Mr.Kevin Standage is an archaeologist, photographer, traveler, explorer, blogger, and an IT professional from the United Kingdom. He has documented his extensive travels in India via a photography blog, The features about different heritage sites of Odisha in his blog are simply outstanding photographic documentation. Here is a Q & A with Mr. Standage, who we consider an invaluable ‘Friend of Odisha’.

Please share something about you and your field of work !
My passion for India started in late 2004 when I went on an organised tour encompassing the “golden triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Although it was an immensely packed itinerary and only focused on the major tourist locations, I could see that the country was full of lesser-known sites that I was itching to explore.

At the time I was working in IT back in the UK, and just three months later our group merged with another software team based in Pune. Literally overnight I was challenged with managing an expanded team of 80 engineers split across two continents, which warrented a lot of travel !

For the next 10 years I visited my team in Pune three times a year for 2-3 weeks, and would then take a vacation to somewhere new in India. Each time my travel would focus on heritage sites in a new region, and documenting them as well as I could with my camera. At this time I was spending about 25% of my life in India, it was becoming difficult to determine where exactly I called “home” !

Running in parallel to this was my growing passion for archaeology, participating in excavation field schools run by the University of Reading during the summer months in the UK.

I stopped working in IT in 2016, since then (covid permitting) I have been traveling to India at the start of each year for two months. My travels always start in Pune to see the many friends I have there, and I then venture somewhere new to explore. At this time I started my photography blog documenting the places I visit, and I’m now employed by the University of Reading during the summer months teaching undergraduates how to excavate archaeological sites in the field.

Among all the various hats you get to wear, which is your most favorite role, and why?
I think at the very core of what I do, I enjoy the most discovering a lesser-known location through my endless research prior to traveling, going there to photograph it, editing the photos to make them the very best they can be, and then showcasing the site to the world via my blog. I have received hundreds of messages from both locals and travelers who have made a point of visiting such locations having found my blog, and it gives me immense satisfaction knowing that I have in some small way enhanced their experiences as a result.

I also really enjoy teaching the discipline of field archaeology to university undergraduates, guiding them not only n how to excavate, but also the written recording (describing contexts, producing detailed scaled plans, etc). They start out literally knowing nothing about the discipline, and leave being fully equipped to embark on a career as a field archaeologist.

How do you get your travel and exploring ideas? Do you ever do impromptu travels?
My travels in India are meticulously planned ! Thanks to social media it’s becoming increasingly easier to get to know about less-visited sites. Any location that I’m interested in is saved and pinned to a google map, which then allows me to visually see clusters of locations that could indicate somewhere to visit for a couple of weeks, or just a day excursion from a town that could encompass a number of sites. Sometimes new locations crop up while I’m in the area, but that’s about as impromptu as it gets. Due to the nature of what I do, which often involves hiring a car and driver for a number of days at a time, a reasonable amount of forward planning has to be in place. How I plan my travels would have been near impossible 20 years ago.

I also have quite an extensive library of Indian heritage related books at home which sometimes help backup my online research. Some of the older 19th century documentation of sites by Alexander Cunningham etc often cast light on locations that have since almost completely disappeared off the radar. So blending both old and new research resources tends to yield the best results for me in planning a trip.

Why did you decide to explore Odisha ? What caught your eye?
Odisha had been on my radar for many years because of Konark and the Chausath Yogini temple at Hirapur. However, not being able to also see the Jagannath Temple (Puri) and the Lingaraja Temple (Bhubaneswar) because I’m a non-Hindu put me off traveling there earlier.

It was only when I started researching other temples in Bhubaneswar that I suddenly realised what I wealth of heritage sites the city had to offer, many of which were hardly documented at all. It became a bit of a personal mission to try visit as many as I could and record them, which culminated in over 40 locations in the city alone. I then discovered a wealth of sites outside the city as well, of which I visited a few in the limited time I have.

