Today was one of the best days of my life. I’m not exaggerating, it’s not just a phase that’s going to pass over soon – today was the day I watched a Star Wars movie in a theatre and what made it sweeter was that it was The Force Awakens. The movie actually released a week late in India, i.e., the 25th, not the 18th because of some stupid Hindi movies that didn’t even do that well at the box-office. Even then, I watched it 6 days after its release in India – seems strange for a Star Wars fanatic like me, but luck wasn’t on my side and I had scheduling problems. I’d made plans to watch it on the 26th with a friend, but the guy was as unreliable as a Stormtrooper’s aim and the plan went blew up like a thermal detonator. For a brief moment, I thought that I may actually miss the movie and I’d never forgive myself for that. So, I was dogmatic in my approach when I asked my father, no, demanded that we (my family) watch it as soon as possible. I was probably this aggressive because we were scheduled to go on a short holiday with my aunt, uncle and two cousins to Bhubaneshwar and Puri and fitting in things such as movies in a holiday is as difficult as quipping better than Han Solo. Thankfully, my father said that all of us would watch the movie on the 1st of January. At the time it seemed like a long way away, but if I could wait over a year for the movie, I could surely wait a few more days.
For some strange reason, securing some transportation to take us back to Bhubaneshwar was worrying me more than my Uncle and cousin who were nowhere to be seen. Even though we had just escaped from that horrendous crowd with our lives intact, I realized that we still had a long way to go. The thought of any more exertion almost made me collapse and call it a day. We walked down the road for a while and asked people for directions to the train station as that’s where the probability of finding any form is transport was maximum. On our way, we gave my uncle a call from my trusty old Nokia C-3. Thankfully, he picked up and we learnt that they’d made it out fine. We told him that we were heading to the train station and that we’d meet up there.
On reaching the train station, we saw auto-rickshaws and buses which were strangely empty. After our immensely difficult journey in the morning on a train, we felt like returning to the hotel in anything but a train. We asked an auto-rickshaw driver if he’d take us to Bhubaneshwar, but much to our dismay, he informed us that all the auto-rickshaw drivers were on a strike today and they wouldn’t be taking any passengers. The buses parked there seemed to be in the same state and so we had no option but to walk into the train station.
Affairs here seemed to be very organized with several policemen organizing the otherwise unruly crowd into three lines for the three entry gates. Since we’d bought two-way tickets, we were allowed to pass through without having to purchase new ones. This delighted me because the line in front of the two ticket counters were very long. However, my delight was short-lived for upon walking around inside the train station for a while, we realized that we had no idea which train was going where and when – there were no electronic boards or T.V. screens displaying that information and no one we asked seemed to know anything either. There were five trains there and we hadn’t a clue which one was going to leave the earliest. I was quite unsure about what to do now and was thinking about alternative options when my father told me that a man had informed him of the train that was going to leave first and that we were going to board that train.
Both of us had been walking constantly for well over 2 hours and my legs were very tired. So when we entered one of the compartments of the train and found some unoccupied seats, we almost crashed down onto them. But again, our respite was cut short as a man told us that all the seats had been reserved and that we would have to stand in the short passageway that exists where one enters the compartment from. We reluctantly got up and walked over there. The place was cramped as it was, but then more and more people started entering that compartment. In that small passage of about 48 square feet were cramped about fifteen people already. However, even more people were coming. What made it worse was that each person was carrying a large amount of luggage and finding space for it was a pain. Soon fifteen grew to twenty and then to twenty-five. People who had reserved seats struggled to get through that dense crowd of sweaty and uncomfortable bodies and every time another person entered the compartment, I cringed.
Finally, things got so bad, that people were almost hanging out of the open doors of the compartment. The amusing thing is that some people were still trying to force their way through into this already jam-packed space.Thankfully, these people were being turned away. I called my uncle and told him to board the train we were on. It was now 5:45 in the evening and even though the train was scheduled to leave fifteen minutes ago, there were no indications of it leaving any time soon. I was suffering inside that tiny passage. Standing in the corner may have made things a little more bearable, but it was suffocating nonetheless. I learnt that we were on an “express train” and that we would reach Bhubaneshwar in a little over an hour and a half easily (when the train finally got moving, of course). This was my silver lining, my ray of hope – I would only have to endure this for a short while more and then, bliss.
After another fifteen minutes, the train finally made a move and I was secretly celebrating. However, my hopes were crushed like a car at a junkyard once again – the train failed to pick up any speed even after we had cleared the station; it was just chugging along when it should have been living up to its name of “express train”. The train was moving parallel to the main road and I was watching the cars speed along on the empty road, moving faster than the train and I envied the people in those cars so much at the time. All of a sudden, the train jerked to a halt – somebody had yanked the emergency chain to stop the train as he had reached his village (the people in India create their own stops) and this infuriated me as it was making this already insufferable journey even more so. To make matters worse, this kept happening every time the train seemed to pick up any speed. It became so frequent that my father was contemplating just getting off at the next stop, walking to the main road and hitching a ride to Bhubaneshwar. But we soon learnt that we were only a few kilometres away from Khurda Road Junction, the last stop before Bhubaneshwar and thus, decided to stick around.
