Even in the aftermath of Cyclone Fani, one of the most revered holy cities in India is managing to attract travellers in droves. Visit Puri to know what spirituality, devotion, and the festival of Rath Yatra looks like. By Taruka Srivastav
Spiritual seekers are no strangers to the appeal of the holy land of Puri—the abode of Lord Jagannath. Now, this enchanting seaside city in Odisha, lined with casuarinas and fabled for its architecture, has become the most preferred destination for ‘Spiritual Tourism’ in India, bypassing even the ancient holy city of Varanasi. And this comes in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Fani that caused massive losses to property and businesses earlier this year. According to a recent report by travel marketplace ixigo, there has been a month-on-month growth in hotel bookings of 60% for Puri, as compared to 48% for Varanasi. Apart from the famous Lord Jagannath Rath Yatra, the annual chariot festival that draws scores of devotees from around the world, Puri manages to attract travellers all year round for various other reasons.
In Rigveda, Puri is referred to as a place called Purushamandama Grama, meaning the place where the Creator deity of the world resides. This is where the Supreme Divinity was deified on a mandapa or altar near the coast, amidst prayers offered with Vedic hymns. Puri is also one of the char dham—a set of four holy pilgrimages in India that Vaishnavite Hindus believe should be visited to help achieve salvation. The search for salvation is not limited to Hindus anymore; its quest has influenced foreigners as well for years.
Unknown to many, Puri was a hotbed of the swashbuckling hippie culture in the 1970s and 80s. It was the converging point for bohemian spirits who travelled from the West to the East, and one could hear Bob Marley songs playing along the beaches well into the night. The hippie culture faded over time, and was replaced by people seeking spirituality. Besides, Puri’s vivacious culture, rich gastronomy, street murals, and incredible natural beauty have been big draws for international tourists. The district of Puri receives the highest tourist footfall in the state, both national and inbound, and is rightly regarded as the backbone of Odisha’s tourism.
According to Yubabrata Kar, a Puri local and owner of Heritage Tours, the city has a lot of potential for foreign tourists because of its rich heritage, culture, and ambiance. He says, “People in Puri are friendly and gel easily with foreign tourists. Foreigners aren’t allowed inside the Jagannath Temple, but even walking around the old city is a unique experience for them.” The uninterrupted 10-kilometre long beach provides nice opportunities for long walks or a swim. “As a tour operator, we have various experiential tours, such as nature walks, cooking lessons, and excursions to nearby Konark or Chilika, which are most popular among foreign tourists. We now understand the needs of the international tourists, and cater to them accordingly.”
Foreigners prefer to visit Puri between the months of October and February, when the weather is pleasant. This year was perhaps the most difficult for the people of the city in over a decade, as Cyclone Fani made its landfall in Puri in April, exactly two months before the world’s biggest chariot festival, the Lord Jagannath Rath Yatra. The cyclone winds clocking 240 kmph annihilated the green cover and beach-front properties in Puri. The hotel and hospitality industry losses were pegged at INR 500 crore for the property damage, while the business losses were estimated at INR 2,000 crore for the ongoing fiscal year.
Despite the losses, the state government and Odisha Tourism worked on war footing to restore everything in time for the festival. Millions shook off the dreadful memories of Fani and joined in the fervour of the festivities. Philipo Carleso, an Italian tourist who was in Puri for the Jagannath Rath Yatra, says, “I am enthralled by the culture and beauty of Puri. It’s amazing to see the faith and belief people hold here. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a very enlightening one at that.”
Furthermore, in order to attract more foreign tourists post Cyclone Fani, the Puri district administration has set a vision to protect its pristine beaches from converting into heaps of trash. A first-of-its-kind beach clean-up campaign was recently launched in Odisha under the banner of MoBeach (‘Mo’ means ‘My’ in Odia). The brainchild of Balwant Singh, collector of Puri district, the campaign aims at instilling a sense of belonging and ownership among the residents and visitors as well, encouraging them to preserve, protect, and promote the beaches.
Odisha Tourism has also boasted its marketing efforts to attract more foreign tourists to the city. Vishal K Dev, commissioner and secretary of Odisha Tourism, elaborates, “We are aggressively trying to promote the destination worldwide and invite more foreigners here. Our main targets are Southeast Asian countries because of the good connectivity, but we also plan to focus on the Middle East now.”
Besides organising road shows both nationally and globally, and participating in all the major tourism events around the world such as ITB Berlin, WTM London and others, they are trying to leverage digital platforms to target audiences. “We are also in the process of developing Shamukha as a special tourism destination and Puri-Konark as a marine drive destination. Besides, we’re building a world-class interpretation centre at the Jagannath Temple in Puri to further enhance the travel experience of the interested tourists,” says Dev.
With its plethora of existing offerings, coupled with the ones that are in the pipeline, it’s no surprise that Puri is one of the most preferred spiritual destinations in India. And its popularity is only set to soar.