I’m also acutely aware of how at risk some of these sites are when they are in urban settings. The levels of encroachment is sometimes beyond belief, so I also wanted to try and raise awareness to this fact, and the importance of preserving sites that may be clinging on for survival.

What kind of specialty / uniqueness did you find in the temple architecture & sculptures in Odisha? How does Kalingan architecture stand apart from that of the rest of the Indian subcontinent?
Kalingan temples typically consist of at least two structures, the tower (deula or shikara), and the hall (Jagamohana). This can be further subdivided into three distinct styles for any given structure or building.

The Rekha Deula consists of the deula with further elements of the temple forming a line of (usually) decreasing height. A great example is the Lingaraja Temple in Bhubaneswar which I was only able to view at a distance from Curzon’s Mandap just outside the complex. There you can appreciate the sanctum (vimana), assembly hall (jagamohana), festival hall (natamandira) and hall of offerings (bhoga-mandapa) all cascading down in a line.

The Pidha Deula is distinctive by the pyramidal shaped roof, the most obvious example being the assembly hall at the Konark Sun Temple.

The Khakhara Deula is architecturally very different, similar in some respects to Dravidian Gopuran temple architecture more typical in southern India where the tower capped with a vaulted roof. Great examples of this style is the Vaital (Baitala) Deula in Bhubaneswar, and the Varahi Temple at Chaurasi.

On very rare occasions there is an independant gateway (torana) in front of the temple, the most famous example being at the Mukteshwar temple in Bhubaneswar. When I think of temples in Odisha, my mind is immediately drawn to those intricately carved toranas you occasionally encounter.

What were your thoughts when you visited the sun temple at Konark?
My initial thoughts were just how crowded it was! This is of course unavoidable, and I was fully prepared for that, but it did remind me of the joys I have visiting lesser-known sites where often I have the place to myself.

My other overriding thought was the sheer scale of the temple, both as it stands today and how it would once have been. Today the colossal jagamohana reaches 40m high, but the now ruined shikhara would once have been 70m tall, making this the tallest temple in India. This would have only been surpassed by the Bhojeshwar Temple in Bhojpur (Madhya Pradesh), which would have scaled to a staggering 100m tall, but that temple was never completed. I suspect many visitors to Konark may not appreciate that the grand scale they see today is a fraction of what once stood here.

Finally, the carvings of course, which are exquisite and plentiful. It really is an open air art gallery which warrants repeated visits to fully take in.

I’d like to make a quick mention of the Navagraha Temple, which is located nearby and accessible from the main Sun Temple site. This modern temple was specifically built to house a huge stone slab measuring 6m long, 1.2m high and 2m deep. The black chlorite stone is richly carved with idols of the nine planets; the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Rahu and Ketu. This was originally set above the Jagamohana ornamental doorway, it’s an architectural feature you find on almost all Orissan temples, but of course here on a much grander scale. I suspect 99% of visitors to Konark completely miss this.

Have you felt during your explorations & travels across Odisha that there still are a lot of untapped & undiscovered sites & places in Odisha?
The more I research Odisha, the more it seems to offer! I am certain there are many untapped and undiscovered sites, and hopefully with adequate resources and time such places will come to light.

But there is also much to be discovered at existing sites. The recent excavations at the Suka and Sari temples in Bhubaneswar is an excellent example of how a pre-existing site can often yield more secrets. The on-going excavations at Langudi Buddhist archaeological site is another great example, which seem to indicate that it was the site of the Pushpagiri Monastery as documented by the famous Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Hiuen T’sang (also known as Husan Tsang and Xuanzang) in 639 C.E.

Your favorite travel destination from Odisha? Your favorite city/town/countryside/place/temple etc. in Odisha?
My favourite city would have to be Bhubaneswar. As someone with a passion for heritage sites, I think the city is unparalleled for the number of temple sites that can all be easily explored on foot over a number of days. The city is also the perfect launch pad for visiting other sites in the area that can be seen as day-excursions, making Bhubaneswar your ideal base.

