Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tilt of Glory: The Leaning Temple of Huma

It was a picture perfect September morning in the late monsoon. We had just performed puja at the shrine of Goddess Samleswari, the presiding deity of Sambalpur, and our driver Junnu had arrived after offering his Ramadan prayers. A perfect time to start for the famous temple of Huma, 28 kms away from the city of Sambalpur. The landscape en route wore an extra layer of green, brought about by weeks of heavy rain. The only break from the lush green surroundings came from the occasional sightings of the river Mahanadi, racing restlessly forward. It was at a clearing on the bank of this river that our vehicle came to a halt. The scenic beauty of the place—a confluence of river Mahanadi and river Dhulijore—is breathtaking.

Small shops displaying hibiscus, earthen lamps and prasad flank the small pathway leading to the temple gate, but the sellers are not quite nagging—a welcome break from their brethren manning the more renowned centers of pilgrimage. At the archway the tilts of the main temple and other structures took us by surprise. Leaning seemed to be the most preferred posture at this place, without props of course.

As we joined the queue to offer puja to Baba Vimaleswar Mahadev—local version of Lord Shiva—we felt suffocated inside the cramped and dark hallway, the plump pillars taking up most of the space. One restless woman raised her voice against the lengthy puja the priest conducted for previous devotees as her irritated husband left the place out of sheer frustration—and other devotees supported her protest with deep sighs. When our turn came, we had to wait sometime under the stone doorway before the last devotee cleared the way. No prizes for guessing our postures under the dwarf doorway: leaning of course. The sanctum sanctorum provided no respite, with its 5 ft x 5 ft size and oily walls and damp floor. When shall poor mortals like me start ignoring these small distractions in the path to God?

Puja over, we went round the compound that housed smaller temples, an imposing white pillar, a colourful image of Hanuman and one building which housed the sadhus, who had made this seat of Saivism their home. The structure that fascinated me most was the one with a reclining roof to the left of the main temple, which looked like another residential quarters, presently not in use. It has its own compound wall, now moss-covered. Near the pillar were gathered stone figurines bulls of various shapes and sizes. One wondered how these were lying there in the open, without being pilfered. Was it for the notice board of the archeological department that declared the temple as a protected monument and warned people against vandalism? However the place is not well maintained and reeks of utter neglect.

The back door of the compound opens to the steps to the river Mahanadi. The ghat affords excellent view of Orissa’s largest river, full of grace and grandeur. Here on the ghat visitors get a chance to feed a particular type of fish, known as ‘Kudo’. Catching god’s own fish is considered sacrilegious, so the fish here grow fearless and fat, and feed from the palms of the devotees. Even they have their own names, with which the temple worker calls them for feeding during mealtime. It is a different matter if the doubting visitor had no clue as to how to verify this claim.

About the most striking feature of the 17th century temple, that is tilting, many theories are put forth. The most popular and the plausible seems to be the one that points to the movement of the ground soil during floods in the river. Another view is that the ingenious architects designed the structures like that to protect structures from flooding of the two rivers from different sides. This is why the many structures are leaning on different sides. This ‘by design’ theory also explains why the degree of tilting remains the same all these years, and does not grow as in case of the other renowned tilting structure, the leaning tower of Pisa.

We come back to our vehicle, minds still preoccupied with the mystery of the tilt. A cement plaque carrying the names of the high and mighty of the society stands forlorn on the ground. It is the foundation stone for accommodation facility for the tourists. There is no sign of any such construction coming up at the place. Despite the utter neglect and apathy, faith and the love for antiquity brings visitors to this wilderness in large numbers.

For similar stories please read Hits and Misses. Buy it at or at

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shoe Issue

From an object of veneration to a tool to give vent to one’s rage—the descent for the footwear has been steep. When Rama was sent on vanwas, younger brother Bharata tried his best to persuade him back to Ayodhya. What he was able to bring back instead was a pair of Ram’s sandals, which he placed at the foot of the royal throne, as a mark of respect to the wronged brother. Bharata agreed to govern Ayodhya, not as its ruler, but only as Rama's representative.

As a prisoner in South Africa, Gandhiji made a pair of slippers for General Smuts, who had sent him unjustly to jail on three occasions. These slippers symbolize so effectively all that the Mahatma stood for, refusing to demonise even the oppressor.

Shoes help lift up the spirit and add to the melodrama of Indian weddings, when the bride’s sisters hide the groom’s footwear and demand a steep price from him to restore them.

Lest you feel that there could be no wrong step for the footwear, please sample the following sandal scandals.

