Cyclone Phaillin and Orissa: Pravin Gandhi’s People, Places and Perceptions:

Last week’s (Oct 2013) cyclone Phaillin and its non-stop live TV coverage brought back memories of my visit to the coastal Orissa state of India in 1990.
More than that, it brought a lump in my throat when I saw TV journos reporting from places with names Barhampur and Balasore, reminding me of my father’s stories of his struggling youth in the 1930’s when he used to sell sarees on the streets of these places.

In 1990 I was on a work trip to Calcutta (now Kolkatta) while my family were visiting relatives in Cuttack in neighbouring Orissa state. The business unit which I headed was participating in an industry exhibition to be held a few days later. I made a quick dash to Cuttack to spend time with my family in the intervening days. A night train brought me to Cuttack – Orissa’s commercial city – in the morning.

Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar

I was treated royally in Cuttack by the relatives from my wife’s side. I asked for a dip in the mighty Mahanadi river which flowed through the city, which was heartily and promptly arranged. There was a long railway bridge over the river where we swam. It is a pleasure to watch a train above from the river below, instead of a watching a river below from the train above.

Orissa-1990 004

Intricate carvings of figures and floral motifs in the 8th century temples of Bhuvaneshwar

We spent the day in Bhuvaneshwar, the capital of Orissa, a city adorned with temples dating back to 8th century. The two cities are known for the art of making delicate silver jewellery.

8th Century temples of a distinct architecture adorning Bhuvaneshwar

Bhuvaneshwar is adorned with 8th century temples, with a distinct style of architecture and intricate carvings of figures and motifs.


Konarak – a monument to the Sun God

We reached Konarak at night. Next morning we saw the sun rise on (the east coast of) India. Locals and visitors come to view the sun rise and pray to the Sun God, who is usually depicted radiant, in shining armour, driving a chariot.

Sun Rising on India, over the Bay of Bengal at Konarak, Orissa

Sun Rising on India, over the Bay of Bengal at Konarak, Orissa

Konarak is a magnificent stone temple to the Sun God. The huge temple is in the shape of a huge chariot inscribed with hundreds of idols, figures and intricate stone carvings, many erotic.

The Konarak temple

The Konarak temple

The relative from Cuttack wisely had got an official guide for me and my wife, while he steered the rest of the gang on his own, saving us a lot of embarrassment and letting us explore at leisure.

The sun temple profile view, showing it as the Sun Lord's Chariot. Many of the carvings are erotic; the wheels depict a day in the life of a courtesan.

The Sun Lord’s Chariot. Many of the carvings are erotic; the wheels depict a day in the life of a courtesan. Each wheel is the height of about two adult humans

It is said that the sanctum sanctorum of the temple was built in such a way that every morning when the sun rose, the first rays fell on the deity. It is also said that there was a very powerful magnet that would adjust the deity’s position, a magnet so strong that it affected the compass of British trading ships. Credit is due to India’s British rulers for restoring this magnificent heritage monument.

Puri and the Lord of the Universe

Last stop was the temple town of Puri, the fourth ‘dham” for Hindus, situated on the East coast of India, the other three being one in the north, in the Himalayas, one on the west coast at Dwarka, one in the south at Rameshwaram.

Rath Yatra - a file picture

Rath Yatra – a file picture

Every year, the Lord Jagannath (a name for Krishna, meaning Lord of the Universe), and his brother Balram and their sister Subhadra make a journey to Krishna’s in-laws in 3 hand-pulled chariots. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come to Puri on this occasion, wanting to give a hand to pull the chariot. The local king would come first and sweep the chariot with the broom. The word Juggernaut comes from Jagan-nath.

Puri is situated bang on the East Coast, facing the Bay of Bengal, with a lovely beach stretching on both sides for as far as one can see. The water is a deep turquoise blue, and bathing here is great fun. We were in a hotel on the beach and we could dash out of the hotel in our swimming trunk, cross the road and the sands and plunge into the waters.

The beach at Puri, and a turquoise-blue sea (Bay of Bengal)

View of Puri beach from our hotel

End of the 3-day trip

I had taken the night train from Puri to Calcutta, bidding my family and her relatives goodbye, ending a 3-day memorable trip.

A hiccup and mini adventure presenting an opportunity to remember father

Early morning, I had woken up to find the train halted in the middle of fields, where there was no village, town or station, when it should have been nearing  Calcutta’s Howrah Station. My co-passenger told me the train had not moved for hours. It turned out that there was an agitation somewhere which had stopped all trains on the route.

I got out, went over to the road and boarded a bus that was travelling north. I was kept awake by the blaring of hit songs from a just-released movie Aashiqui playing so loudly that I eventually grew to like them. In about an hour I was at Balasore – one of the targets cyclone Phaillin’s fury.

I had walked across to the railway station, then turned to face Balasore town for the last time. I imagined my father trudging through the town to sell his wares, with nothing but chana (gram) in his pockets to eat, shouting “”Srirampuri Chhayal“!  Inside the station, I imagined seeing him throw his bundles out of the window of the train coach and jump out of the same window (for that would be the only way to get out of the crowded coach) in the days of the British Raj.

By then the agitators – wherever they had been – had been dispersed/cleared and train services had been resumed. I had reached the major Kharagpur junction in the afternoon, changed to another train and reached Howrah. I had then taken the ferry across the Hughly river instead of taking the Howrah Bridge – saving myself at least one hour – taken a cab from the Eden Gardens stadium and reached my hotel located somewhere near the Victoria Memorial.

All is well, almost

Coming out of my nostalgia, I saw on the TV screen the cyclone Phaillin hit the coast with awesome fury. It was night, streets were deserted/ evacuated, power was shut off as a precautionary measure, and a couple of generator-fed lights faced the Phaillin music. The cameramen and journalists had sought shelter, and fixed cameras fed us visuals of gusty wind, torrential rain and trees putting up a fighting resistance. Thanks to the advance warning, and preparedness of the administration for disasters in this disaster-prone area, there was minimal loss of life, thought there may be significant damage to crops, trees, roads, and weak houses. I went to bed relieved, nostalgic of my visit to that part of the country in 1990, and happy to remember my father.