The Lions of Orissa

East of India every temple is guarded by fearsome giants carrying terrifying weapons. In Odisha, just two lions are enough. As you can see in the featured photo, these are no ordinary lions. They have a awesome black mustache in addition to the mane that you can see on any other lion. The bottle of water between their legs backs up the statement that the mustache makes. The dwarpala which you see above stands outside the Kedar Gauri temple in Bhubaneshwar. There’s a matched lion on the other side of the entrance gate, but at the time I took this photo, it wasn’t backed by a wise Brahmin who could give you the opportunity to earn merit.

Guardians of a roadside shrine near Rajnagar, Odisha

Driving through Odisha you see pairs of lions every now and then. In the photo above you see a pair of ferocious lions bristling at those who pass by the sacred spot between them. I saw this pair far to the east, near a small town called Rajnagar on the banks of the Brahman river. They lack the mustache that you see in the Bhubaneshwar-Cuttack-Puri region; maybe that is a regional speciality. I also saw horses and elephants guarding entrances to temples in this region, so the nature of dwarpalas changes across Odisha. I need to travel more widely in the state to find out how temple guardians change from place to place.

Crocodiles, herons and turtles

In a couple of weeks I have to fly to Odisha for work. I talked to The Family about taking the following weekend off. With a little juggling, it turned out that she can also travel that weekend. We’ve spent 40 days without seeing an animal wilder than a crow or a pigeon, so we decided to make this a quick wildlife trip.

A look at the map shows us that Odisha is full of national parks. There is a lot of choice in principle. Our main constraint is that this has to be a quick trip. The only airport in Odisha is in Bhubaneswar, and to save time we want to travel no more than three hours. This narrows our options to Chilka lake and Bhitarkanika National Park (highlighted in the map above).

We spent a day and a half in Chilka lake a few years ago, watching freshwater dolphins. We’ve also been thinking of going back there for a spot of winter bird watching. Mangalajodi has become the glam destination for birders, with articles being written about it in The Guardian and Livemint. The conversion of poachers into bird guides is certainly a very romantic story. Another reason why it is written about so much is that in winter even a novice can spot lots of birds. But this is late in the season, and the winter’s avian visitors would have begun to depart.

So we begin to think of Bhitarkanika National Park. This is a wetland protected under the Ramsar convention. The big two here are saltwater crocodiles and Olive Ridley sea turtles. These endangered turtles return to the nearby Gahiramatha beach every year to breed. The discovery and subsequent protection of this, the world’s largest breeding site for the turtles, is one of India’s success stories. A newspaper article tells us that they have already arrived this year. I can’t find any information about whether it is possible to see the nesting of these turtles.

Saltwater crocodiles are a constant tourist draw in Bhitarkanika, so there is an efficient process to visit the places where they can be seen. A little reading assures me that we will be able to see them.

The Family asks about bird watching. I find a two-year old fluff piece on bird watching in Bhitarkanika. A little more searching brings up the definitive checklist of the birds of this wetland. In a two-year long survey, conducted a decade ago, two dedicated and talented naturalists, Gopi and Pandav, found 263 bird species in the area, of which 147 were residents. I learnt from this paper that the park hosts one of the largest heronries in the world. A heronry is a tree, a group of trees, an island, or an inaccessible area where herons breed year after year. During breeding season, which is about now, it is a spectacular sight.

We know nothing about local conditions, have no contact with local experts in Bhitarkanika National Park. We might be lucky and see lots of things, or we might not. But it seems like a place worth visiting.

Our daily sweet

sweets

Odisha and Bengal are the two states of India with wonderful sweets, and when you travel through here, it seems that every street corner has a sweet shop. The morning’s shopping is not complete without stopping at one of these for the daily titbit. I was reminded of this when I was in Bhubaneshwar last week. I passed a shop early in the morning and saw the lady in the photo above come shopping. She’d bought her vegetables and fish already. She placed them on a high stool outside the shop (you can see the plastic bag to the left of the photo, if you look closely you can see she has bitter gourds in there) and then turned her attention to the sweets. It was clearly a daily stop, because the shop keeper chatted with her while he measured out the chhanapora.

In India most sweet making is too technical for home cooking, so there are specialized shops for sweets. Odisha and Bengal have different traditions. In my experience, Bengali sweet makers tend to be innovative: constantly trying out new tastes and combinations; even the corner shop will innovate. But the classics, roshogolla and mishti doi, are not always well made. The sweet shops in Odisha which I’ve been to tend not to innovate, but make their reputation on technique.