For Imelda, wife of the infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos, her legendary collection of expensive footwear represented a life-long passion, but did a lot of harm to her already tarnished image.

While excessive possession of shoes may bring you plenty of uninvited attention, your bare feet may not guarantee the desired peace of mind. Master painter MF Hussain learnt this the hard way, when he raked up a controversy, trying to enter a private club without slippers. Indian footballers were deprived of their hard earned berth in the Soccer World Cup because they had not learnt to play the game with boots.

After these trickle of skirmishes involving the footwear, the shoegates were really opened in the recent years. When the dreadful plans of the ‘shoe bomber’ were foiled mid air, it was realized by one and all that shoes could hold terrible possibilities. Of late shoes have established themselves as a popular implement for expressing dissent and more often than not, hatred. The targets of this popular political missile are the high and mighty, such as the American president, the Indian prime minister and home minister, a Supreme Court judge, a Bollywood actor and of course many vote-seeking netas.

All shoe flinging episodes produce a lot of uproar, and at times—as the recent Chidambaram incident has proved—the desired effect.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Leaves of Desire

At first Mumbai appeared the most unlikely place to look for turmeric leaves (haladi patra in Odiya, haldi patta in Hindi). We required the leaves to prepare enduri pitha, an Odiya cuisine, at home. The delicacy made of rice and black gram flour, comes with a filling of coconut and chhena (cottage cheese). This much would have been yummy enough, but what adds that additional tang to the taste is the aroma of the turmeric leaf, in which the cake is wrapped while steamed. Not many delicacies can surpass the taste of the well cooked enduri pitha—any Odiya worth his salt will vouch for that.

Internet took me nowhere in my search for the leaves in the maximum city. “Try Dadar”, suggested someone, “what you don’t get anywhere else, you get in Dadar”. That was reassuring enough. When I saw rows upon rows of greenery laid out on the sidewalks of Dadar, I knew my search had come to an end. Coming closer, I found leaves of all shapes and sizes being sold by the vegetable sellers. Spinach, banana leaves, celery, mint, curry leaves and what not, but sadly no turmeric leaf.

Then I went to the flower section attracted by the green leaves on display. There also I came a cropper. When I asked a dealer of leaves where to get my item, he replied that it would be available during Diwali, when folks needed it for some local preparation. But I wanted the leaves for the ensuing Prathamashtami, of which enduri pitha was a crucial part.

My only hope was now the office, because people from all parts of Mumbai and outskirts congregated there, and there was a free flow of information. I tried my luck with our messenger first and eureka, he had the solution to my problem. He offered to bring a bunch of turmeric leaves for me the next Sunday from Thane, from where he commuted daily.

Next Sunday, when I collected my coveted object from my helpful colleague at the platform, I felt triumphant, having accomplished a difficult mission.

It was a different matter that we had left behind Prathamashtami by a few days.

Friday, November 20, 2009

ATM and Atma

It was just another routine visit to the ATM, but the experience was once in a lifetime. As I collected my cash and the card, my mind wandered to the realms beyond the immediate. A sudden realization came upon me thatI had just connected my soul to something extraordinary, beyond the ‘here and now’. I felt as if my atma had found shelter in the blissful lap of the paramatma.

ATM and atma or atman have commonalities that go way beyond their spellings. Like the countless atmas perennially roving about the universe ATMs are strewn everywhere. As there is no destruction of soul, there seems to be no end for the ATMs.

Both are subject to the consequences of your karma. Your karma determines the status of your atma’s journey to or away from the paramatma or the Supreme Soul. Just like that your ATM use is dependent upon your material karma. You may connect and draw only if your karmic accumulation has not fallen below the stipulated minimum balance. If your karma is good enough nirvana is only few buttons away. Deliverance or moksha for atman is similar to getting your cash delivery.

But is it really so simple? It is said that the winding path to salvation is littered with too many false starts and uncertainties. One who uses ATMs frequently is no stranger to such false starts in the shape of link failures and exasperating cash-out situations. If the ATM swallows your card or your cash, you are left to the vagaries of fate for getting them back.

Man in his essential nature is divine. Behind the finite man is the atman, ever free ever pure and ever harmonious. Atman is the universal life principle, the animator of all organisms. ATMs do not fall much behind. They are the prime mover of the shopward-bound, the animator of the youth and the driver of the material man.

The life giving principle of the ATM machine is caught aptly by the catchy slogan i had once seen emblazoned on the T-Shirt of a sprightly youth: “My Father is an ATM”.

As I walked out of the ATM booth that day, i was saying to myself, “What is atman after all but `an ATM` in disguise.”