To the neighbouring state of Odisha

Wednesday, 19 January 2023

Up early for a 5.30 departure, the station forecourt at Puri (Odisha) was full of people who had spent the night there. But they might have been going upcountry and not on our train to Kolkata. Puri has a fine beach and is a tourist resort for Indians, especially perhaps Bengalis, although the sleepers didn’t look like holidaymakers (they had perhaps been there for a religious festival).

If you have a reserved seat, Indian trains can be spacious; the main Indian rail gauge is broader than in the UK, 5 foot six inches  instead of 4 foot and 8½ inches, five seats across with plenty of space for elbows and legs. And they have not been “rationalised” with additional seating as in some Swedish trains causing some seats to have no window or only a very partial view. Here there was even a foot rest like the old Swedish stock from the 1960s and earlier.

The trains aren’t fast – the average speed of our express was about 50 mph. But it got to Kolkata on time and we had food served at our seat (twice) so I wasn´t complaining but worked my way happily through a couple of Bengali lessons, read a short story by Anita Desai and a few pages of Pagnol as well as thinking about what I would write about St Jerome’s involvement in religious disputes.

I’m tired of hobnobbing with life-denying Christian ascetics. I don’t think he should use his stone to beat his breast for thinking about his libidinous youth but instead give himself a bash or two for his thoughts about the purity of monastic life.

I enjoyed my days in Puri. My admittedly superficial impression of Odisha is that it felt less self-confident about its identity than West Bengal. They speak mainly Odia there, with a rounded alphabet that reminds me of Malayalam further south instead of the more angular Bengali and distinctly spiky Hindi. According to one source (perhaps it was.  Wiki), it’s rounded as they used palm leaves when they started to write, which easily break if you draw sharp straight lines on them. It’s a nice story although it has an “apocryphal” feel to it.

The main language is called Odia (or Oriya from colonial times when the state was referred to as Orissa), “d” in Odia is apparently pronounced so that it sounds similar to “r”.

The beach at Puri is fine – long and sandy, although there are apparently treacherous currents. Indian women (of all ages) sit on the beach in their saris – I saw none in the water in a bathing costume. Sometimes, however, they remain sitting when the waves come in making their dresses wet. But I didn’t see any awkward towel-draped gyrations to change clothes. They seemed happy to remain sitting on the beach until they were dry,

While there were groups of women sitting together, there were also mixed sex groups of young people, associating freely with one another and looking and behaving much like their peers in Europe, with the exception of the women (and, in fact, most of the men, not going in the water other than paddling.

But otherwise, the beach was familiar with its cheap eating places, excursion adverts in the neighbourhood, and hired chairs and sunshades; there were,  however, camel rides which are difficult to find in Weymouth.

We made an excursion to the Temple of the Sun with its intricate carvings at Konark a few miles away, It dates from about 1200 and only part of the original temple remains (it’s no longer an active temple). But what’s left is impressive and it whets my appetite for learning more about Indian art. The joie de vivre in the carvings of the dancers was very pleasing after overdosing on the chaste.

Otherwise, there are many fine temples in Odisha so there is more to see for another visit.

The population is more than 90 per cent Hindu, Islam has a much weaker presence than in neighbouring West Bengal.

I tried to find out more about Odisha and discovered a government Survey of the state (which probably exists for other states too) with statistics. It was less agricultural than I thought – just over 20 per cent of the population were engaged in agriculture (still a high percentage compared with Sweden which must be down to about 3 per cent by now but perhaps low for India). I couldn’t find information about land distribution from my cursory throughflick. Mining is an important source of employment in Odisha; I saw evidence of this from the train when we passed long coal trains; it´s many years since I saw that sight, once common in the UK, where steam locomotives were still being produced in the 1960s.

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