Monday 29 April 2019

The Raghu Nandan Library at Puri

The town of Puri lies on the Bay of Bengal in the North east of India. The thing to see, so the guidebooks say, is the Shri Jagannath temple. The guidebooks are right but it is an active temple and it forbids entry to non-Hindus. To view it, your guide will take you up a narrow, dark and winding staircase in the building on the opposite side of the street. He will pause, as directed by a notice, to collect keys from “The Library”. You then go on up the stairs, through a locked door and onto a viewing platform on a sort of veranda over the library. I duly photographed the temple, which is very fine, but I was more intrigued by the library so I went back down the stairs to the Raghu Nandan Library. There I met the librarian, sitting at a desk with the legend “Librarian” painted in gold on the front. He was Mr R. N. Das, a handsome gentleman of 74. He explained that this was a privately run library. A donation was expected. The only reader was another man sitting at an ancient table, studying the Times of India by an open window. The library was stocked with books in antique glass-fronted cases.   In the first cabinet that I looked into, I had a choice out of Little Dorrit, some rather dated English novels, and the Dictionary of Hindu Iconography. I had the impression that no books had been acquired or even lent since India’s independence in 1947.

His colleague showed me, with pride, photographs of the visit to the library by Earl Mountbatten the last Viceroy of India in about 1945.
I came away thinking that this library had two functions neither of which is really concerned with the collection and lending of books. First, it pays its way by charging modest fees to groups of tourists to view the temple from its veranda.  I suspect it had an even more important function: to keep two or three elderly men in harmless occupation, companionship and pocket money and to get them out of their houses and from under their feet of their long-suffering wives. It seemed to me that this was a perfect arrangement and I am on the look out for something similar at home.

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