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." At the centre of the maelstrom, the Jagannath Temple soars above the town's medieval heart and colonial suburbs. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside its bustling precincts.
Just off Lewis Road, some of Bhubaneswar's most celebrated temples are located. In order to see the oldest first, the travelers need to follow the footpath from the main road past the more recent Muktesvara Mandir and its adjacent water tank.
The best preserved and most beautiful of Bhubaneswar's early temples, the lavishly decorated Parasuramesvara Mandir stands in the shade of a large banyan tree just beyond the square. Dating back to around 650 AD, the shrine's plain, rectangular assembly hall (jagamohtma), simple stepped roof and squat beehive-shaped tower (deuf) typify the style of the late 7th century. In addition to this the panels of the temple depict Lakulisha the proselytizing Shaivite saint whose sect was largely responsible for the influencing Orissa with Hinduism in the 5th century.
Erected in the mid 10th century, the Muktesvara Mandir is often dubbed as "the gem" of Orissan architecture for its compact size and exquisite sculptural detail. It stands close to the main road in a separate walled courtyard, beside the small Marichi Kund tank. The water of this tank is believed to cure infertility. The temple was constructed 200 years after Parasuramesvara and represents the new, more elaborate style that had evolved in Bhubaneswar. Directly facing the main entrance is the ornamental torana (gateway). It is topped by two reclining female figures. This is considered Muktesvara's masterpiece. The grinning lions and dwarfs around the windows on the side of the porch, known as the bho motif, come a close second. Other gods, such as, Ganesh and Kartikeya (Lord Shiva's sons) and an unfinished Siddhesvara have been placed on the edge of Muktesvara's terrace.
Even though it was never completed, the 12th century Rajrani Mandir ranks among the very finest of Bhubaneswar's later temples. From the far end of the well-watered gardens in which it stands, the profile of the deul, with its successive tiers of projections rising to form an elegant eighteen-meter tower, dominates first impressions. Closer up, one can make out the profusion of sculpted figures for which Rajrani is equally famous. The best of these surround the sides of the tower, roughly 3m off the ground, where the 'dikpalas' or guardians of the eight directions protect the main shrine. Surrounded by their respective vehicles and attributes, the figures form a marked contrast to the languid and alluring poses of the exquisite female nayikas dividing them.
From Rajrani, the travelers can walk up to the Brahmesvara Mandir. Unlike most of its neighbours, this 11th century shrine still houses a living deity. Here too 'dikpalas' preside over the corners, with a fierce Chamunda on the western facade. Curvaceous maidens admiring themselves in the mirrors, dallying with their male contorts are to be found sculpted on the walls. These recall the devadasis, tradition that become a prominent feature of Orissan temple life. Non-Hindus are not supposed to enter the central shrine. A majestic Nandi bull adorns the temple too.
By far the largest group of temples is clustered around the Bindu Sagar, 2 km south of Bhubaneswar. This small artificial lake is itself a place of great religious importance. The lake is the main bathing place both for the pilgrims as well as for the Lingaraj deity.
Immediately south of the Bindu Sagar stands the most stylistically evolved temple in all Orissa. Built early in the 11th century the mighty Lingaraj Mandir has remained very much a living shrine. The two nearest entrance halls, Hall of Offering and Hall of Dance, are associated with the rise of the devdasi system. Beautiful sculpture depicting the music and dance rituals that would once have taken place inside the temple adorns its walls.
The gleaming, white Vishwa Shanti Stupa on Dhauli Hill, 5 km south of Bhubaneswar on the Pipli road, overlooks the spot where the Mauryan emperor Ashoka defeated the Kalingas in the decisive battle of 2 BC. Built in 172 by an association of Japanese Buddhists, the modern stupa, which eclipses its older predecessor nearby, stands a memorial to Ashoka's legendary change of heart, and the massive religious sea change it precipitated. Panels around the sides illustrate episodes from the lives of Ashoka and the Buddha while the umbrella-like projections on the top symbolize the five cardinal Buddhist virtues of faith, hope, compassion, forgiveness and non-violence.
The entire Konark Temple is in the shape of Lord Surya's war chariot. The temple was intended both as an offering Vedic sun god and as a symbol for the passage of time itself. The seven horses straining to haul the sun eastwards represented the days of the week. However much of the temple today is in ruins. The wheels ranged along the base stand for the twelve months, each with hour strikes detailed with pictures of the eight ideal stages of a woman's day.
Initially a stone pillar crowned with an image of Aruna, Surya's charioteer, stood in front of the main door, though this has since been moved to the eastern gateway of the Jagannath temple in Puri. The once-lofty sanctuary tower has been now reduced to little more than sandstone slabs tumbling from the western wing. The porch or jagaihaiui has become Konark's real centerpiece. Its impressive pyramidal roof, reaching to a height of 38m, is divided into three tiers.
Among the carved figures on the bottom platform is a four-headed, six-armed Shiva as Nataraja, garlanded with severed heads and performing the dance of death. Though now blocked up, the huge cubic interior of the porch was a marvel of medieval architecture. The original builders ran into problems installing its heavy ornamental ceiling, and had to forge ten-meter iron beams as support - a considerable engineering feat for the time.
Amazingly elaborate sculpture embellishes the temple's exterior with a profusion of deities, animals, floral patterns, bejeweled couples, voluptuous maidens, mythical beasts and aquatic monsters. To find out more about the temple the travelers need to visit the shrine themselves.