“Dawn at Puri” is an imagist poem taken from the collection “A Rain of Rites”. The poem is set in Puri, which is the holy city of Lord Jagannath, in Orissa. A Rain of Rites is a collection of poems written in the middle phase of his poetic career by Jayanta Mahapatra and is shaped by the cultural heritage of Orissa in particular and India in general. The rain in this volume of poetry, as indicated by the title, is the dominant metaphor.

The rites and rituals here concern priests and temples, widows, cremations, and the fate of Indian women are symbolised here by various images. Like Arun Kolatkar in Jejuri, Jayanta Mahapatra is disappointed by the hollowness of traditional practises and customs. Here, in this poem, Mahapatra depicts the holy city of Puri, which is known as one of the most revered pilgrimage cities of the Hindus.

Key Expressions

Holy Sands: the sun bathed beach of Puri.

Empty Hunger: it is the back of the skull which is empty. Also, it represents bowl of a beggar. Here it talks about the material hunger of people who throng the temple premises.

Widowed Women: widows who live a life of austerity in temple premises.

Strands of Faith: here the poet talks about cruelty in customs. Widows live a self imprisoning, austere life which reflects in- humanity in customs.

Twisting Uncertainty : it means that rational explanation of customs and traditions cannot justify the faith of custom – ridden devotees.

Shifting Sands: It refers to time.

Summary of The Poem

The poem “Dawn at Puri” describes the familiar landscape in the holy city of Puri. Before we begin to discuss the poem, let us note that Mahapatra is deeply rooted in India and he cannot forget his culture and ethos in which he was born.

Though the language of expression is English but his sensibility is ‘Oriya’. We repeat this point because to comprehend the prescribed poem it is important to understand his philosophy while he wrote this poem. Here in the poem under discussion, Puri is the living ‘protagonist’ for him. Puri is not only a setting but also a protagonist because he presents a graphic description of Puri as a central character. Here Puri is personified.

In Puri, we find a stretch of beach called Swargadwara or ‘Gateway to heaven’ where the dead are cremated. Many pious Hindus and widows consider it possible to attain salvation by dying at Puri. Mahapatra states: “Her last wish to be cremated here/ twisting uncertainly like light/ on the shifting sands.” Puri is not only famous as a place for four ‘ dhams’ or ‘sacred cities’ but also for the ‘math’ or the monastery set up by Shankaracharya.

Lord Jagannath is the main deity in Puri who is in the form of Lord Vishnu. The way Mahapatra delineates the events and incidents in the poem shows us that he disapproves of what is going on under the cover of tradition and practices. You will notice how life “lies like a mass of crouched faces without names and you can also see that how people are trapped by faith underlined in the expression “caught in a net”. The shells on the sand are “ruined”, “leprous”

is suggestive of decadence and infirmity. The poem evokes the loss of identity, anonymity,death, disease and decadence. As I have mentioned above, most of the Hindus wished to be cremated in the land of Lord Vishnu. The speaker’s mother also had such a last wish, the wish to be cremated in Puri. This is fulfilled by the effort of her son in the blazing funeral pyre which is seen as “sullen” and “solitary”. The poem winds upon an uncertain note like the corpse of his dead mother.

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Don’t you think that the title evokes many interpretations? The title of the poem is very suggestive as it does not talk about only one particular dawn which might have been particularly unpleasant because one’s mother is not cremated every day. The poet is suggesting that all dawns at Puri are more or less similar with dead mothers being cremated every day and crows’ cawing along with skulls and hunger indicating poverty-ridden India which shows absolute “Indianness”. The poem is about feelings and compassion for the people who suffer. Thus the poem is really a scathing attack on tradition and traditional practices which are mostly ruthless and biased. The poet bears no sympathy for rituals and hollow traditions. What we notice in the poem is basically ruthlessness of tradition, the indifference of the society and fossilized Hindu culture.

