Bhubaneshwar is one of three sites within a radius of 50 km famous for temples. A panda (priest) at one told me that Bhubaneshwar was once home to 125,000 of them, which only confirms that most such men are liars.
But it would not be an exaggeration to say old Bhubaneshwar is overflowing with heavy stone ruins. Some lie crumbled by a lake, others behind a wall and some next to the Post Office.
A city full of temples is passé in India. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a town that is not chocker block with shrines. But Bhubaneshwar’s temples stand apart.
One reason is their immense size. Another is their age. Most were built 700-800 years ago. A third is the crowd of mahantas, pandits and brahmacharis that swarm like wasps around each holy place.
As I approached a temple a group of white-robed priests launched themselves in my direction. They pushed notebooks showing the scribbled impressions and donations of other foreigners into my space. Yuki from Japan Rs. 150. Hank from Canada $10.
They were like blood suckers that drop off only when cash is handed over. ‘You should have given at least Rs 50’ they mutter after I scraped together a few Rs. 2 notes.
They left me alone to take some photos. Two fresh recruits approached but seemed to be only interested in conversation. No donation books visible.
One called himself Kuna. He introduced his friend as Bichchi. Kuna kept classifying women on a personal scale of ‘sexual’.
‘Western women are very sexual. Japanese women most sexual.’
He was full of obscure, scattered English aphorisms. ‘Every book as a cover. Every woman has a lover,’ was his favourite but other non-sexual phrases popped out regularly, too.
Bichchi was more interested in politics. One of the Patnaiks was in power. Another Patnaik was trying to squeeze him out now that he had the leverage of a new government in Delhi. Bichchi was confident Challenger Patnaik would be victorious in the end.
The main complaint against Ruling Patnaik was—as far as I could make out from their broken Hindi—his habit of cavorting with young boys. Either that or he drank or smoked something that was no good.
Kuna spoke up again. ‘Is there only one tiger in the jungle? They all do these things. Have you ever seen just one tiger in the jungle?’
They encouraged me to take some bhang (cannabis drink).
I declined. I was already light headed having passed a sleepless, mosquito abundant night at a nearby flophouse.
Kuna extolled the qualities of bhang but cursed heroin, charas and alcohol. The spread of these vices was, according to Bichchi, the responsibility of Pakistan. He saw a nefarious attempt to destroy the country. Apparently there was a growing number of addicts in Bhubaneshwar.
Kuna offered his own interpretation. ‘It’s good. We have 90 crore people here in India. If a few kill themselves with heroin, it’s good. It will help to keep the population under control.’
We chatted like this for an hour until the shade of Lingaraj, one of Bhubaneswar’s 125,000 temples, turned chilly.
I took my leave. I glanced back and saw Kuna and Bichchi make their way towards a straggly looking Asian tourist who seemed happy for some company.