Friday, July 29, 2005


My first glimpse of the Jagannath temple was from a narrow, crowded alley while I was maneuvering my rusty rented bicycle between cows, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles and pedestrians. The ageing cement buildings on either side of the lane framed the towering shikharas beautifully. The teeming marketplace sourcing from a centuries old temple. Once more, I was delighted with the incongruities of my country.

Jagannath. Lord of the World. This incarnate of Vishnu proves an imposing deity. So much so that the connotation of his name is now casual parlance. But it is only when you stand craning your neck up at the enormous structure that you derive a sense of meaning from the godly title. An inexorable, unrelenting force.

Even before you reach the sanctums housed within the ten-acre compound, you feel smaller than your actual size. As soon as you join the multitude crawling up towards the entrance you are all but invisible. Godmen, widows, pilgrims, devotees and the odd monkey throng the entire area, taking up even your peripheral vision. Singing, praying, staring, chanting, sleeping, weeping. Compressed shards of living.

As I walked wide-eyed and alone, I was comforted by my own insignificance. By the thought of hundreds of others living life with my emotions- perhaps more faint or intense, my body- vulnerable to pain and fatigue, my beliefs- but with a vigour more powerful than anything human life can even begin to comprehend.

I paid my respects. Touched my forehead to cold stone floors, collected vermilion, neon orange and blood red tikas as I went along- all accompanied with blessings in brief from priests who streak a thousand brows everyday. I walked, bit by bit, feeling the ground beneath me turn from smooth, cool white marble to pitted, harsh rock. Mine the path that countless others have walked before. Mine the soles resembling any other.

Bare bodies, sacred thread, fresh lotus blossoms, the odd erotic sculpture, movement, sound, hands folded in prayer, anonymous lamps lit in reverence, clusters of bodies bent towards a garlanded idol.
The beauty of believing. The ritualistic prayers. Enough to empower. Enough to humble.
Devotees sacrificing their lives under the colossal wheels of Jagannath’s chariot when he parades the streets. The power of faith. Juggernautical.