An analysis of Jayanta Mahapatra’s Dawn at Puri

Jayanta Mahapatra is regarded as a keen observer of the social and religious realities. Through the poem ‘Dawn at Puri’ he has unveiled before us a very sad picture of the realities surrounding the Great Jagannath Temple in the Holy City of Puri, with a tone of underlying criticism of Indian society. The poem is very short, but it consists of a host of images, each of which reveals the rotten fabric of some of the social and religious realities prevalent in India.

The poem begins with the poet’s observation of the landscape of the morning that is quite common in and around the Holy Temple. In the morning, you can hear endless sounds of the crows. Normally, Hindu beliefs do not consider crow noises as something that should be welcomed. It is, in truth, thought to be ominous. The Crows may be considered a scavenger bird, and they usually prefer to live in a dirty spot. The appearance of countless crows literally suggests the polluted state of the surroundings of the Holy Temple.

He observed a skull lying on the sands in the sprawling sea beach of Puri. The presence of a human skull lying in this way practically gives a picture of ill-fed, hungry people living in the midst of extreme poverty. It shows that there are a lot of underprivileged people whose condition is no better than a stray dog. Many such people thronged in holy cities like Puri, seeking sustenance and salvation, but very often they died a neglected death.

Next, we get an image of Hindu widows dressed in white standing in a row in order to enter the holy temple. Such women led an austere life and placed all their faith in religion. They are the women caught in their religious net that is self-imposed. Their mind is guided by the strand of faith that can offer salvation to them only by Lord Jagannath. They are also the victims of the equally orthodox social system, which put on their shoulder all the blame for the death of their husbands.

With the frail early light catches the holy place, a number of people suffering from leprosy are seen outside the temple. These are the people caught by the deadly disease and discarded by the society. Their condition is very pathetic. They have neither social security nor individual identity and they have to depend on the blessings of the devotees for food and clothes.

The poet also gives the image of an imaginary pyre with flames covered with smoke. He tells about his aged mother’s last wish to be cremated in the sea beach of Puri. This reference to the poet’s mother’s wish indicates the last wishes of many Indian women to be cremated in this holy place.

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Though the poet is Christian in religion, he is also an Indian and so he is well aware of the Hindu customs and belief systems. The picture drawn by the poet is realistic in nature with a touch of irony and satire.

STYLE AND LANGUAGE

This is a short poem of 18 lines consisting of six stanzas of three lines each. A distinctive feature of Jayanta Mahapatra’s style, in general, is the symbolic and opaque manner of speech in place of a direct, descriptive mode. Symbols have a functional use in his poems for expressing what cannot be easily expressed. His choice of diction is
generally simple. The language of Jayanta Mahapatra is descriptive.

Language is so wonderfully knitted that it presents a graphic description of Puri. The language is intricate yet free – flowing. The craftsmanship of the poet is revealed through his style and the way he plays with the language. The free verse used by him gives to the poem certain ease and fluency. His choice of diction is generally complex. He uses abstractions like love, solitude, death, etc. In “Dawn At Puri’”, the dawn itself is a metaphor for diverse human activities, on the beach and near the temple. The “widowed women” with “austere eyes” is a fine imagery to suggest the emptiness of the lives of the widows who line up early in the morning near the temple door.

POETIC TECHNIQUES

“Dawn at Puri” is a beautiful poem giving full play to images that are vivid and hard-hitting. The sentences are purely descriptive and you can notice that whatever the poet has described we feel as though it is happening before our eyes. Are you able to literally visualize Puri? The poet beautifully creates the mood leading from one imagery to the other.

