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Bhubaneswar: Daily Encounter with Shadows of History

By Sitakant Mahapatra

It is not easy living at Bhubaneswar. You encounter shadows of history everywhere and centuries are reflected back from the rims of eternity. Driving down its wide streets and fashionable carcades, you meet a 10th century temple at the bend of the road. Another dilapidated temple stands all alone on the bank of an ancient tank. The drum beats of an orchestra mixes with the echoes of temple bells and the chanting of slokas. The moss-moustached stones of ruined temples stare mockingly at the glass concrete jungle growing all round. At night they seem to march towards them menacingly. Not far from the street where I live with its cybercafés, schools, bustling markets and eateries, an old woman pastes cow-dung cakes on a wall. A herd of buffalos merrily graze on the margins of a street with cranes precariously perched on their backs. They have flown in from the paddies that still thrive between two enclaves or Nagaras of the city. Living nearly four decades here often I have felt as a poor guest in the house of a fabulously rich relative.

Heat, Holiness and Power

I nostalgically remember how we used to sit out in the lovely cool breeze after the hot and sultry summer noons. The sea breeze brought the coolness leaving out its salinity, filtered by distance for, as the crow flies the sea is hardly sixty kilometers away. This luxury has vanished due to the mushrooming of high rise buildings, the huge lose of tree-cover in the 1999 super cyclone and the lack of any sizeable water spread area. Buildings can come up in a year but not the trees! The city is already one of the hottest places in the country.

Holiness and power have always run parallel in the city. The places of kings and the caves and monasteries of monks have given place to glittering offices and the corridors of power of government and industrial business houses. Fashion shows, musical nights and jazzy music merge with ritual precession of the gods, the chanting of mantras and the ringing of the bells in temples. Those in power make it a point not only to be present but also are seen to be present, during events like the Rath Yatra the Puja Mandaps in twin city during Dussera and Kali Puja and the numerous ritual occasions to attract thousands. Power is not only a function of status and wealth but also of assumed and perceived religiosity.

Bhubaneswar was a temple city and existed for centuries before the state capital was shifted from Cuttack in the fifties of the last century. The city has two distinct persona: one the sleek, modern new capital, the new gods of business, industry and the power elite; and the other which goes by the name of old town dotted with numerous temples its narrow bylanes, the ancient gods and goddesses and the priests. Only occasionally I visit the Lingaraj temple dedicated to Lord Siva but my favorites are Rajarani and Mukeswar temples containing some of the finest specimens of Orissan sculpture. As if the numerous existing temples are not adequate, each enclave in the new capital area has built its own temple small and big, perhaps to worship near at hand on numerous ritual occasions. They are aberrations in the new capital. However Bhubaneswar combining both its persona continues to be a holy city.

They visit the city frequently: Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji in whose name now there is a university, the yoga guru Sri Ramdev and Guruma Amrutamayee. On each occasion the roads leading to the venue are jammed. The venue where prabachans are given and yogasans demonstrated overflow with people. I must confess to not being much of a yoga fan, even though I am aware of its world wide popularity, its recognition as a science and Sri Ramdev’s huge contribution to this. I have great regard for the Sri Ravisankar’s teachings, particularly his interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, in the activities of his art of living foundation. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar University has started functioning. It has been established near Bhubaneswar with the faculties like Management, Communication, Information Technology but also in subjects like Yoga, and Vedic studies.

The chief minister is well known for his suavity, civilized bearing and knowledgebility. He is also a writer of significance. I was surprised when in an interview, he had mentioned Kalidas’s Meghdoot as his favourite. His personal honesty is asserted even by his opponents. He seriously intends to bring in mega projects to the state and change the strangle-hold of poverty. To that extent, he is a dreamer and has his dream for the future of Odisha. The realization of dreams is always an uphill task. His father Biju Pattnaik was once projected as the future prime minister of India and is endearingly called as Biju babu in Odisha. He was the tallest figure in Indian politics and also a passionate dreamer.

