In the heart of Bhubaneswar's Old Town, the most important temples -- almost all Shaivite -- are clustered around Bindusagar Lake, a holy reservoir believed to hold water from each and every holy river and lake in India. Of the 7,000 temples that are said to have once surrounded the tank, only around 500 remain. Traditionally, pilgrims perform their ablutions in the lake before heading into the temples to perform puja (a ritual of respect, such as prayer). The best are easily visited in a morning (more than three or four is overkill), leaving you time to explore some of the outlying sights during the afternoon.

The best of the city's Nagara-style temples (7th c. and 12th c. A.D.) are testament to both a radical resurgence of Hinduism and Buddhist defeat -- frequently represented in temple sculptures by the image of a lion lunging for an elephant. With the exception of wonderful Rajarani Temple, all of those worth visiting are living temples. The best are magnificently carved Mukteshwar Temple -- the 10th-century "Gem of Orissan Architecture," where a squat, cobra-protected lingam stands in the sanctum sanctorum -- and Lingaraj Temple; although the complex is off-limits to non-Hindus, you can admire it from a well-known vantage point, a raised platform built by the British, where you'll be harassed by a hood with a phony register of donations from other foreigners (ignore his advances and mention the police). If you have time, make a stop at the well-preserved 7th-century Parasurameswar Temple (Brahmeswar), for its lavish carvings, including a number of amorous couples. For something more "exotic," visit Vaital Temple and view its creepy tantric carvings; you'll need a flashlight to see the images of humans being put to death while the goddess Chamunda looks on.

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