I find Puri unorthodox, very inventive, and completely original. That’s divinity for you because orthodoxy is human-created and dogma is human imposed. The Supreme never wants the children to be bound – would you want your children to be tied down? One can smell freedom in Puri – that is why in the 70s and 80s it was more international than it is now. We had more foreigners visiting Puri and staying there for long spells. The Chakratirth ‘side’ was known as the ‘foreigner side’. Puri is a place with a strong character and has people with a tremendous amount of self-confidence. At times it is quirky and cocky, but Puri is always the “one and only”.
Visitors from all over the globe come to Puri – both for religious tourism and for beach/nature tourism, but this influx has not affected the core of Puri life in the least. This is a powerful phenomenon. Of late, we hear of instances where there are activities which are mostly tourist influenced. But otherwise, Puri is regarded as a place that is untouched by the pressures of “floating cultures”. This has a flip side too, but this also indicates a healthy, resolute individuality. The Odia inscriptions of the 15th Century A.D. called the place Purusottama Kataka and if the “Ideal Man” resides in this place then the life of this place has to be concomitantly ideal and idyllic. Interestingly, the inhabitants of Puri strongly believe in this. They are ‘family’ with the Lord, not supplicants forever.
Life starts before sunrise at about 4-4.30 in the morning at the Jegaghar. Jegaghar is the local club where the seniors mentor the wards in the disciplined pursuit of wrestling, bodybuilding, and gymnastics. Even today when all the sports mentioned above are on the wane in other parts of the country, Puri lads, in the teeth of the changing times, are not ashamed of flaunting their practice of 1000 dandas (push-ups), 25kms running (jogging on beach sand), 1000 baithiks (squats), and hours of wrestling practice in specially prepared wrestling spaces on fine soil (with liberal portions of clay).
It is not only about physical exercise and workouts. I know of masters who live there (in Jegaghars) even if they are from the same sahi (locality) or from the town. Besides wrestling, other activities like practising classical music, instruments like Pakhawaj (similar to the Mridangam in southern India), vegetable colour dyeing of gamuchas (loin cloths), and painting in Pattas or other mediums have been common in these hubs. The subject matter of Patta Chitra is mostly folk-based and mythological. So the jegaghars are Community Centres that were started as gymnasiums, but have expanded over time to become mostly learning centres of various arts, crafts, and skills.
Having said this, the women of the society do not have much access to Jegaghars, as the responsibility of providing physical security and safeguarding the society was deemed as primarily a man’s job. Young boys choosing to go to Jegaghars are accorded special status or a tacit appreciation by the elders and the peers. Jegaghars are the erstwhile barracks and training grounds for soldiers (paikas). Some of the important sahis of Puri (I dare not miss others because there is a strong competition between the jegaghars of different sahis) are Bali sahi, Dolamandapa sahi, Goudabada sahi, Harachandi sahi, Kundeibenta sahi , Baddei sahi, Balagandi sahi, Baseli sahi, Ganamala sahi, Gooria sahi, Gurruntee Haragouri sahi, Kalikadebi sahi, Karati sahi, Kapal mochana, Khatua sahi, Khuntia sahi, Kumuti sahi, Manikarnika sahi, Mausima, Pathuria sahi, Patna Jenapur, Patna Jagannathpur, Patna Balabhadra Ballava, Patna Matipada, Patna Balisahi, Patna Parrhee sahi, Patna Kumbharpada, Patna Tikarpada, and Talichha sahi.
Puri on a map from 1885
Each sahi inhabitant is extremely loyal to his/her Jega, in the same vein as the loyalty to English premier football clubs. One example of a classic and continuing Jega is one called Panchamukhi Jega in Markandeswar Sahi. Started on April 14th, 1962, this Jega was patronized by Late Sri Raghunath Supakar, an accomplished wrestler always maintaining a body weight in the range of 50-52 kgs until he passed away at the age of 70. Till his last he was always seen working out with boys one-third his age and also floating in water for hours together, doing various asanas in the water, demonstrating tremendous breath control. Known to be a strict disciplinarian, he would not even allow his wards to come to the Jega without a proper haircut. I had met him during my growing up years and have always been overawed by his disciplined lifestyle, and mental and physical strength.
The culture of Puri is not bhang-centric as has been generalised and trivialised by people who do not have an interest in the deeper study of the nuances of life in Puri. There are 62 Jegaghars in Puri, churning out on an average about 50 wrestlers each per year. All this is done with strong local sahi patronage and without much support from the government. During the famous Sahi Jatras, a designated Jegaghar would lead the procession with pride and grandeur. There is an euphoria around physical fitness and strength that is unparalleled in Odisha and rare in India. This happened way before the dramatized versions of WWE/WWF sweeping us away on our televisions. Such is the level of significance given to good life practices in Puri, and this social norm is deeply entrenched.
According to Cunningham, the ancient name of the town was Charitra. This is relevant. Puri echoes the character, Charitra.
The Jegaghars are in seven sahis (sata sahis) and all the seven sahis have four headmen designated as Sahi Naik. Today, with the changes in the local municipal and urban governance, the Sahi Naiks still call the shots. The brilliance of Puri is in hosting global travellers and yet not diluting the local culture and way of life. I have heard that once, the legendary Pandit Omkarnath Thakur was taking an early morning stroll and was passing by a Jegaghar when he heard spellbinding Pakhwaj play by a young boy. When he asked him about the source of his skill and who his master was, the boy without realising whom he was talking replied matter-of-factly that there was nothing great in what he was doing and that he does this every day because he was just copying his father, who played like this always, without much hullabaloo. Pandit Thakur realized the deep-seated culture of the place and is reported to have exclaimed that the boy was playing extraordinary music, and if that was common play in Puri, the place deserves to be saluted.
The people of Puri love pets and many households have cats, parrots, and other varieties of birds as pets. I know of many sevayats of the Jagannath temple always carrying birds perched on their fingers and walking with almost a superhuman gait, and sometimes talking in a foreign language like Nepali or Burmese. They know the languages through their interactions with their clientele, which are spread out. I am sure the peculiarities emanate from a sense of total surrender to the Almighty. They strongly believe that the Lord is their brother and that the Lord will take care of them, come what may. They are family members of the Lord, and, because they are in a sense of total surrender, they are free from worldly worries, which is why they can pursue hobbies like pets, music, cooking, and the like. This attitude might not be appreciated by many, but certainly deserves a better understanding before being dismissed as plain arrogance or irreverence.
Lagom in Sweden signifies balanced living or knowing limitations in our everyday life. “Not too little. Not too much. Just right.” Hygge in Denmark philosophy denotes ‘coziness of the soul’, and Fika, the Swedish custom of taking regular breaks during work to have coffee or tea and a snack. Puri Jegaghar culture nurtures Sanyam ( संयम in Hindi) or restraint in our lives.
It is not for nothing that people commonly address each other as “mani” with a swagger in Puri. Mani means precious jewel. That’s the esteem for each soul in Puri.
PS: The article was first published on Asiavillenews.com