The four Oriya classics which I love are:

Chhanapora (literally, burnt chhana, ie, cottage cheese) is the one Odisha sweet you should not miss. A mass of paneer is kneaded with sugar, and sometimes with cinnamon or chopped nuts, and then baked in a coal-fired oven. The smooth, smoky tasting, caramelised mass is available in every sweet shop in Odisha, but seldom outside the state. I have great memories of a mildly cinnamon infused, and very smoky, chhanapora from a shop in Puri, not far from the Jagannath temple.

Rasabali is a deep-fried sweet chhana patty soaked in a saffron infused thickened milk syrup. It’s the kind of thing designed to burst your arteries. I was introduced to it in a little bazaar between Konarak and Puri. The sweet shop was fly infested, and I nearly left without trying anything. But Sky, my friend and local guide, insisted that this was the best place within tens of miles for the sweet. I’ve been a fan ever since that first taste.

Kheer sagar looks like the north Indian rasmalai, but tastes quite different. It consists of balls of chhana dipped in a thin rabri. Again, the combination is not good for your cardiac system; but then I get to eat this less than once a year. I judge it by the smoothness of the chhana and rabri. I’ve had some really nice Kheer Sagar in Bhubaneshwar.

Chhana jhili is meant to be Odisha’s answer to the north Indian jalebi. The version I first ate in a shop between Bhubaneshwar and Puri was a patty, like a rasabali, in sticky sugar syrup. Later I had versions which look a little more like a jalebi. Whatever it looks like, it is designed to kill.

When I go to Odisha for work, I ask taxi drivers about the best place for sweets. They’ve always been helpful, and very often taken me to places which I later found are generally supposed to be among the best.

The god of freedom

mukteshwarI visited two temples during my dash to Bhubaneshwar. One was the Rajarani temple. The other is the historically important Mukteshwar temple, built in the 10th century. The next millennium in Odisha would see elaborations of the new style this temple created: a free standing gate (torana), followed by a square outer chamber (jagamohan) topped by a pyramidal roof, and then the inner sanctum (garbagriha) with a spire (deul) over it, everything put on a raised plinth. The succeeding centuries would strip away the low wall around the temple. If the photo above looks so familiar now, it is because this style won acceptance over a thousand years.

toranaThe temple faces west, has a pool at the back, and is still in use. The priest made sure I removed my shoes at a respectable distance, and then stood next to the torana as I took a photo. As you can see from the scale he sets, the temple is small; the deul is perhaps 10 to 11 meters high. He would have taken charge of my visit if I’d not insisted on walking around first. He was fine with that. The arch of the torana is topped by two beautiful reclining female figures, a pair of monkeys and storks. The sandstone used in this temple must have been easy to sculpt, but the friable stone has begun to lose detail.

yakshaThere were nagas wrapped around exterior
pillars, but to me it seemed that these figures were more exquisitely done in the Rajarani temple. One difference was the repeated figures of yakshas hemmed into boxes. They strain to lift the roof and step out of their confinement.pancatantra Their faces are distorted with the effort, their already large bellies swelling as they strain.

Animals and people going about their daily lives share space on the external walls of the temple. I found an illustration of the story of the monkey and the crocodile from the Panchatantra in one column (see the photo on the right). I’d forgotten the story, but the sculptures brought back the memory. I guess that is what they are meant to do: reinforce what is already learnt.

I found two beautiful nature studies: a deer sitting under a tree, and a boar. There were several reliefs of ascetics instructing people. Interspersed with these was a group of figures showing someone walking with others bringing baggage behind him: perhaps a rich man out on travel with his servants. In other parts of the deul were a profusion of the usual standing female figures engrossed in various activities: looking at mirrors, carrying rice, and so on. There was a very nice miniature Nataraja (above the seated woman, in the top right photo in the collage below).

