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It is easy enough to not know that Orissa’s capital city has enviable architectural wonders. It becomes even more difficult to venture out if the sun’s blazing from as early as seven in the morning. The day gone by had steamed at 40 deg. and there was this option open to follow a posse of people in an AC coach – who suddenly found themselves with an off day – to Konark and Puri or look for some lesser-known marvels of Bhubaneshwar.
Option 2 seemed better as I’d seen both those places a few months back.

Konark, post sunset, in a Lomo

I’d zeroed down on the Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves to start off. The travel desk in the hotel seemed so sure that an auto would cost Rs. 300, one way, that I wondered if a hired car would be cheaper. He was wrong, too wrong, in fact. This auto guy agreed for two hundred, with the return included. And they were far too, the caves.
Udayagiri is more of a real deal than Khandagiri. Both face each other. Monkeys line the first steps up to each of them. There are many caves of different sizes and importance here. Pali writings could be seen in one of these, but the cynically-inclined might wonder, “What if these were scribbled ten years back?” Well, after seeing those tigers in Pench, I am one of the cynically-inclined.

The most impressive of all caves in Udayagiri

Around the Udayagiri caves, there is a prominent presence of dust-laden trees and shrubs. They are just everywhere and it looks like a wannabe forest. Around these very Udayagiri caves, you’d also find many young couples with not a bit of care that one of these dust-laden, half-dense foresty trees might have a snake in them. They were however slightly unsettled when they saw my 10 megapixel camera in my hand though. Wonder why!
Khandagiri, on the other hand, has a Jain temple on the summit of the hillock. The guard at the gate asks you to leave your footwear close to him and with a handled, hand-held water sprinkler, cleanses your feet. There are caves here as well and just to confirm, none of them are your adrenaline inducing 200m long ones. They are just carved out of rock and with enough room to place a dining table in. For some reason though, they have glass doors to stop people from entering them. As the French would say, quelle horreur!
This auto driver had been so cool about the money part that he wouldn’t take anything when we’d reached the caves. “You come back,” he said. Didn’t he know I could escape past the old carvings, dirty shrubs and new and clean lovers by jumping the fence before slipping into a town bus racing on the highway? Lucky him that I didn’t do any of it. Instead, I wanted to go to Chilika lake. “Bahut late ho gaya hai. Kal jao,” he said. “Parantu Senor, abhi toh sirf gyarah baje hain,” I retorted with alarming felicity. He didn’t hear that as he was busy watching a fellow auto-driver buying flowers from a panda in a traffic signal.
I had to abandon my plans for Chilika and before the off-day went waste, had to decide on the next course of action. I turned the clock back, went deep into my class 10 history textbook and stubbed my finger at two words, Lingaraj Temple. As the French, and some Indians in kitty parties would perhaps say, C’est la vie!
Before going to the temple, the auto-driver (yeah, the same one), proposes Dhauli. This was the place where Ashoka fought the bloody war which eventually changed him. Now, on top of that hill, there is something called the Peace Pagoda, a monument signifying his conversion to Buddhism and non-violence. Just as I entered that place, two photographers had just gotten into a fight over something.

Peace Pagoda at Dhauli

There is also an archaeological site which has some edicts from that time. I only saw more couples, a well-kept garden path and beautiful flowers everywhere. I could see nothing written anywhere to suggest this had anything to do with Ashoka. Were there any writings at all? I didn’t see any and nobody around seemed to have enough historical nuance to have thought Ashoka was actually not a fictional character played by Shah Rukh Khan. And as I just about left the place in the auto, a guy said something in Oriya, three words of which were, “Pali”, “Dekhe”, “Na”. Sacré bleu!
The Lingaraj Temple would confirm two things. One, the guys who lived and worked on architecture in those days, across India, across the world, were master craftsmen. They had a quality which seems to have gone with them. It was a generational bounty which could not be passed on, or shared. It went with them, like hopefully will go, the quality of today’s glass window-makers. The temple is a collection of many temples: a buffet of deities. All you wish for is for the light to get cleaner and to take a mental snapshot of the unique structures around you. It will stay for a while longer than CCD or celluloid can hold.
The second thing I became sure of was that this auto guy was a legend in the making. They wouldn’t allow cameras in the temple and I had no place to leave it but with him. When I came back to the auto, everything was right where it should have been in my bag and the guy was sleeping peacefully. Didn’t I think he was capable of turning his engine on and zip across the busy street while slavering at the camera… and oh yeah, my all-IPL accreditation? Lucky me, he was a good guy!