"Dawn at Puri" is a poem that considers the actual meaning of traditional rites and religions. Is there any sincere spirituality in the unconsidered repetition of old rituals?
In the first stanza, we're introduced to the location. Puri is a city in Orissa, a state on the eastern coast of India. It's famous as a religious center thanks to an annual festival there in honor of the Hindu god Jagannath, an incarnation of Vishnu. Though the city is superficially reverent, it also seems forlorn, its citizens hungry and joyless.
The second and third stanzas describe a homogeneous group of women. They've gathered to worship, but their eyes are hollow and they all appear to be "past the centers," or primes, "of their lives."
Like an establishing shot in a movie, the fourth stanza widens to show a much larger, yet still downtrodden, assembly of worshipers.
In the fifth stanza, the Indian-English poet Jayana Mahapatra is suddenly reminded, as if the visual burst from inside his own "hide" or skin, of the image of his deceased mother's body burning on a funeral pyre.
She has in fact died, and we learn in the final stanza that it was her wish to be cremated in Puri. The significance of where Mahapatra's mother will actually be cremated is lost on him. Its significance seems to shimmer uncertainly "like light on the shifting sands." There's nothing concrete about it. It would've only mattered to her, and in every way that matters to Mahapatra, she's gone. Did this ritual, or her devotion to it, bring any lasting happiness to any of the worshipers around him? Have their lives been improved in any way by their observance of this ritual? In poetic language, the writer seems to be questioniing the value of anything about the ritual. The worshipers are still starving and miserable, the mother the poet loved has already passed on and the spirituality and reverence of her co-religionists grows ever more stagnant.
We now have a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the title "Dawn at Puri." It refers to the time of day, of course, but also to an important concept "dawning on" (occurring to) Mahapatra himself.