Hindu pilgrims, Bengali holidaymakers and foreign travellers all make their way to Puri. For Hindus, Puri is one of the holiest pilgrimage places in India, with religious life revolving around the great Jagannath Mandir and its famous Rath Yatra. The town’s other attraction is its long, sandy beach – better for strolling than swimming.
This mighty temple belongs to Jagannath, an incarnation of Vishnu. Built in its present form in 1198, the temple is surrounded by two walls, but you can spot its 58m-high sikhara (spire) topped by the flag and wheel of Vishnu.
Puri is no palm-fringed paradise – the beach is wide, shelves quickly with a nasty shore break and is shadeless – but Model Beach, part of a sustainable, community-run beach tourism initiative, offers a 700m stretch of sand that’s easily Puri’s finest and cleanest. Palm umbrellas provide shade and cabana boys/lifeguards, known as Sea Riders, hawk fixed-price beach chairs and massages and are responsible for keeping the beach clean.
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These hallowed cremation grounds are the end stop of choice for eastern India’s Hindu population and beyond – some 40 bodies are cremated here daily. You can watch or walk among the open-air ceremonies as long as you behave in a respectful manner and avoid taking photos. It’s an obviously solemn affair, but a fascinating glimpse into Puri’s role as one of India’s holiest cities.
This bathing place, where Vishnu is said to have resided as a neem tree, is particularly interesting in the mornings, when locals come here for their daily ablutions. For some it’s a matter of personal hygiene, while others come to purify themselves after visiting the Swargadwar cremation ground.
The world’s saddest library (a row of dusty, locked bookcases) does a lucrative trade in great views of Jagannath Mandir for non-Hindus. For a ‘donation’, the librarian will grant you access to the library roof, from where the views of the temple are fascinating.
The largest of Puri’s holy tanks, this is where locals bathe on a daily basis and it’s also where a replica deity of Jagannath is brought on an annual basis for its ritual bath during the Chandan Yatra festival. A narrow footbridge leads to a small temple in the middle of the tank.