15 Jan 2018 15:19 IST

The smart city of legends

Bhubaneswar has always been work in process

In the city of slow-hipped women gracing 3,000-year-old temple pillars that was the last thing I expected to read — ‘Bowel eggs’ advertised for sale at a stall on the way to a temple. But what has age to do with anything, eggs are a handy snack if you want something substantial in between the bunches of bananas and the fruit that throng the bazaars around the temples. Of Bhubaneswar they say that 1,000 temples were once squeezed into three square kilometres though not everyone in Bhubaneswar is aware of that fact. Ask to see temples and you will be directed to the newish Ram Mandir with its painted pillars that is always thronged with worshippers. Qualify that by saying old temple and the venerable Lingaraj inevitably comes up.

The Lingaraj temple is older than time and hemmed in by a police chowki and the bustle of a bazaar selling fruit and flowers. Slippers and mobiles have to be discarded at cubicles in the wall along with cameras and other material possessions, which is bad news for the holy selfie takers. Lines shuffle slowly up uneven steps onto stones hot enough to fry feet on in summers. To get to Shiva one has to first salute Ganesh and then Shani Dev. Then take the plunge down stairs slippery with squished flowers into the cavern of power. There jostled by faith and elbows you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the dark stone in that narrow shadowy space.

Behind the temple is Bindu Sagar, a tank now paved with the shiny green leaves of water hyacinths, that once provided water and baths for the devoted. A deserted temple in the middle of the tank is opened once or twice a year — for the most part the saffron- and primrose-robed priests perform quick services by the roadside.

Temples not in use make for better visiting for the architecturally inclined. The Rajarani temple for example, set at the end of a secluded park with flowering camellias. My driver was tempted to follow me inside having never had the inclination to see one of the disused temples before. The Rajarani has an entry fee which restricts local children but keeps the temple pillars intact — moving my driver into an awed commentary at the skill of those long-forgotten artisans who worked only with their hands. Pictures of the pillars are very often mistaken for Konarak pillars by those who look at the apsaras and nothing beyond.

Kedar Gauri with its tank and surrounding little box shrines has a Romeo and Juliet story behind it and is also ruled over by Shiva in his Kedareswar avatar. A priest there encourages visitors while children play hide-and-seek in the shrines. Every year Lord Shiva is carried down from Lingaraj to Kedar Gauri and ceremonially married to Parvati, making the temple popular among newly-weds.

A heritage walk has been devised to take people through the alleyways and byways of Bhubaneswar on foot every Sunday, including temple kitchens and bazaars. The Ekamra Walk is still not as well-known as it deserves to be and covers only the more accessible temples.

As the cliché goes, Bhubaneswar is a mix of the old and new — at one end are the billboards near the airport proclaiming the smart city; at the other, the ancient city of a thousand mantras. In the relatively old neighbourhood of Jhorpada that falls between the two stools, there are kitschy fountains occupying traffic roundels, figures balancing urns or children in brightly-coloured garments with no evocation of the temple belles. Jhorpada does not regard itself as ‘old city’ though with wider roads lined with all kinds of stall, one of them boldly advertising the ‘bowel eggs’ along with the ubiquitous omalatt, which does nothing to lessen the stall’s popularity. There is also a Kolkata Ganguram’s selling Bengali sweets. All exotic as far as Bhubaneswar is concerned — dalma (lentils with vegetables) is the State dish and there is a chain of restaurants with that name but you won’t find dalma stalls on the streets.

Lose yourself in the by-lanes and channels and you could be anywhere in Asia, with bulls claiming right of way beside a blank wall or a woman in red fluttering by. Autumn fills the waterbodies with feathery white fronds. On a highway at night you will pass workers on a rooftop mending or rebuilding. Bhubaneswar has always been work in process, whether as part of the Kalinga dynasty or now en route to becoming a smart city of the future, shifting old stones to new buildings or, in some cases, new stones in the place of old ones worn down by time.

(Anjana Basu is a Kolkata-based writer. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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