Those few kilometres felt like a hundred and every minute felt like an hour. I felt so claustrophobic, I was having trouble breathing, my legs were about to give out. Moreover, I was standing in a very awkward position because a man had placed two enormous bags behind me and that made resting on the wall a very difficult task. It was hot and so humid and everyone was sweating and obviously, stinking. I looked at my father and his face was marred with pain as well – he said that he was experiencing stomach cramps and that his legs were aching too. When we finally reached Khurda Road Junction, some people alighted from the train and I felt like I could breathe again. The train was going to be here for a while so we got off as well to stretch our legs. My father subsequently gave my uncle a phone call and we met up just next to the train. He told us that he and my cousin had almost pushed through during the stampede, but that eventually they succumbed and turn around. However, they had managed to touch the rope of the Rath and that had made the struggle worthwhile. He also revealed that they had travelled all this way in one of the A.C. Sleeper compartments in total comfort – he didn’t have tickets for those seats, but he bribed the ticket collector and all was well. This amazed my father and I and we felt like absolute fools travelling the way we had.
We thought of following my uncle’s example and my father went and had a quick chat with one of the ticket collectors while I was waiting aside. A short while later, the both of us boarded an A.C. Sleeper with ample room for sitting (and lying down) and there was a heaven and hell difference between this arrangement and the last. Even though there was only a small distance left, at least we were going to cover that in comfort. This short while here made me forget all my fatigue and the troubles we had to go through and my face was a picture of relief. The train soon left the station and it was as if we reached Bhubaneshwar in no time – it’s funny how fast time travels when you’re enjoying yourself.
My delight upon entering the hotel room was equal to that of a child when he receives a toy that he’s been wanting for a very long time. After taking a shower and gorging on some food, I realized that never in my life had I had an adventure quite as exciting as this – four forms of transport (all uncomfortable), almost touching the Rath, a stampede that almost led to serious injury, my father getting his phone stolen, almost getting horned by a bull and of course, the most uncomfortable journey of my life – the journey back to Bhubaneshwar. Even though the trip had been an absolute mess, it’s something that I’ll recall fondly for decades to come. Also, it’ll make a really good story at social gatherings, so I say “worth it”.
There were two streams of people – one moving towards the Raths, for people who hadn’t seen them and one moving away from them, for those who had. We entered the former stream and immediately regretted it. Let me elaborate – people had been walking on that road for hours and they were, by that time, very dirty; the roads were wet as well as the Government of Orissa had appointed people to spray the people on the road with water from these tanks on their backs to provide some respite from the heat (this was great for our faces which were being sprayed with cool water, but terrible for our feet which were covered in water and mud now); and of course, there were the people! There were reportedly more than a hundred thousand people on that road at the time and we were constantly being pushed and butted by others. Have you seen the Guiness World Record attempt where a small hatchback is fitted with as many people as possible? The record is somewhere around 30. Now, imagine being a person in that terribly cramped car and also imagine being there for about an hour in that position. Hell, you think? No, worse. That’s what it was like walking on that road. However, there was a part of me that was really enjoying the whole thing and was just nudging me forward with great zest. After the initial discomfort, I grew accustomed to the conditions and started looking at the finer details of which there were many.
Rathyatra is something that my family has celebrated every year in our home and it’s become something of a tradition. Even though I don’t consider myself particularly religious, I’d get out my miniature Rath (standing a foot tall) containing the holy trinity of the gods and Goddess, Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra, with great excitement and parade it around my house. To me, the festival was confined to my house, celebrated in a small manner with just my family members present. However, the festival is actually a huge deal – there are large Raths or chariots (these Raths are to my Rath what the Millennium Falcon is to a Lego model of it) that are pulled by people or vehicles all over the city, bands are hired to follow the Rath and play festive music loudly and the huge groups of people following the Rath shout and dance and have loads of fun. If this sounds like it’s a little too much, then wait till you hear about Rathyatra in Puri.
Puri is a holy city in the indian state of Orissa. It houses the temple where the actual idols of the aforementioned gods is kept. I go to Puri once every year, firstly, to visit the temple and secondly, because it has a beautiful beach. Hordes of people visit the temple everyday and getting into the main hall where the deities are kept is a nightmare, even on a normal day. The crowd increases tenfold during Rathyatra as this is THE place to be for the festival, the place where the Raths house the actual deities and not replicas. I’ve never actually been to Puri during Rathyatra even though I’d heard a lot about it. However, when my father got to hear that the extremely rare Nabakalebara (the transfer of the souls of the gods into new idols on the day of Rathyatra) was going to take place this year, he decided that we have to go and witness it first-hand as it truly is a once in a lifetime experience (it’s only going to be held twice this century and the second one of the 21st century is going to 75 years later). I was quite enthusiastic about this trip and I pictured it to be a serene and peaceful affair. Yeah, I was really wrong about that. Continue reading Rathyatra In Puri: An Adventure I’ll Never Forget – Part 1