The “skull on the holy sands/ tilts its empty country towards hunger” suggests the hunger of the entire nation. The images are mostly negative and critical. “Ruined, leprous” suggests decay and sickness. The image of the blazing funeral pyre is suggestive of death that keeps happening every moment, every day, everywhere. The images reflect, anger and a sense of decadence; images are realistic and they capture the contours of the temple environment. “Dawn at Puri” exemplifies the fact that the poet opens up questions beyond the temple without supplying answers. The title of the poem is also very suggestive. In this connection we can say that Mahapatra’s images are drawn from a) the external world of phenomena, b) the surrealistic world. The image for him is his typical way of responding to experiences. In the poem “Dawn at Puri” the external reality of the natural landscape, be it the long stretching beach or the temple scene (“white-clad, widowed women……. Waiting to enter the temple”) as such does not seem to be important. Nature is simply a metaphor for human conditions. Therefore, the “beach” image acquires a universal significance for death. (“Ruined, leprous shells leaning against one another, a mass of Ruined, leprous shells leaning against one another, mass of crouched faces; sullen solitary pyre”.

Explanation on “Dawn at Puri” by Jayanta Mahapatra

‘Dawn at Puri’ is an imagist poem (a poem consisting of a number of vivid, sharply etched, but not necessarily interrelated images). The Panorama of Puri (in Orissa- a land of ‘forbidding myth), artistically portrayed with vivid images and symbols, becomes evocative. Puri is the name of a famous town in Orissa, which is considered sacred because of the temple dedicated to Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Orissa. This temple is said to date that to 318 A.D. It is particularly famous for the chariot festival of Jagannath; an annual ritual conducted for the glory of this deity and is attended by a large number of pilgrims. ‘Endless crow noises’; a reference to the endless cawing of the crows, a visual as well as an auditory image.

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‘A skull on the holy sands’: This is a startling imagery created with the juxtaposition of the abstract with the concrete, where the abstract ‘holy’ and the concrete ‘skull’ are grouped together. It is believed that the deity of Puri was carved out of a tree trunk that was washed ashore and this fact is alluded to in his poem ‘Losses’. Hoping for some kind of redemption for this wayward world, the speaker in the poem muses: “Perhaps the piece of driftwood/ washed up on the beach/ heals the sand and the water”. Puri is regarded as a sacred site and it is the wish of every pious Hindu to be cremated there to enable them to attain salvation.

‘It’s empty country towards hunger’: a reference to the poverty to the people of Orissa including the sight of the skull lying on the sea-beach symbolizes the utter destitution of the people.

White-clad widowed women’: reference to widows wearing white saris and the phrase that points to their predicament as well as the rigidity of Hindu customs and rituals.

Past the centres of their lives’: having spent the middle years of their lives and passing their prime.

‘Their austere eyes stare like those caught in a net’: the misery resulting in utter hopelessness is clearly visible on their faces for there is an expression of solemnity in the eyes of the widows in which no worldly desire is perceptible and are full of desire like the eyes of creatures trapped in a net.

Dawn’s shining strands of faith’: A person having a firm belief in religion never losses hope, so in spite of their circumstances, the only thing that sustains the widows is their religious faith and the hope born of it. The reference to dawn is to be noted. It refers to a new beginning in nature and thereby, to a new start in mankind and civilization. The tone of quiet acceptance, with a latent awareness of suffering, perhaps indicates a very Indian sensibility.

‘The frail early light’: the dim light of the dawn is a reference to the title of the poem which must be noted.

Leprous’: from leprosy, an infectious disease affecting the skin and nerves and

Questions and Answers

Q. 1: What is the poet trying to convey about the rituals connected with Puri through the poem “Dawn at Puri”?
Ans. The poet tries to convey a scathing attack on tradition and traditional practices which are mostly ruthless and biased, the indifference of the society and the fossilized Hindu culture.

Q. 2: State the significance of the title of the poem ‘Dawn at Puri’.
Ans. With the title of the poem, the poet suggests that all the dawns in Puri are more or less similar with dead mothers being cremated every day and not just one particular dawn which might have been particularly unpleasant.

Q. 3: Comment on the poetic techniques used by the poet?
Ans. Mahapatra uses visualization and images through words drawn from the external world of phenomena and the surrealistic world. Also, the title of the poem is itself very suggestive.

Q. 4: Explain “Ruined, leprous”?
Ans. The meaning suggests the mass of broken remnants of shells which is compared symbolically to death and sickness.

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