Each corner of India – north, east, south, and west – is home to one of Hinduism four holiest sites.
Puri, a beach town in the East Indian state of Orissa, is the holiest city in India’s east. It’s the home of Lord Jagannath, the “Lord of the Universe.” Hindu pilgrims have visited Puri for centuries to catch a glimpse of Lord Jagannath himself, who is carved from wood and lives in a temple with his brother and sister.
Many pilgrims even commit suicide in the presence of Jagannath, wanting to die while being watched by the Lord. When the British invaded India and saw the spectacle, they coined the English word “juggernaut,” which means a “compelling, destructive force.”
My parents, who are traveling with me for the next four weeks, choose Puri so that they, too, could look into the eyes of Lord Jagannath. (They are on a month-long pilgrimage to east and south India’s holy sites). They visited Jagannath’s temple twice in the past few days – once without me, because I was on my period and, as such, was not allowed to enter the temple, and then once again with me.
Lord Jagannath’s temple is a perfect microcosm of India – chaotic, claustrophobic, filled with crooks. And, like India, the best and only way to derive meaning from it is to filter out the madness and focus on the divine.
Lord Jagannath and his brother and sister, all of whom are large carvings with intense eyes, live in a dark room. The walls are painted black. There are no windows. A single door opens into another dark, windowless cavern. The only light comes from candles.
Enormous puddles of water are spilled across the floor, probably left over from the God’s morning bath. In the afternoons, rice from the God’s lunch turns the floor into a sticky mess. The priests feed the Gods seven times a day.
Lord Jagganth’s room is clogged with pilgrims, who come to pray, and priests, who come to extort money from the pilgrims.
My mom and I entered the room. The crowd and the darkness and the puddles immediately gripped us. My first thought was of the news reports of Hindus getting trampled to death at temples. It’s easy, very easy, to see how that could happen in a heartbeat.
“Look at Vaghuan,” said my mom, using the Nepali word for “God.” I made eye contact with Lord Jagannath. I held his gaze as my mom and I pushed our way through the thick maze, circling the statues clockwise.
A priest stopped us and forcibly directed me to bow my head, then deposit money. I obeyed, foolishly, because he was a priest.
“Don’t do as they say!” my mom told me afterward. They’re scammers, like the rest of India.
We circled the Gods, bowed to Lord Jagannath, left five rupees at his feet. We bowed to Lord Jagannath’s sister, and left five rupees at her feet.
“That’s all you’re leaving?,” a different priest sneered at my mom. “You’re disgusting. I can’t believe you.”
I couldn’t believe him. This so-called holy man talks trash to pilgrims who waited their whole lives for a chance to pray at this spot? It reminded me of the irate priests in Jerusalem who screamed at Christians to hurry up as they knelt in prayer at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. There’s nothing like a sacred site to bring out the sins of greed and anger in the men who purport to be holy.
“Don’t think about them,” my mom told me later. “Just focus on Lord Jagannath.”
Yes, the temple is just like greater India. Tune out the scammers, the pollution, the traffic, the monkeys, the beggars, the trash, the thieves around every corner. Keep eye contact with the Lord.
In Puri, your faith in humanity is rigorously tested. I mentioned Puri is a beach town, but let me tell you about this despicable beach.
On one side of Puri are the hotels, where pilgrims rest. The beach by these hotels is relatively clean, by Indian standards. Yes, there are hypodermic needles in the sand (we saw two), and yes, there are wrappers and plastic bottles and dog feces everywhere, but, hey, that’s India. No big deal.
Travel a little further, past the hotels, and you’ll reach a primeval fishing village that hasn’t changed in 500 years. The huts are built from clay and straw; the streets are too narrow for vehicles to pass. This is the Land Time Forgot, and it exists in a parallel universe where motors, plastic bottles, wrappers, haven’t been invented yet. Ducks and chickens roam in people’s front yards, where the fish – the day’s catch – sit drying in the sun. There’s one tiny store, but carries only homemade goods. It sells nothing with packaging. You get the feeling that the people who live here have never seen packaging; never heard of Coca-Cola. It is a self-contained fishing village.
And it’s infested as hell.
The kids all have open sores on their faces and arms. The stench is disease is rampant. Behind the straw huts, where all the villagers take out their fishing boats, the beach is covered with human feces. Absolutely covered. I’m not talking about one or two people taking a crap in the sand. I mean, this beach is the toilet, and at any given second, you can see at least five men with their pants down. We gingerly walk along the shoreline, but the feces is everywhere. There’s no way to avoid it. The waves touch our feet, and we scramble out of its path. The water is a carrier for infectious disease.
It’s hard to imagine how people can trash their environment so abrasively. In the cities, its easy to blame faceless “government” or “industry” for the diesel exhaust. But in this fishing village, its individuals who are crapping all over the beach, turning a natural resource into, literally, a dump. It wouldn’t be hard for them to build a latrine – just dig a hole in the ground! – but laziness prompts them to excrete into the water table instead.
Along this beach, strewn among the human feces, are the bloated bodies of dead sea turtles. Sea turtles are an endangered species; it’s thought that they will be extinct within our lifetime. They’re dying in droves at this exact beach, where – judging by the dozen recently-killed corpses – we estimate that at least two sea turtles a day are trapped by the fishing nets and carried on shore. These turtles are larger than my torso, and its clear they’ve reached sexual maturity; they might have some to Puri to mate, and instead were killed and turned into crow food.
Flies fester this beach, feeding on dead corpses and human feces.
This is truly the land that time forgot.
But time, it seems, passes slowly in Puri. My grandparents came to Puri to pray, back when the fishing village looked exactly like it does now. When my grandkids visit Puri – or will my grandkids be only ¼ Nepali? Will their genes be too white to be allowed entry to the Hindus-only temple? – the fishing village might still look the same.
Ah, yes, my grandparents. I’ll close this with a happy story.
At Lord Jagannath’s temple, there is a Nepali priest who lives by the temple’s west gate.
My parents met this Nepali priest, who handwrote our names into a book of Nepali visitors. He then flipped through his book and read aloud the names of several of my uncles, aunts and cousins who had prayed in the same spot. “Raghab Dhoj Pant, wife Indira, son Ranjan,” he read. “Hari Dhoj Pant and wife Basudha.”
“What about my parents?,” asked my dad, whose name is Prahlad Dhoj Pant.
The priest flipped through a single volume of a large book. “In 1956,” he read aloud, “Bhadra Kumari Pant, wife of Dambar Dhoj Pant, visited this temple.”
Wow. We were amazed. How can so many Nepali visitors be so meticulously documented – and their entries found – in a single paper book? Such organization.
Perhaps India does have a praying chance, after all.