The Starving Gods and Peep-hole darshan

Lord Jagannath is worshiped in numerous temples all over Odisha and has an annual chariot ride as a summer break and to give darshan to all including those not allowed inside. An eminent Oriya historian has done a listing of all such temples. The lords in these temples, however, are not as lucky as the Lord at Puri. They do not have even a fraction of the riches of the Puri temple. Nor do they attract so many devotees and worshippers. Some years ago the question of entry into one such temple attracted national attention. Keredagada is a remote sleepy village in the flood plains of the Mahanadi. For centuries the caste Hindus of the village and its neighbourhood end appropriated to themselves the lord. The Dalits had no right of entry. Conflict arose when they demanded the right and in fact entered the temple. It became a law and order situation. The temple rituals were at a standstill for three days, the Gods starved and bhog could be offered only after the priests performed Mahasnan, a ritual bath of the deities and purification of the shrine. A compromise was reached permitting darshan to the Dalits through a specified number of peep-holes of prescribed size. The High Court ruling permiting Dalit entry was protested by two thousand caste Hindus sitting in hunger strike. That brought to my mind the noted anthropologist James M. Freeman’s classic Untouchable: An Indian Life History, based on the life story of one labour Muli of the untouchable Bauri caste in the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. Keredagada will remain a symbol of the last vestiges of the disease of untouchability that Mahatma Gandhi struggled to complete erase from our society.

Ages ago, when in school, the teachers told us how Odisha was rich in natural resources and its cultural heritage but economically poor. Gandhiji had termed it as the epitome of India’s poverty. The strangle-hold of poverty seems to be finally breaking. All the IT giants are here, multinationals in steel make Bhubaneswar also a city of power. Odisha’s most formidable emperor Kharavela once ruled from here. While the remarkable caves of Khandagiri and Udayagiri which were carved out for Jain monks are well-preserved, his capital Sisupalagarh at the outskirts of the city is yet to be properly excavated. Continuing neglect has led to mushrooming of building constructions all around it. The enclaves of the new city have taken their names from imperial dynasties like Bhauma, Ganga and Surya and emperors like Kharavela and Ashok. Gyms, eateries, beauty-parlours, cybercafés and very large organized institutions offering coaching to students are everywhere. The beauty-parlours are often raided for ugly sleaze and sex racket. The new city of power and the power-elites of Government, industrial and business houses co-exists with the ancient city of temples and holiness. IT giants, Wipro, Infosys, TCS, Satyam, etc. are here. Multinationals like Arcelor-Mittal, Vedanta and others in steel and power sector have landed. Every other day new MOUs are being signed. The anthropologist Susan Seymour-Graham’s edited volume The Evolution of A Temple Town provides a charming perspective on the city.

I have a love-hate relationship with it and have learnt to live in my imagination in centuries that co-exist rather delicately. In late eighties, there was just one single high-rise building, housing Government offices. Now there is a forest of high-rises and more are coming up every month. Partly because of this rapid urban sprawl and partly because of the massive destruction of tree-cover by the 1999 super cyclone, the sweet gentle breeze that one was privileged to have on hot-summer evenings in now only a memory.

Odisha is now one of the first growing states of India. New industries & business have thrived. Every other day more MOUs are signed for new industrial and power projects. Despite this Odisha continues to be India in miniature with its pockets of acute poverty co-exiting with a fast-growing economy, its dualities and the dichotomy between the high teaching of its philosophy and its social praxis. Perhaps this is inevitable when a modern state is grafted on a very ancient civilization.

Rabbits & Lions:

As in any fast-growing city, its power-elite, the nouveau riche, the netizens and the Generation Next demand all the good things of life: more cybercafés, gyms, fashion shows, eateries catering exotic food, malls, and glittering shops, the K-lounges and koutons selling ethnic products and luxury goods of well-known brand names. Eateries, gyms and beauty-parlours seem to be most in demand. After all one has not only to eat well but also stay well and look well. Some gyms claim they are of European standards. One even claims that it transforms rabbits into lions. I shuddered at the nightmare of lions prowling the city streets. I told a journalist friend in joke that he should frequent this gym as today’s war in the print media seems to make rabbits out of date.

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