I find Puri unorthodox, very inventive and completely original. A place with a strong character and people with tremendous amount of self-confidence. At times quirky & cocky but Puri is always the “one and only”. Visitors from all across the globe come to Puri – both for religious tourism and for beach/nature tourism, but this influx has not in the least, affected the core of Puri life. This is a powerful phenomenon. Of late we hear of instances where there are activities which are mostly touristinfluenced. But otherwise Puri is identified as a place untouched by the pressures of “floating cultures”. This has a flip side too but this also indicates a healthy, pristine individuality. The Odia inscriptions of the 15th Century A.D. called the place Purusottama Kataka and if the “Ideal Man” resides in this place then the life of this place has to be concomitantly ideal and idyllic.
Life starts much before sunrise at about 4-4.30 in the morning at the Jegaghar. Jegaghar is the local club where the seniors mentor the wards in disciplined pursuit of wrestling, body building & gymnastics. Even today when all the sports mentioned above are on the wane in other parts of the country, Puri lads, in the teeth of the changing times are not ashamed of flaunting their practice of 1000 dandas (push-ups), 25kms running (jogging in the beach sand), 1000 baithiks (squats), hours of wrestling practice in specially prepared wrestling space in fine soil (with liberal portions of clay). Rest of India holds this in awe. It is not only about physical exercise and workouts. I know of masters who live there (in Jegaghars) even if they are from the same sahi or from the town. Besides wrestling other activities like practicing classical music, instruments like Pakhawaj (similar to the Mridangam in southern India), vegetable colour dyeing of gamuchas (loin cloths), painting in Pattas or other medium have been common in these hubs. The subject matter of Patta Chitra is mostly folk based & mythological. So the jegaghars are Community Centers which were started as gymnasiums and but have expanded over time to become mostly learning centers of various arts, crafts and skills. But the women of the society do not have much access to Jegaghars, as the responsibility of providing physical security and safeguarding the society was deemed as primarily a man’s job. Young boys choosing to go to Jegaghars are accorded special status or a tacit appreciation by the elders and the peers. Jegaghars are the erstwhile barracks & training grounds for soldiers (paikas). Some of the important sahis of Puri (I dare not miss others because there is a strong competition between the jegaghars of different sahis) are Bali sahi, Dolamandapa sahi, Goudabada sahi, Harachandi sahi, Kundeibenta sahi , Baddei sahi, Balagandi sahi, Baseli sahi, Ganamala sahi, Gooria sahi, Gurruntee Haragouri sahi, Kalikadebi sahi, Karati sahi, Kapal mochana, Khatua sahi, Khuntia sahi, Kumuti sahi, Manikarnika sahi, Mausima, Pathuria sahi, Patna Jenapur, Patna Jagannathpur, Patna Balabhadra Ballava, Patna Matipada, Patna Balisahi, Patna Parrhee sahi, Patna Kumbharpada, Patna Tikarpada and Talichha sahi. Each sahi inhabitant is extremely loyal to his/her Jega, in the same vein as the loyalty to English premier football clubs. One example of a classic and continuing Jega is one called Panchamukhi Jega in Markandeswar Sahi. Started on April 14th, 1962, this jega was patronized by Late Sri Raghunath Supakar, he an accomplished wrestler always maintaining a body weight in the range of 50-52 kgs till he passed away at the age of 70. Till his last he was always seen working out with boys one-third his age and also floating in water for hours together, doing various asanas in water demonstrating tremendous breath control. Known to be a strict disciplinarian he would not even allow his wards to come to the Jega without proper haircut. I have met him during my growing up years and have always been overawed by his disciplined lifestyle, mental and physical strength. The culture of Puri is not bhang-centric as has been generalized & trivialised by people who do not have interest in deeper study of the nuances of life in Puri. There are 62 Jegaghars in Puri, churning out on an average about 50 wrestlers each in a year. All this with strong local, sahi patronage and without much support from the government. And during the famous Sahi Jatras, a designated Jegaghar would lead the procession with pride and grandeur. There is a euphoria around physical fitness and strength unparalleled in Odisha and rare in India. This has happened much before the dramatized versions of WWE/WWF sweeping us away in the idiot boxes. Such is the level of significance given to good life practices in Puri. And this social norm is deeply entrenched. According to Cunningham the ancient name of the town was Charitra. So relevant. Puri echoes character, Charitra.
The jegaghars are in seven sahis (sata sahis) and all the seven sahis have four headmen designated as Sahi Naik. Today with the changes in the local municipal and urban governance, the Sahi Naiks still call the shots. The brilliance of Puri is in hosting global travelers and yet not diluting the local culture and way of life. I have heard that once the legendary Pandit Omkarnath Thakur was taking an early morning stroll and was passing by a Jegaghar when he heard spellbinding Pakhwaj play by a young boy. When he asked him about the source of his skill and who his master was, the boy without realising whom he was talking replied matter-of-fact that there was nothing great in what he was doing and that he does this every day because he was just copying his father, who played like this always, without much hullabaloo. Pandit realized the deep seated culture of the place and is reported to have acclaimed that the boy was playing extraordinary music and if that was common play in Puri, the place deserves to be saluted. The people of Puri love pets and many households have cats, parrots and other varieties of birds as pets. I know of many sevayats of the Jagannath temple always carrying birds perched on their fingers and walking with almost a superman gait and sometimes talking in a foreign language like Nepali or Burmese. They know the languages through their interactions with their clientele, spread out. I am sure, the peculiarities emanate from a sense of total surrender to the Almighty. They strongly believe that the Lord is their brother and that the Lord would take care of them, come what may. They are family members of the Lord and because they are in a sense of total surrender, they are free from worldly worries and that is why they can pursue hobbies like Pets, Music, cooking and the like. This attitude might not be appreciated by many but certainly deserves a better understanding before being dismissed as plain arrogance or irreverence.
(Views expressed are personal)