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; a few young Western and Japanese backpackers enjoying the low-key traveller scene at this former hippie trail favourite; 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.