My wife and I once spent winter in Jagannath Puri, a beach town on the east Indian coast, home to the famous Jagannath temple, aka Sri Mandir. Not even Wikipedia knows exactly how long Jagannath has been worshiped in Puri, but the most recent temple there was built in the eleventh century. There’s some history there. It’s our favorite place of pilgrimage. It’s also a booming, Jagannath-conscious tourist trap.
People come from all over India for the Sea Beach air, conch shell souvenirs, t-shirts, Jagannath pastries, and—if lucky enough to be born Hindu (whatever that means)—audience of the Jagannath deity. Oh, and some visit Puri for the fish pakoras.
Anyway, like so many places in India, the Puri Sea Beach is a mob scene. Thousands of people go at sunrise for tea. Every few yards along the sand there’s an East Indian version of Starbucks—a tarp stretched across bamboo poles, with a brick stove and a teakettle underneath. The lifeguards are identifiable by their funny, pointy straw hats, but hardly anyone swims. Donkey and camel rides are available everywhere you look, as are fresh coconut vendors with rusty machetes (sometimes the vendors are fresher than the coconuts, so you have to be cautious). Dogs and cows are also here and there, doing what dogs and cows do, so you need to watch your step. Thirty percent of all male forearms are draped with fake pearl necklaces to sell. And, like so much of the country, Puri Sea Beach smells like smoke. In fact, you can hardly see the sun from all the smoke. But everyone except the camels will return your greeting of “Jaya Jagannath!”
After we returned to the States, I was chanting on the beach one morning. There was no mob scene. I was practically alone. There was a mist on the ocean. It was cool, temperatures in the mid-forties. Terns were circling around out over the waves in the mist. The horizon was a hazy smudge a few hundred yards away. The smoky-smelling sea breeze reminded me of Puri.
I saw an elderly lady walking by, a little farther up on the dunes, carrying some good-looking conch shells. At first, I thought, “Man, I want some more conch shells!” I was going through a conch shell-collecting phase, when I should have been going through an attentive japa phase.
But then I realized I didn’t need any more conch shells. I was just being greedy. I had everything I needed: a microphone to capture these fleeting thoughts, guitars that work, good friends, a functioning computer—oh, and a newly-restrung set of japa beads. I lived near the ocean, it reminded me of Jagannath Puri, and that was enough.