It’s hard for me to single out specific places, but the Chausath Yogini temple in Hirapur certainly ranks as one of my favourite locations in the whole of India. Gangeswari Temple in Gop, Panchu Pandava Temple in Ganeswarpur, Udayagiri Buddhist Complex near Gopalpur, and Varahi Temple at Chaurasi also deserve a special mention.

An unforgettable memory from your Odisha travels ?
Everything I saw during my travels in Odisha was unforgettable, so once again it’s hard to single out one specific memory ! Aside from heritage architecture, my visit to Raghurajpur crafts village (15kn north of Puri) probably stands out. I visited the village seven months after the entire region was ravaged by cyclone ‘Fani’, the impact of which was all too clear with palm trees snapped in two and many of the superficial buildings destroyed. The village is best known for its master Pattachitra painters, who apply intricate cloth-based scroll paintings of mythological narratives and folktales, an art form that dates back at least 2,000 years in the region. The village also showcases palm leaf engraving, tribal arts, paper and wooden masks, tassar painting, toys, and stone and wood carvings.

Has the language barrier ever posed any challenges during your travels in Odisha?
I confess my Hindi is not very good at all, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t learnt more. Obviously as I travel to a new region in India I’m also faced with not knowing the local language, but fortunately a lot of people I encounter do have a little knowledge of English. That coupled with hand gestures means that usually any language barrier that exists is not a significant challenge.

Your favorite Odia festival ?
Unfortunately I have not witnessed any Odia festival. I would love to be in Bhubaneswar during Rukuna Rath Jatra when Lord Lingaraj along with Rukmini and Basudeva are taken to Rameshwar Temple from the Lingaraj Temple in a highly colourful procession. It’s a good excuse to return one day :-)

Your favorite dining/street food/home food experience in Odisha?
I am a big fan of Khichdi and had some wonderful examples in Odisha. I also enjoyed some great seafood curries. My favourite Indian snack is Sabudana Vada, hardly surprising as I spend so much time in Pune at the start of each trip !

What are your thoughts on how to spread awareness about Odisha’s culture & heritage to more & more people - esp. the younger generation?
To reach the younger generation you need to speak their language, which today centers around social media. Attention spans also seem to be ever decreasing, so in some respects producing 10,000 word blogs with accompanying photos as I do today may not be the best way to spread awareness, at least not in the beginning.

More recently as my travels to India have been restricted due to COVID and my blog output has dried up, I have been turning my attention to other platforms such as Instagram (@kevinstandage1). I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the level of engagement I have received there, most notably in the 18-30 age bracket, with 75% of my audience being based in India. This seems to be a great platform to introduce people to a cultural or heritage location, from where they can subsequently go to my blog for a more in-depth look.

There is clearly a lack of investment directed towards promoting heritage from organizations within India. The official Instagram account of the ASI has just 3,250 followers, 25% of my following, and whilst it’s not all about the numbers it’s clear they are not engaging with their potential audience which runs into the hundreds of millions. I spend about 20 minutes on Instagram each day, why can’t the ASI direct a small amount of resource into raising their game on a platform so widely used by the younger generation?

As you can probably tell this frustrates me no end as I consider it “low hanging fruit” in making a significant change for negligible effort.

Regarding engaging people at the sites themselves, there needs to be more resources directed towards signage – information boards that detail the history and architectural highlights of any specific location, with hints as to what can be visited nearby. There needs to be far more effort directed towards engaging the victors, and encouraging them to explore the vicinity.

What other things interest you? How do you like to spend your free(leisure) time?
Aside from travel, history, and photography, I do a lot of hiking. I have climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and been to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, both prior to when India consumed almost all of my travel experiences.

What is your message for amateur researchers, culture enthusiasts, archeology aficionados, and the multitude of youngsters having an interest in heritage or reading this feature?
Start by learning what exists on your doorstep, somewhere that can be easily visited without the need for extensive travel. I am constantly surprised by how little locals know about the heritage that exists around them, heritage that I believe they should be inherently connect to.

REFERENCES:Various Sources

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