The lanes of the old city of Bhubaneshwar are choc-a-block with temples making you wonder if this is how Delhi and other North Indian towns looked before the temples disappeared and tombs appeared. In Bhubaneshwar, however, the temple building continued with some minor sporadic hiccups. The result is that the beautiful city is packed up to the rafters with temples. You just need to get lost in the lanes to discover these jewels away from the more touristy spots.
Beyond the well-known Mukteshwar Temple is one of the earliest temples in Odisha. The Parasuramesvara Temple was built in 7th century and is adorned with some fabulous carvings of Ganesh, Kartikey and the Saptamaitrikas. Everything about the temple – the spire, the intact jagmohan, the sumptuous sculpture including the rare ashtagrahas on the sanctum entrance makes it a must-see temple.
A little INTACH sign indicates that there is a 10th century monument beyond. Now it gets exciting. I am moving deeper into Old Bhubaneshwar where tourists usually do not venture. Few directions later, I find myself in a quiet temple complex seemingly submerged within modern houses. This is a Shiv Temple with boundary wall, shrine like entrance, two minor shrines and a well – this beauty took some finding but what a surprise. I have the temple to myself. The weather is pleasant as I can discern the usual household sounds. The closest a Delhi monument comes to the location and vibe is Atgah Khan Tomb in the crowded Nizamuddin village.
So while Delhi has balconies hanging over the tombs, here in Bhubaneshwar, the balconies and verandahs seem to lead you into the temple. Odisha Tourism has done a good job of installing signs so I do not miss the temples hidden behind the houses. Here a verandah leads me to a simple looking 7th century Swarna Jalesvara Temple. Continuing my walk through the lanes brings me to a 15th century Kotitirthesvar Temple which is again a Shiv Temple. There is a small water tank called Papanashini Kund where the locals bathe hoping to wash away their sins.
Walking in the lanes of this ancient city is almost therapeutic. Here, ancient temples are a way of life just like the neighbourhood shop or park. They sit unobtrusively, a part of the landscape. A solitary devotee drops in. I stand unnoticed. Rituals are performed. Incense is lit, lips move in prayers. Words are whispered in Nandi’s ears. Life goes on languidly. Colourful houses and temples keep appearing. Next is the pair of Subarnajaleswara & Sampurnajaleswara Temples as kids play around in the premises.
And then I emerge out to see the waters of Bindu Sagar. This is a whole different world. There are even more temples all around the rim of the lake. I sit under the shade of tree to reflect. The atmospherics are wonderful here. Priests attired in colourful dhotis perform services for the devotees. Devotees come down the steps of the tank. They take water in their hands, mumble players and look to the sun. Cows mill around. Kids are learning to ride bicycles. A sadhu indulges in a soliloquy. I could spend the entire day here.
The main temple here is the Ananta Basudev Temple and it is a beehive of activity as food is being cooked. Earthen pots filled with rice and other delicacies simmer over wood fired ovens. The devotees buy the food or ‘anna’ from the numerous shops filled with pots. The feast is served on the spread banana leaves.
Walking further, I come to the fort like walls enclosing the Lingaraj Temple. I climb a platform to catch a bird’s eye view. There are numerous shrines inside of all sizes. Outside, along the periphery there are even more temples. The procession of the temples seems to be unending. And these are the ones that are not even the more popular ones. This is a pure bonanza for someone interested in temple iconography as the riches of carvings and sculptures and architectural styles spanning across centuries and dynasties can keep someone busy for months.
So while Delhi transports you to medieval age, here in Bhubaneshwar, it has been a splendid day walking in Ancient India. The sun goes down as I sit by the stepped tank of the Rameshwar Temple complex. For the locals, the day starts with a visit to the neighbourhood temple. Now in the evening, people who have come to walk in the park have settled around the steps of the temple. A group of devotees is singing bhajans. The tabla beats echo through the darkening trees. I look back – the spires of the temples have a golden halo around them. They are talking to me. I feel blessed. For the first time in the day, I bow my head in reverence. A walk in the glorious old city of Bhubaneshwar will do this to you.