The Telegraph
Thursday , June 21 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Lord tugs at Paolo heartstrings

I just returned from a vacation in the mountains. The moment I entered my room, my gaze fell on the idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra sitting on the altar. That reminded me that it is rath yatra time and I was transported back to my days in Puri.

I have seen many rath yatras during my stay in Odisha though I missed the last few, because I had flown back to Italy to be with my folks. This year, I wanted to stay back until the beginning of July. But, like they say, man proposes and god disposes. I was seized by the Maoists while on a trekking expedition, along with a fellow countryman and two Odia boys.

After staying in Maoist captivity for almost a month, I decided to return immediately to my home province, Turin. But, I left Odisha with a heavy heart. It was a big loss for me to leave the place, probably forever or at least for a very long time.

However, I consider myself very fortunate and privileged that I could spend so many years of my life in the land of Jagannath and received unconditional love and affection from the Odia people. I will always remember my time in India, especially Odisha and Puri, as a blessed and happy time.

I remember the rath yatras during the 90s when Puri was a different town. It was very quiet and tourist influx then was perhaps one-third of what it is today. The only noises that could disturb the peace were of children playing cricket on the streets or an odd-biker vrooming past my travel agency.

But, I always took great interest in the rath yatra festivities. It did not matter if we were getting tanned in the sun or soaked in the monsoon showers. I would stand at a distance from the temple entrance, on Grand Road, singing bhajans with some sadhus or just relishing the spiritual feeling together with the pilgrims. Quite a few foreign tourists, most of them from Europe and the States, visited Puri to witness this divine spectacle. I used to make friends with them rather easily.

Sometimes, I used to stay out until late at night. I could not afford to miss a moment of this annual festival. Since non-Hindus are not allowed into the Jagannath temple, I always looked forward to the rath yatra to see my lord from a close range. I am also fortunate to have been in the Lordís chariot and nothing beats that feeling.

I have also dreamt of a time when the temple doors would be thrown open to everybody, irrespective of their religion. Lord Jagannath is the lord of the universe and so, everyone must be blessed with the opportunity of offering prayers to Him in His abode. But, I donít want to say anymore about the restrictions on the entry of foreigners at the temple. If the temple authorities have imposed this restriction, they must have some very good reasons.

I really wish I could be in Puri this year, reliving all my rath yatra memories, get lost in the sea of humanity on Grand Road and soak in the spiritual fervour. It pains me a lot that I have to miss this rath yatra and stay away from the place, which had been my second home for close to two decades.

Here in Italy, at least in my region, I donít know if I can help organise a rath yatra, but I will offer my prayers to the Lord in my room. You can guess what I would ask Him for.

As told to Shilpi Sampad