Pilgrims' progress: Puri beach draws pilgrims not sun-worshippers

Hindus may come to Puri for its temple, but they also make the most of its seaside

The beach at Puri is not the sort of place to go if you wish to escape the crowds. Especially not during the days when a religious festival is happening.

People certainly come to Puri to visit the coarse sand that stretches in a flat line for miles in either direction. But they are lured primarily by the town's iconic Jagannath temple, a destination that is considered one of the most important in all India for Hindu pilgrims. A sign at the gates to the 12th-century compound warns that non-Hindus are not permitted to enter.

On a weekend such as Diwali, the country's raucous festival of lights, when the skies are lit up by huge fireworks, such prohibition did not feel like a bad thing. The crowds were so vast, the crush so intense and, on that particular afternoon, a cyclonic downpour so heavy that people were slipping around in the mud and losing their sandals, that the entry ban came as a welcome excuse not to venture inside.

Our hotel was set on part of the oceanfront that purported to be private. It was not, but it was markedly quieter than the sections to the south, that part of the beach closest to the main town and the road known as Marine Drive. One evening we walked down there amid the throngs of colourfully-dressed, happy smiling tourists, all of them Indian, who were behaving exactly like everyone else does at the seaside – being noisy, eating too much and generally having a good time. A market, selling everything from clothes to electronic goods, had been set up near the sand and the storeholders were doing good business.

The women were too modest to bathe, but many of the young men were hurling themselves into the waters of the Bay of Bengal with such a rare enthusiasm that one wondered for their well-being. The sea, the colour of Welsh slate, was not rough but there appeared to be a powerful undercurrent and a report in a local newspaper subsequently confirmed that many holiday-makers were drowning along this stretch of the coast. For those wishing to stay dry, there were rides on horses and camels. The men driving them seemed especially skilled at persuading uncertain customers of the joy of such an excursion along the sands.

Elsewhere on the sands, seeking to make a living from the crowds of visitors, were masseurs, tea-salesmen wandering from group to group with a large silver pot and a stack of plastic cups, men selling peanuts wrapped in twists of newspaper and others offering to tell fortunes.

The beach at Puri has also become famous throughout India as a place of amazing sand sculptures, painstakingly built by local artists who create everything from World Cup football match images to Hindu deities, using brightly-coloured sand and hard-won patience. One afternoon we watched as an engaging sculpture of Barack Obama was finally dismantled. Such is the fame of the artists, there are even classes for those wishing to make their own sculptures.

Towards the far end of town, where spartan fishing communities are set out by the sea, the beach took on another more rudimentary function. It's reckoned that in India, more people own a mobile phone than have access to a proper toilet, and the fishing communities of Orissa are no different. While they understandably wished to make the most of a location naturally flushed twice a day by the ocean, it did not make for relaxed or easy walking.

Generations ago, Puri was a favourite place of the British officers and officials who made the journey from the one-time imperial capital, Kolkata. The city was easily reached by the South Eastern Railways and the lodging of choice in those days was the Bengal and Nagpur Railway Hotel, known as the BNR. Among its guests over the years were JK Galbraith, the Yugoslav leader Josip Tito and Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, who wrote the script for the film Charulata while he was there.

Despite the growth of private airlines, the pervasive influence of the railway remains to this day. The nearest airport to Puri is more than 90 minutes away by road and most visitors arrive by train. The majority of the trains apparently hiss into the station in the early morning and, unlike anywhere else in India that I have visited, most hotels have a check-out time of 8am to accommodate these early arrivals.

One evening, inspired by a somewhat whimsical piece of travel writing by Ian Jack of his experiences at the somewhat musty BNR more than 30 years ago, we set off for the hotel, intending to sip a suitably nostalgic gin and tonic on some spacious veranda, beneath a whirring fan. We got a surprise: the hotel was no longer musty but impeccably restored and now bearing a 'heritage' tag. The corridors were clean, the dining room was home to a series of interesting old photographs of the town in times gone by and the manager and his staff were welcoming and friendly. There did not, however, appear to be many guests. Neither was there a functioning bar.

Instead, we jumped into a rickshaw and rattled off in search of a restaurant we'd been recommended as a place to get excellent fresh seafood. The road was rutted and jumpy and the sky exploded with Diwali fireworks. Diwali is never quiet, even by the seaside.

Suitably enough, the Pink House was located right on the edge of the beach and the simple tables were set up close to one of the fishing communities that presumably supplied the menu. We settled for a bowl of fish curry and a huge platter of soft-shelled crabs. A waiter surreptiously poured us glasses of Kingfisher beer. For the equivalent of a few pounds we were soon very satisfied.

When it came to getting back, we considered a walk along the beach, keen to make the most of the sound of the ocean and to enjoy the breeze. But wary of both packs of stray dogs and what may lie underfoot we decided against it. Another rickshaw, this time a cycle-pulled variety operated by a thin-framed man, took us home, passing the dimmed lights of the BNR and to the incline that led to our hotel. Rather than making him work too hard we got out and walked the rest of the way. At the beach, the fireworks were still exploding.