours is completely local. Driving through the countryside outside Puri you’ll see modest houses painted in the same bright colours, standing out against the greenery of fields. All of the decorations you see here belong to gateways. In the last picture in the gallery above you see one of the gates, a massive made-to-order cast iron affair (interestingly, of all the gates I saw, this was the only one in which the dwarapala was not a lion). The iconography is largely of Vishnu, of course. The small icon of the Varaha avatara (featured photo) was a wonderful example of this style.

Across the road from these ashrams was a building with totally different aesthetic on its frontage. The colours and the style were imitation British. I wondered why it was so different. There was no clue from its current use. It had shops on the ground floor and a hotel in the upper floors. Quite a good spot if you want to take photos of the rath yatra, I thought.

Midweek mobile 8

Puri, an ancient temple town, is the perfect place for street photos. No camera can be more discreet these days than a phone; bystanders can seldom tell whether you are taking a selfie or a photo of the street. Gone are the days when you saw a photographer and you would walk around them. These days you could land up photo-bombing a selfie. I walked about taking more shots than I could ever use. I had a few destinations in mind, and since these small lanes are a little confusing, I had my maps and location service on. I knew that all this can eat charge like a hungry spider. This time I was going to track exactly how much.

Normally I charge the battery fully, and it gives me a low battery alert when the charge has fallen to 15% of its capacity. On the average I have to charge my phone every three days. That means in an average hour I use 2.3% of the charge. After an hour of walking, I saw that maps and camera had each been on for the hour. Maps had eaten 3% of charge, but the camera had eaten just over 10%. This was just the camera software, since the display is counted separately. This agreed with my previous experience, that I would need to charge my camera after a day’s shooting.

To understand why, back up a little. These photos are zoomed in by a factor of about 4 to 8. With a DSLR setup you would not expect to capture the details of the old man’s mustache using a 15 mm diameter lens which has a focal length of 26 mm. The sensor size on my phone is almost 8 times smaller than that on most DSLRs, and therefore catches that much less light. The sharpness that you see comes from the number of output pixels in the image. That pixel density is due to intense computation, including two components that I’ve explored before: computational super-resolution and image averaging over a very large number of images. Driving the software that tries to compensate for the hardware limitations is what uses up so much charge. Algorithms will improve in future, mass market hardware will become better, and processors will run cooler. But until then, the carbon footprint of phone photography will remain several times larger than that of communication.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Well-beaten paths

Some periods of history are turbulent enough that scholarly work is hidden under contending views. Our times are among them. As a result, the history of Puri and the Jagannath temple has become obscure again. What we do know is that it is one of the older towns in the area. The kingdom of Kalinga, was originally part of modern day Odisha, and has at times had an empire which covered large parts of peninular India. It is definitely as old as Magadha, the ancient kingdom which originated in present day Bihar, and grew to be one of the largest Indian empires, with a cultural reach which eventually included most of Asia as well as Greece and Rome. That culture carried Buddhism from Magadha, where Gautama preached his new religion before the time of Alexander of Macedonia, and the Pali language across the world. It is said that this outreach was catalyzed by the bloody battle in year 261 BCE between these two states which was fought close to Puri. What is known about the temple of Jagannath is that it was rebuilt by a king of the Ganga dynasty, perhaps in the 10th century BCE, so it must be older.

You need to enter the Singhadwar, the Lion gate, to see the temple complex. Little is visible from outside, and having visited once, I was not inclined to brave it again. Crowd management has definitely improved since my last visit to Puri, and it was hard to take a photo of the gate. I suspect, from its style, that the stone gate and wall was built during the Maratha occupation in the 18th century. In this region Jagannath is not an inaccessible deity, but one who is treated as part of the household, part of normal life. Walling off his temple seems to be part of a different view of the religion.

I left behind these knots where history gathers and walked on into the little spaces of daily life. The lanes around the temple are narrow, just wide enough for a rickshaw or an auto, after you subtract the space needed to park a motorbike (like in the featured photo). I passed the open doors to houses with little gardens and courtyards. In this part of Odisha a wedding in the family is often announced by a little wall painting. This one has a representation of Jagannath’s sister, Subhadra. Around here you need only paint the concentric circles representing eyes to invoke Jagannath and his family.

Temple towns contain unremarked layers of history. These old stone pillars frame a doorway into a hostel for pilgrims. The stone pillars are at least three centuries old. Looking at the carvings in the set in front, I thought they could be significantly older. Part of the construction is definitely from the early 20th century, and, as you can see, something is being built even now. I wonder which small Raja first endowed this home for pilgrims.

A few steps on, there was a grand gate. The inscription over the gate announced an ashram in Odiya and Bengali and Devanagari. The rotunda and its screens supported by a circle of pillars and topped by a tower seemed to be something from the 19th century, perhaps very early 20th century. The sect probably originated in Bengal, which makes it likely that it was funded by Bengali traders who began to become wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the most interesting sight was inside the wide open doors of this little music shop. The variety of percussion instruments is amazing. But what goes beyond and becomes astounding is the thing that has the pride of the place: the automated drummer. I hope I’m not around when it starts to play.

Fresh old food

Something different? If you want something different, take a walk in the neighbourhood of one of the old temple towns of India. Yesterday I strolled around the lanes of Puri, near the Jagannath temple. This is old enough to have given the word juggernaut to the English language in its own recent history. I had my eyes on the hundreds of sweet shops that line these roads. Pilgrims need sustenance. This shop caught my eye. Malpuas were fried and soaked in syrup as I watched, and next to them was a tray of the khajas which this temple town is famous for.

I have never understood how this famous speciality of a little-known town called Silaon in Bihar came to be associated with Puri in Odisha. Perhaps it goes back to the famous war between Magadha and Kalinga (circa 260 BCE), the war whose effect was the spread of Buddhism through the then-known world: eastwards all the way to Japan, westwards to the Indo-Greek kingdoms of Asia. Temples are the amber which preserve old customs. This man, with his ascetic’s matted hair, was hard at work passing on a bit of old tradition to the future.