I spent a week in and around Bhubaneswar from January 16 to the 20th with Ambassador Burleigh from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and several of my colleagues from the Consulate General in Hyderabad. Odisha is the second state in Hyderabad’s consular district, but I’ve spent relatively little time there. I’m resolved to make it a higher priority in the future, starting with a celebration of “America Days” in Bhubaneswar from February 1-3.
Thanks to Ambassador Burleigh’s suggestions, the trip had a strong cultural component (in addition to some very interesting meetings and project site visits). I particularly valued the opportunity to learn and experience more of India’s rich cultural heritage. As a newcomer to India--and to the south Asia region as a whole-- I’ve had a steep learning curve to climb. When I first heard about my assignment to Hyderabad, I asked friends and colleagues to recommend books I could read to prepare myself, and the list that resulted was daunting. Playing to my strengths instead of addressing my weaknesses, I decided to start by learning about modern India, the country’s relatively recent history and contemporary development challenges. Since I arrived in Hyderabad I’ve continued along the same lines; I’ve visited many more hospitals than temples. I’m aware that spiritual beliefs and traditions play a very important role in modern India, but I’ve not yet greatly exposed myself to or educated myself about the ancient traditions that underlie the modern society. My trip to Bhubaneswar was enlightening.
Our visit to the State Museum of Odisha drew my attention to one area of craftsmanship that links India’s past with its present: palm leaf engraving. I had bought an engraving during the recent All-India Crafts Mela at Shilparamam, and I was very interested when I met the artisans who create these works of art during a January 17 stop at the Raghurajpur crafts village on the road to Puri. Then we went to the State Museum and the curator showed us parts of the Museum’s amazing manuscript collection, including well-preserved and beautifully engraved illustrations and documents dating back more than 1000 years. I was profoundly struck by the fact that the techniques used and many of the stories told by the creators of those ancient manuscripts were exactly the same as those of today’s artisans.
Learning about and seeing the Jagannath temple in Puri showed me another strong connection between India’s past and present. I had the honor of meeting the King of Puri, Dibyasingh Dev, and learning about the Ratha Yatra festival directly from him. He explained that tribal communities discovered the deity and worshiped the god before he was discovered by Hindu priests. The descendents of his early worshipers still serve him in the temple and are the only ones permitted in his presence during his period of retreat and convalescence before the festival. Then we went to Puri and climbed to the roof of the library to look at the temple, since non-Hindus are not allowed to enter. It was interesting to see the temple, but I found even more striking the view of the road leading to the temple, where even on an ordinary Wednesday, thousands of pilgrims were approaching to pay a visit and view Lord Jagannath, creating a moving mosaic of color. The King had told us that the temple kitchens were (at least at one time) the largest in India, and feed tens of thousands of people every day, using only indigenous vegetables. For me as an American, the fact that these traditions have been meticulously maintained for a thousand years is truly astonishing.
Our cultural odyssey also included the Sun Temple in Konark, the opening of a music festival at the Rajarani temple in Bhubaneswar, and a walk through a new botanical garden near the Lingaraja temple. The importance of traditional spiritual values in modern daily life was also clear from the tulsi plants on raised platforms I saw near destroyed houses in flood-affected villages; it was evident that they were important parts of daily family life for villagers.
It was good to go beyond my routine and expand my knowledge of India’s spiritual and cultural heritage last week. I know that Andhra Pradesh also offers a multitude of cultural opportunities, and I hope to continue my education in the months to come.