As the home of Lord Jagannath and his siblings, PURI ranks among Hindu India’s most important sacred sites, visited by a vast number of pilgrims each year. The crowds peak during the monsoons for Rath Yatra, the famous “Car Festival”, when millions pour in to watch three giant, multicoloured chariots being drawn up the main thoroughfare. At the centre of the maelstrom, the Jagannath temple soars above the town’s medieval heart and colonial suburbs like some kind of misplaced space rocket. Non-Hindus aren’t allowed inside its bustling precincts, but don’t let this deter you; Puri’s streets and beach remain the focus of intense devotional activity year round, while its bazaars are crammed with collectable religious souvenirs associated with Lord Jagannath.
Three distinct types of visitor come to Puri: middle-class Bengalis lured by the combined pleasures of puja and promenade; young Western and Japanese backpackers enjoying the low-key traveller scene; and thousands of pilgrims, mainly from rural eastern India, who flock in to pay their respects to Lord Jagannath. Over the years the three have staked out their respective ends of town and stuck to them. It all makes for a rather bizarre and intoxicating atmosphere, where you can be transported from the intensity of Hindu India to the sea and back to the relative calm of your hotel veranda at the turn of a bicycle wheel.
Until the seventh and eighth centuries, Puri was little more than a provincial outpost along the coastal trade route linking eastern India with the south. Then, thanks to its association with the Hindu reformer Shankaracharya (Shankara), the town began to feature on the religious map. Shankara made Puri one of his four mathas, or centres for the practice of a radically new, and more ascetic form of Hinduism. Holy men from across the whole Subcontinent came here to debate the new philosophies – a tradition carried on in the town’s temple courtyards to this day. With the arrival of the Gangas at the beginning of the twelfth century, this religious and political importance was further consolidated. In 1135, Anantavarman Chodaganga founded the great temple in Puri, and dedicated it to Purushottama, one of the thousand names of Vishnu – an ambitious attempt to integrate the many feudal kingdoms recently conquered by the Gangas. Under the Gajapati dynasty in the fifteenth century Purushottama’s name changed to Jagannath (“Lord of the Universe”). Henceforth Vaishnavism and the devotional worship of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, was to hold sway as the predominant religious influence in the temple. Puri is nowadays one of the four most auspicious pilgrimage centres, or dhams, in India.
Western-style leisure tourism, centred on the town’s long sandy beach, is a comparatively new phenomenon. The British were the first to spot Puri’s potential as a resort. When they left, the Bengalis took over their bungalows, only to find themselves sharing the beach with an annual migration of young, chillum-smoking Westerners attracted to the town by its abundant hashish. Today, few vestiges of this era remain. Thanks to a concerted campaign by the municipality to clean up Puri’s image, the “scene” has dwindled to little more than a handful of cafés, and is a far cry from the swinging hippie paradise some still arrive here hoping to find.