deer
pig
yogi1
travel
yogi2
groups
columns

When I’d examined the outside and started to cross the torana and go inside, the priest put away his cigarette and followed me. He pointed out various things so that I could take photos. The quadrangular jagamohan has latticed windows, but the light is provided by compact fluorescent lamps hanging in various places. The inside is also fully carved, but most of the carvings are religious. The ceiling is worth studying in detail: the center is taken up by a beautiful lotus. The south-east corner shows a dance in progress with musicians at the diagonally opposite corner.musicians You can see drums, cymbals, and the flute, all being played by women. In such a performance today, the musicians would mostly be male, and the dancers could also be of either sex. The other two corners show the audience: Shiva in one and Durga at the other. The elephant headed Ganesh and Kartik with his peacock are also in evidence. Above the lintel of the door to the garbagriha is a small Gajalakshmi. The lintel has a relief of the nava graha: the traditional nine planets. These are the sun and the moon, the five true planets visible with the naked eye, and Rahu and Ketu, mathematical constructs used to predict eclipses.

The inner chamber only has the shiva linga. The priest made a small offering for me and asked for a donation. I quickly put down what I thought was appropriate before he could make an outrageous suggestion. He was open to a small conversation. I found he has been the priest at the temple for thirty-one years. He followed his father and grandfather and expects that his son will follow him as the priest. He says his family have been priests at this temple for more than a thousand years. The donations to the temple constitute his only income.

There was a little garden outside and two pairs of lovers were sitting there, both engrossed in each other. I sat in the shade of a large tree and put on my shoes. The complex has several outlying temples which are no longer in use, but the hot and humid Shiva temple had rivers of sweat running down my body. My shirt was soaked, my jeans were wet and heavy with sweat. I had no energy to explore the other temples. Moreover, I was due at the airport soon.

I retreated. The Family wants to go there sometime; Odisha has always been a wonderful experience for us. I looked up the origin of the name Mukteshwar, the god of freedom. It should perhaps be interpreted as the god who gives freedom through yoga: Shiva is the great ascetic.

A temple like a jewel box

rajarani I had to make a trip to Bhubaneshwar on work. I’ve been there before, but never stopped for tourism in the “Town of Temples”. This time I took two hours to visit two beautiful small temples. One of them was the Rajarani temple. It was built in the 11th century, and is no longer in use. As a result, it is looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India. The name rajarani does not refer to a king (raja) and a queen (rani), but, as I learnt from an ASI info-board, to the local name of the sandstone used.

nagaIn the view above you can see that the temple faces east, and has a gate (torana), leading to an outer chamber (jagamohan) with a pyramidal roof, which in turn leads to an inner chamber with a spire (deul). The entrance door is about 2 meters in height, which would make the spire about 9 meters tall; small as these things go. The remarkable thing about this temple are the outer sculptures. You can see in the general view that the sculpture of nagas, women in the shape of snakes, are wrapped around the pillars of the torana. This theme recurs. On the right is a photo of a different column bearing beautiful naga figures.

nagafaceThe faces are beautiful even by today’s standards. Has our notion of beauty really changed so little in a thousand years? This close up of the face of one of the nagas shows the damage done to it. The hoods of the cobras surrounding the head are all damaged, and the woman’s nose is missing. Going by other figures on the facade, it would have been an aquiline nose, unlike that of most people in this region. Either the face is an idealization which came from some other part of the country, or the model was chosen for being exotic.

varunaOne of the most stunning sculptures is this one of Varuna, the dikpala (guardian) of the west. As you can see in the photo on the right, here he is shown in the medieval iconography holding the noose of judgement (pasa) in his left hand. This is one of the most beautiful depictions of Varuna which I remember seeing. The stone used in this sculpture is not the same as the red rajarani used in most of the temple. I wonder whether the stone was specially chosen to give him the canonical white (sphatika) complexion.

yamaThis badly damaged statue, shown at the left, is that of Kubera, the god of wealth, and the dikpala of the north. He should be holding a pot of wealth, but both hands are damaged, so you don’t know what the figure had in its hand. I base my identification on the fact that the statue faces north. Also, the statue resembles the usual medieval depictions of Kubera with the large belly, somewhat ungainly shape, lots of jewelry, and facial hair. The figure stands above an animal which could be a goat.

I spent almost an hour circumnavigating this temple. It is full of other worldly sculptures: women looking at themselves in mirrors, holding branches of trees, men and women in conversation. The incredibly detailed external sculptures are a contrast with the completely bare interior. The nagas and the other figures over the torana indicate that the temple would have been dedicated to Shiva. Otherwise, it would have been hard to say who was the deity when this jewel box of a temple was in use.