India’s eastern state of Odisha (previously called Orissa), India’s 9th largest state by area, has about 300 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal, so water is a major part of life for many of its people. One of the well-known seashore towns in Odisha is Puri, famous for its temples and the Jagannath Puri temple, one of the most sacred pilgrimages of Hindus. (Incidentally, the word Juggernaut, which means “a large overpowering, destructive force or anything requiring blind devotion,” comes from Jagannath, where an enormous cart is drawn annually, and devotees are said to have thrown themselves under its massive wheels to be crushed). Needless to say, due to its abundant coastline, the Puri district is also famous for its numerous beaches and fishing villages.
What I hadn’t realized, though, is that the water around Puri is considered sacred water for Hindus. They consider it essential to bathe in five sacred bathing spots, one of these spots being the ocean, to complete their pilgrimage to Puri. So early morning, as we ventured to the beach, thinking we might see a few lonely tourists or fishermen returning from an early expedition, we encountered a rather unexpected but certainly delightful scene.
A horde of pilgrims was there to pray and immerse themselves in the water. Some bravely took a dip, but many others sat on their ankles, their back turned away from the ocean, and waited for the waves to roll over them. Though it was a sacred moment, it was still joyful and done with a lot of laughter, a lovely thing to be part of. Some of the pilgrims also came with offerings of coconuts, a sacred food in Hinduism, to the ocean.
But of course, lots of people are enjoying the beach, taking strolls on its golden sand or quick dips in the sometimes-challenging waves. But there are always things to remind you where you are, such as camels and their handlers waiting for tourists and offering photo opportunities.
The real action, of course, is the fishermen and their challenges. Visiting a few fishing villages at dusk showed the fishermen returning home with their bounty. Some of the villages are just a collection of small thatched houses on the beach, while others are concrete houses further away, but at dusk, everyone is out (even the pigs) on the beach as there is much to do. The daily rituals of returning from the bay, collecting the fish from the nets, and bringing the boats safely to the shores are remarkably similar from one village to the next.
I am sure that the Bay of Bengal will continue to provide blessings and fun for the locals and visitors for a long time to come. How long it will continue to provide food and livelihood to the locals is not as clear as overfishing, and a growing population has decreased the supply of fish drastically, a sadly common situation in fishing communities worldwide.
In the meantime, bless the water.
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