The most popular living shrine in Odisha is the colossal Jagannath Temple in Puri, one of the Char Dams, Hindu India’s four holiest places of worship. After a purifying dip in the surf, aided by local lifeguards, pilgrims stream through its huge doorways from before dawn to attend the ritual offerings made to Lord Jagannath and his accompanying deities, Balabhadra and Subhadra – a trio of a peculiar, almost cartoonish appearance whose origins are lost in the mists of time.
Alas, non-Hindus are strictly barred from entry and have to content themselves with the view of the complex from the roof of an adjacent library. Only during the famous Rath Yatra procession, when Lord Jagannath and his cohorts are processed in huge wheeled chariots along Puri’s main street, can non-believers catch a glimpse of the Gods. Hundreds of thousands of people travel to the town for the event, for which the mighty cars are brightly painted and decorated with flower petals and giant hoods of vibrant appliqué. The lead chariot, or more accurately its revered passenger, is the root of the English term ‘juggernaut’.
A wonderful place to stay in Puri is the Chanakya BNR, or ‘Railway Hotel’, a vestige of Raj days on the seafront which has recently been restored to its former glory.