Recently I was in Bhubaneswar (BBSR), the capital of Orissa and my hometown. As happens with most people, I had thought I had seen most things worth seeing in my hometown and wasn’t aware of any interesting cultural events offered which wasn’t hard to get into or required one to travel far and plan much in ahead. I was therefore very surprised when a relative mentioned something called ‘Ekamra walk’ and decided to follow up on it.
I am sure glad I did because it’s been awhile since I was so overwhelmed with happiness doing something so simple as taking part in a walk and had an experience that so much exceeded my expectations. I think each day since then I have recommended the walk to at least one local person. I encourage you to go on such a walk and to this one if you somehow find yourself in Bhubaneswar (BBSR) on a Sunday in the months of November, December or January (not too hot to be out for 3-4 hours).
Ekamra turns out is an older name of Bhubaneswar whose literal translation is “the land of a mango tree.” One of the first things we learn about Bhubaneswar, right from our school days is that it’s also known as ‘City of Temples.’ I didn’t realize then that this was quite literal- just a part of Bhubaneswar known as old town has 360+ temples within. With this and a few other basic facts, we started this free early morning (registration starts at 6.30 am) four hour walk heritage walk. One of the best part of the walk for me was starting it with live classical music set inside the temple. The atmosphere was almost seductive with the rising sun on one side and gentle activities such as yoga, morning walks happening on the other. And amidst both sides were us heritage walker’s- patiently gathering around the starting area with a lot of anticipation and eagerness. The ending was equally alluring; ending with a 15 minutes classical dance performance by students of an internationally famous dancer, Ileana Citaristi, in what can only be described as one of the most creative and stunning dance stages-right inside her home/dance school.
It’s hard to describe all the amazing facts I learnt on the walk. I will try to ‘show and tell’ here as much as possible; show through the pictures and tell through my words.
Lion crushing elephant: Signifies in life, someone is always dominating another. Power struggles are part of human life.
Windows and common hall were a specialty of Kalinga architecture: The guide taught us that Kalinga architecture is one of the oldest temple architectures of the world. Decorative yet functional windows are one key characteristics of it.
4 separate houses in each temple: Kalinga architecture are constructed in such a fashion as to have 4 separate mini buildings that connect to form one temple. These 4 buildings house respectively in order of priority- an inner sanctum with the statue of the deity, a larger temple surrounding this. A separate building where the food/offering is cooked and a separate hall for visitors.
Age of the temples– Temples structures in general started in the 5th century. In the whole of India, only 4 temples survive from the 7th century of which 2 were on our Ekamra walk/circuit that day.
Parasurameswara Temple- It’s one of the 4 7th century temples in India. It is a temple dedicated to lord Siva and has within it a linga with a 1000 other lingas carved within called ‘sahasra linga’ aka thousand lingas. BBSR has many Lord Shiva devotees and this temple is a must visit for anyone who considers themselves a Siva follower.
I also learnt that all temples have one main deity and 3 other deities who are in most cases the immediate family members of the main deity surrounding three sides of the temple. In this case, there was of course, Goddess Parvati (Lord Shiva’s wife), Ganesh (one of their sons) and Kartikeya (another of their sons). It also had 7 beautiful statues of Goddess Parvati in all her different forms.
Lingaraj temple– It is probably the most famous temple in BBSR. It is surrounded by a “polluted from close and beautiful from afar” pond. Although known primarily as a Siva temple, it actually houses both Vishnu and Siva deities and is colloquially as ‘Hara Hari’; Hara referring to Siva and Hari referring to Vishnu.
Role of elephants– Our guide reminded us very correctly (or better taught us) that trained elephants were a big part of how temple got built and without their strength and help most definitely no temples would exist. So thank you gentle pachyderms, we owe you a large part of our culture and heritage.
Temple carvings-There are supposedly 33 million Gods and Goddesses. Two stories stand out from that day’s narration. One story was about an unmarried Goddess named Bijli. According to folklore, temples build erotic structures within their carvings so that Bijli (Goddess of lightning) will shy away from the erotic structures and not destroy the temples with her power. The other story was about a set of 9 statues depicting the 9 planets. They are referred to as ‘Nava (nine) Grahas (celestial bodies). I didn’t know that hindu religion considers the planetary system earth-centric and therefore the nine planets include the sun and the moon but not the earth! I was surprised and a little disappointed with this ‘fake fact’.
Food offerings– We learnt two fascinating facts about temple food. One was that this one temple where food has been cooked daily (at a very nominal price) starting from the 12th century still uses only vegetables that were available in those days and nothing new. Thankfully for us devotees, a lot of vegetables were available then. The temple name is Ananta Vasudeva. I promptly requested food from the temple for the next day and enjoyed it immensely. The other titbit was regarding the annual offering of food that is made to ancestors (known as shraddha). According to the guide, we assume our ancestors went to heaven and since one heavenly day equals 365 earthly days; offering food once a year is equal to offering food once a day in heaven. What a cool fact, isn’t it?
Odissi dance– The last stop on the walk was at an internationally famous but locally based odissi dancer’s home cum dance school. Our host odissi teacher had her students give an awe enthralling dance performance. As an introduction to the dance, our host odissi dance teacher beautifully captured this classical dance by the phrase “An art form where frozen temple sculptures come to live.” She went on to explain what an “Abinaya” was; which is a dance set to a poem and “Pallavi”, which is, a pure dance (nritta) set to music/melody (raaga).
Focus on Islamic rulers:
The only constructive feedback I have for the walk organizers is to be little mindful of how they portray history and the effect their words may have on the general public. The guide mentioned early on how the temples of Orissa were looted and misused by earlier rulers of the country. But instead of stopping there, they specified islamic rulers and went on to describe a bunch of negative activities that was carried on in those days. I would have preferred if they left it at ‘former rulers’ instead of former islamic rulers. What is the point of bringing religion into the description when the bad acts committed were committed by the people just because they where bad people; not because they belonged to a certain religion. For example, when we refer to the heinous crimes committed in India by the British during their stay we don’t specify former christian rulers. We are all already very acutely aware of the religious tensions in the country; why do anything-even if it’s a simple repetition of history’ to fan and aggravate those tensions?
Overall, i really enjoyed the walk and would recommend it to all- tourists and locals. Go experience the temple city in the most beautiful way possible.