The Artist Life

Paradise City: Exploring Artists Venture to Puri, India

Paradise City: Exploring Artists Venture to Puri, India

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With the Paradise City series, we take an artful spin around cities near and far that lure us with their sights and history, delicious and unique food, interesting happenings and (of course!), amazing art experiences! In the past, we’ve visited Santa Barbara, California and this time we explore the wonders of Puri, India, with artist, writer and veteran traveler Stephen Harby!

When in India

India has fascinated me for half a lifetime, and one recent summer, I journeyed across the globe to attend the legendary festival of Rathayatra, one of the most important events in the Hindu calendar. The largest Rathayatra celebration occurs in the city of Puri, located on India’s eastern coast in the state of Odisha, about 250 miles southwest of Kolkata.

Crowds Gathered Before the Three Temples by Stephen Harby, graphite and watercolor on paper. While the temple cars are awaiting their journey, crowds clamor for a look. Brightly clad women stay behind the men, sitting down in response to the heat and covering themselves for protection from the sun.

Vacation of the Gods

Hindus account for roughly 80 percent of India’s population of more than 1.3 billion, and on the occasion of my visit, they all seemed to have thronged this normally sleepy town on the Bay of Bengal. The trip posed significant challenges in the form of stifling heat and crushing crowds, but it was well worth any discomfort to see this unique celebration.

The gist of the centuries-old ceremony is that the god Jagannatha and his brother and sister take a summer vacation to travel a few miles from their home temple in the center of town to their aunt’s temple on its edge — an age-old strategy to seek refreshment and renewal in the torpid summer days. Naturally, the deities — or the images embodying them, three statues without arms or legs — must travel in style. To transport them, three colossal rolling temples are built from scratch each year.

Sketch by Stephen Harby while in Puri, Indai, celebrating Rathayatra.

The 45-foot-tall temple “cars” are fashioned out of wood and brightly colored fabric; festooned with bells, garlands and gold decoration; and mounted on carriages with 12 to 16 huge wooden wheels. They are pulled through the streets by hundreds of villagers clinging to four massive ropes. From time to time someone is trampled or suffocated by the crowds or even crushed under the great wheels; many more pass out from the heat.

Three Temple Cars Rolling by Stephen Harby, graphite and watercolor on paper. The three temple cars have begun their procession, traveling one by one down the wide main street, which is thronged with more than a million spectators. The “home” temple of the deities can be seen in the background.

The festival of Rathayatra is the source of the English word juggernaut, which derives from the name of the god Jagannatha and means “something careening inexorably forward” — although the massive temples themselves can hardly be said to careen.

Rolling Mountain Temples

The Hindu temple form comes to us from Buddhist roots. Buddhism originated in northern India, and its early adherents worshiped in mountain caves. The towering temple form is, in fact, an abstraction of a mountain. The very idea of a rolling mountain defies the imagination and, for me, was the great appeal of this festival.

Kandarya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho by Stephen Harby, graphite and monochrome wash on paper. This temple, one of the most famous in India, is a source for the prototypical temple form across the Hindu world. The stepped forms resemble the mountain caves that served as the original Buddhist places of worship.

The journey of about two miles takes a day or two. The temples inch along as a “driver” flays four wooden horses and the actual human horsepower tugs at the ropes. Through it all, a crew of priests chants, blows horns and bangs cymbals. The sight is cacophonous, colorful and worth traveling halfway around the world to witness.

The mobile temples in midprocession. Sinodia Photo/Getty Images

Visiting Rathayatra

This year’s Rathayatra Festival will start July 14. (In 2019 it begins July 4.) Flights to the state capital of Bhubaneswar — which is one to two hours from Puri by car — are possible from the gateways of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

The beach at Puri. Getty Images

The Hans Coco Palms Hotel, on the beach not far from the center of town, is a good place to stay and take advantage of cool breezes and refreshing swims in the sea or in the hotel pool. The hotel can arrange a local guide who will explain the intricacies of the festival and secure ringside seats, which are in shaded stands built on the rooftops flanking the processional route.

The Sun Temple at Konark. Getty Images

An excursion to the great Sun Temple, in nearby Konark, is a must. This massive stone temple is fashioned as a chariot with 24 nine-foot wheels. Dating from the 13th century, it’s evidence that the tradition of mobile temples extends at least that far back.

Stephen Harby is an architect, watercolorist, faculty member of the Yale School of Architecture and founder of Stephen Harby Invitational, which organizes travel opportunities for small groups.


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