Orissa, now (and before the careless mispronunciations of the British Raj) known as Odisha, is a state in India famous for its ancient temples. In Old Bhubaneswar, there’s a working temple or the archeological ruins of a temple around every corner. The temples are beautifully constructed in the Kalinga style, with a tall beehive / sugar loaf shaped main sanctum, preceded by three pyramidical roofed outer halls, and a huge surrounding courtyard, all made out of intricately carved sandstone. Here’s a picture of the Rajarani temple we visited after sunset on our first evening in Odisha. It was built in the 11th century and is an archeological site now.
The star attraction for me is the Konark Temple. The Lingaraja temple and the Jagannath temple are visited by many more pilgrims and are in far better shape, but they are off-limits to non-Hindus. No one asks unless you don’t look Hindu. Jo doesn’t.
The Konark temple was built around 1250 CE to the Sun god. Most of the temple is gone but what remains is still definitely worth visiting. It was built on a huge stone platform with stone wheels and horses to resemble a gigantic chariot. Alu and I visited Konark with my parents when I was a bit younger that Evan is now. I still recall the amazement I felt.
We get there late morning and it is already hot and humid. Sharath secures a guide and we dutifully pretended to listen to his rambling but distinctly non historic history about the construction of the temple. Then we proceed to get a guided tour around the massive stone chariot base in a clockwise direction.
And then things get tricky. Many of the carvings are from the Kama Sutra. Our guide proudly says “man and woman making love, polygynous, polyandrous, lesbian, everthing”. I wonder how my parents navigated the visit with two prepubescent boys 49 years ago. I’ve never heard a word about sex or anything of a sexual nature ever pass my mother or father’s lips in the presence of their children. Then we get to this sculpture.
And the guide said “69”. To which Evan say, without even caring to look at it, “Wow. There are so many sculptures and he knows this is the 69th one. Why is this one famous?”. Jo replies that he would need to be a bit older before he understands. Behind poor Evan’s back we joke about the moment he gets it. “Oh – that’s why the guide said 69!”
We wander past twenty foot tall walls laden with carvings of long phallused men and sensual women in every imaginable sexual position. This temple was built as an offering for fertility which may explain why. Vivian is quite stunned by the display. The guide is subtle with his descriptions till he finds Sharath and me alone, separated from the women and children for a few minutes. Pointing to a carving directly in front of our eyes he starts “and here she is sucking his penis while the other woman is….”. I hurriedly rejoin the women and children.
Konark, in spite of, because of, or independent of the sexually explicit carvings, is beautiful. After Konark we have a nice lunch at a breezy beachside restaurant – tandoori whole Bhetki (red snapper) and beer and rice and prawns. Then the non-Hindus 😂 return to Bhubaneswar in one car while the rest of us (😂😂) proceeded to Odisha’s most sacred site – the Jagannath temple in Puri. That is a cultural experience and a whole blog post by itself. Late evening we return to the mall in Bhubaneswar that belongs to Sharath’s friend who planned and hosted our trip and stay in Odisha. I got the kids some food to go from the food court (momos and masala popcorn chicken) and bought myself a pair of pants that they re-hemmed in 10 minutes. It’s nice to walk around a mall where you’re a friend of the owner. The day before, we even sat down for 10 minutes of a movie in a luxury three-screen movie house on the second floor.
Indians are by and large a dour lot when you pass them on streets or run into them casually. Bank tellers, immigration officers, or retail store cashiers see no need for a forced professional perkiness. When I first arrived in the US more than three decades ago and spoke to the AT&T operator (that’s how long ago) I was always surprised by her sincere-sounding but fully-scripted gratefulness for my “using AT&T”, which at that time had a virtual monopoly on long distance international calling. Back at home the implied attitude would have been “fuck off and don’t disturb me again”.
But Indians who you may meet even indirectly through someone else’s friendship are your friends. They invite you in to their homes and dinners and parties and vacations with a sincere and genuine friendliness that is unique.
At the end of our visit to Odisha, I think Vivian and Evan will remember that more than the temples. That and the 69 carving.