November 10, 1871. A hill outside Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, deepest Africa.
Famous scholar-explorer Henry Morton Stanley enters a tent, where he meets a dapper gentleman sipping tea and reading The Statesman.
“Dr Livingstone, I presume?” he asks.
The gentleman puts down his newspaper and Stanley suddenly realizes that his brown skin is natural, and not the result of too much time spent in the sun.
“It’s Dr Lahiri, actually,” he says. “Livingstone’s in that tent over there. May I tempt you with a biscuit, old chap?”
— From Legends of the Bengali Traveller: Part Four (2004, Banamali Naskar Publications)
Dr Lahiri of this tale, while exceptional, was by no means an aberration–the Bengali traveller is one of the hardiest species on the planet, and found in the unlikeliest places. Armed with map, muffler and monkey-cap, Bengalis rival even the Japanese in their endless quest to tread every inch of the world map and comment on how nothing is even remotely comparable to Calcutta.
And the twin pillars of Bengali-traveller respectability, the shallow pools in which they make their first waddling forays before they swim the ocean of discovery, are Darjeeling and Puri. No Bengali is a true Bengali, let alone a traveller, unless he or she has set foot on these scenic spots.
I am, alas, a blot on the face of Bengal, but a humble, penitent blot trying to erase itself. I had been to neither of these must-visit spots before this trip–and I still cannot call myself a true Bong until I have made that trip to Darjeeling. But that is a tale for another day. Today’s saga is one of sun, sea and sand, of a sacred city in Orissa loved with an almost religious fervour through the centuries by generations of intrepid travelling Bengalis.
Puri is not a city that seeks out tourists–it doesn’t need to. People flock to it in hordes. The magnificent Jagannath temple dates back to the 12th century and is one of the most sacred Hindu sites in India. Millions attend the Rath Yatra every summer, when giant idols of Jagannath, Balbhadra and Subhadra in wooden chariots are pulled from the Jagannath Temple to the Gundicha Ghar on the Grand Road, the city’s main thoroughfare.
But I had no intention of visiting the temple and being fought over by evil, vulture-like pandas. About ten minutes after checking in at the BNR hotel, Puri’s most famous institution after the temples, I felt the inevitable urge to feel sand between my toes. Well, there was some sand in the loo, but that didn’t count–I needed to walk the beach where my ancestors have frolicked down the ages, to try and get a whiff of the magic in the air that kept them coming back every year, armed more children and bigger tiffin-carriers.
So to the beach I went, and the first thing I saw was a completely unexpected camel. How did a camel get to Odisha? I asked Madhav, its owner, and learnt the answer. It walked. I never saw anyone actually ride that camel during my brief stay in Puri–it just walked around in a forlorn sort of way, dreaming of dunes.
The beach itself is very beautiful–the sand is golden brown and firm, the sea is choppy and wild, and the sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, filling the sky with pink and orange fire.
It’s a very crowded beach, though. The BNR hotel is on Chakratirtha Road, where the beach is relatively empty; closer to the temple, on the stretch of sand called Swargadwar, a series of budget hotels compete with each other for the Ugly Building of the Year awards.
The part of the beach in front of Puri Hotel, overlord of the budget hotels, is best avoided. It’s more of a scrum than a beach; hordes of giggling families leap in and out of the water’s edge, spreading litter and shrieks; distended, engorged bellies float on the swelling as if independent of the bodies attached to them. Small boys run around trying to sell fake pearls, and a large market stands behind it all, where you can buy a variety of garish souvenirs, gape at horrors of shell and plastic, and eat mouldy, sandy and utterly tasteless chaat. Nearby, fishermen are hauling in the day’s catch; I watched the men of the noble vessel ‘Great the Asok’ examine the contents of their net, throwing away huge, menacing-looking jellyfish as crows gather round, clamouring harshly for eyeballs. Nearby, a vast open drain pours assorted filth into the Bay of Bengal.
But you can walk away from all this, as I did, and find emptier, secluded spots about twenty minutes away. And this is where the beauty of the beach really grows on you, and you can sit for hours watching waves in comfortable solitude. I watched a sand sculptor work his magic with a little plastic scale and lot of patience – a lump of sand turned into a beautiful apsara and something of her grace remained even next morning, though some lout had walked over her face.
I met a beautiful and nearly naked Russian couple, with guidebooks in hand, scared expressions on faces and a small crowd of ogling men trailing them, drawn like mosquitoes to bare skin. A very pleasant hour was spent chatting with Ken and Sarah, students from Seattle now travelling around the world apologising for Bush. Two muscular men shot a yoga video at sunset; a Chinese man with huge white eyebrows and a young woman (couple? father/daughter? Kung-fu master/pupil?) walked incessantly on the firm sand near the water.
This was more like the Puri I’d heard of from at least fifty people, all of whom were deeply in love with the beach here; long, warm, lazy days on the beach, returning to the sprawling elegance of the BNR to sleep and drink quantities of tea, eating whole schools of fish caught so recently they were sometimes still twitching. Very few people go to Puri just once; they get caught young, watch the city grow with them and go back with their children.
And the place to go back to has always been the renowned but fast-fading BNR hotel. The BNR is a place whose inability to change is probably what draws a lot of people back to it–back to British elegance, large rooms, four-poster beds with mosquito nets, and eating fancy desserts while looking at sunlit lawns and the sea on the horizon. Ancient, white-clad hotel staff walk its stately corridors, relics of the Raj, keepers of an old-retainer legacy that modern tourists will find completely incomprehensible–they move at their own pace, swaying gently like Raj elephants, and bring you food and other necessities when they feel like it. Affluent tourists now head for better-equipped luxury resorts that are slowly growing on Puri’s outskirts, complete with private beaches, shacks and exclusive nuliahs (the Baywatch boys of Puri, who will hold your hand when the sea is rough).
My mother is a sworn BNR addict; it was the place where all bhadraloks went, and was where you bumped into people you also bumped into at Calcutta Club. Options for accomodation in Puri a few decades ago were few; it was either the BNR, then the height of luxury, or small hotels where you got a large room with a balcony and the owner would pop over for a chat and ask you what fish you wanted him to buy from the market by the beach. Nuliahs would keep you safe inside a tyre as you walked primly into the sea, fully clad, and inform you, after consulting their notebooks, that their grandfathers had held your grandmother’s hand when she had come to Puri as a bride.
And somehow that was the image of Puri that really stayed with me, even after I left; I was visiting a place full of good memories–not, perhaps, the best of tourist destinations, but facilities aren’t always important. For the travelling Bengali, Puri is sacred ground, and not just for the temple. I left strangely satisfied and full of displaced nostalgia, and I’m not sure why, but I know I will go there again. And now I wonder what Darjeeling will be like. Clearly there’s hope left for me.