“ratharudho gacchan pathi milita-bhudeva-patalaih
stuti-pradurbhavam prati-padam upakarnya sadayaha
daya-sindhur bandhuh sakala-jagatam sindhu-sutaya
jagannathah svami nayana-patha-gami bhavatu me”
When Lord Jagannatha is on His Ratha-yatra cart and is moving along the road, at every step there is a loud presentation of prayers and songs chanted by large assemblies of brahmanas. Hearing their hymns Lord Jagannatha is very favorably disposed towards them. He is the ocean of mercy and the true friend of all the worlds. May that Jagannatha Svami, along with His consort Lakshmi, who was born from the ocean of nectar, be the object of my vision.”
Old grandfather maintained that truth is always simple and if you stumble upon one which seems complicated,look further in the thick mist.Within the thick cloud of myths,folktales and legends a person looks for simplification of the Lord,like a man searching for the centre with a torch in hand.The night is dark and the mist is unrelenting.
I remember vividly a scene many monsoons ago..The wide red lip that curves audaciously at ends to hint a smile and those big round eyes of his.He looked odd but the image has the power to stay in your memory for all times to come.Sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders I still remember the Lord’s first impression all those years ago upon his Nandighosha.An old woman was at Jagannatha’s non existent feet , weeping her heart out.She tried to embrace the idol but when debarred by the priests,she would fall back and cry some more.
Years later when I recall that incident,I begin to understand not only the woman but the Lord himself.Sceptics and rationalists would be too quick to judge but the idea is always to understand patiently and observe.Through the beloved Dark Darling ,the woman had found a way to let go.Perhaps she whispered all her miseries,sorrows and sins in his ears,which are non-existent too.More than despair,that was a cry of hope.The joyful anxiety of finding something rather than losing anything.She surrendered to something that billions of us struggle to keep burning within us-Hope.
Those big round eyes were hope to her and she was convinced that the Lord of the Universe would take good care of her. Assured by the curved smiling lips, she cried in redemption.
As Rath yatra approaches,the fabric of mythology and legends will be woven new on social media and within the swirling mist of trivias about Lord Jagannath and the Puri temple,the simple story of the weeping woman will be lost.But she holds the centre of things when rest everything fades away in popular opinion.
For every Odia household,rich or poor,Jagannatha is the eldest member of the family.We go to him to get a new born child blessed,we give the first marriage invitation to him,and then we go to him even after death in hope of freeing ourselves from this cycle of birth and death,in hope of Moksha.For all servitors who attend to him and for millions of his devotees ,this rudimentary wooden deity is not a ceremonial god but a real person.Every ritual and tradition associated with the holy trinity of Jagannatha,Balabhadra and Subhadra at Puri is a subtle attempt at humanization of the divine.
Such is the legend that if the Wood or ‘Daru’ is the Lord’s bone,the veins and arteries of the Lord are represented by the silk ropes or ‘Patta Dora’ that he wears.While the clothes he wears makes for the skin ,the Red silk robes or ‘Netapata’ symbolize the blood.Flesh is the scented oil,sandal paste is the bone marrow and “Asta kali’ the semen.The divine anatomy is complete in the Lord’s seven coverings and Vishnu manifests himself as Jagannatha at Puri Dham.
But it is during the annual Ratha Yatra that this art of humanization reaches a certain exactness.
Be it the Aryan or vedic gods of North India or the highly localised Dravidian deities in South India,the subcontinent has had a tradition of taking the resident deities for a journey near the temple and surrounding villages.Mostly it is the representative deities in form of Utsava Murti or the ‘Chalanti Pratima’ that go for the much awaited jatras,but at Puri it’s the presiding deities that make the journey to Gundicha temple,around one and half miles down the Grand Road.
The annual journey is an unhinged part of the Hindu tradition and it actually conveys a simple yet profound philosophy at it’s core.
“”Atmanam rathinam viddhi sareeram rathamevatu
Buddhim tu saarathim viddhi marah pragrahameva cha”
The human body is the chariot and the soul is the deity who sits there.Wisdom acts as the charioteer that navigates the soul to it’s destination of salvation or Moksha.
The rath yatra at Puri is the grandest of all such yatras and at it’s core pays tribute to these ancient roots of Indian wisdom and thought.It reminds billions around the world of the strong thread that binds us to a glorious past.We are not orthodox or backward looking when we pull three wooden chariots down the road in 21st century,rather we pay homage and celebrate our historical roots even while looking ahead into the future.While societies and nations have rendered their heritage to galleries and museums around the world,Odisha continues to relive it each year.Amid all those pomp and glory,it’s a tender thought that we hold on to because the generations to come will not be devoid of their glorious roots.Years down the road,perhaps another child on his granfather’s shoulder will learn about Life & Hope on Puri’s Grand Road.
The second day of the bright fortnight in first monsoon month ushers in the big day for the Lords at Puri.The Dark Darling of the Odias comes visiting his teary eyed devotees and to emancipate all of humanity in the throes of Kali Yuga.A famous song of the Lord declares that on this festive occasion,the chariots,wheels,ropes and the Grand Road itself become one with the Lord of the Universe.
To understand and appreciate the anecdotes of the Rath Yatra is to travel into the heart of Jagannatha itself.In the past decades,the debate over the Lord’s tribal origins has almost settled and Jagannath-Balabhadra-Subhadra today stand for a syncretic culture of faith and devotion that transcends the barriers of caste,creed, color,nationalities and even religion.How a tribal belief system became a world wide phenomenon under the royal patronage of Odisha’s rulers and it’s further amalgamation with vedic and Aryan rituals is a fascinating story in itself.The result of centuries of tribal practices mixed with the potent vedic lore and iconography.
Since ages the Sabara tribes of Koraput and Ganjam had a practice of worshipping trees where they believed, their god lived.They had a generic name for their tree-god,Kitung.Interestingly another name for Kitung was Jagant.As in all cultural beliefs,even the Kitungs were many in number and one of the prominent among them was a certain one named –Jaganaelo.Not only the Sabaras called him Lord of the Universe but he too had ten incarnations.So the tradition of worshipping wooden idols which were to be renewed after a certain time interval, finds it’s root in the ancient tribal lores of Odisha.
Not only that but the ritual of Nabakalebara is held in the year which holds an extra monsoon month in Indian calendar,which is actually a correction in the lunar cycle and hence almost a defect or anamoly in the cosmic scheme of things.It’s this anamoly which makes the extra month highly inauspicious for religious activities but is considered holy for the Lord’s reincarnation.So in this manner,Jagannath transcends the conventional religious beliefs of Indian landscape.
When the three deities retire for ‘Anasara’ after the Bathing rituals of Snana Purnima,it’s a symbolical enactment of the Lord’s return to his tribal kinsmen.Only the non-Brahmin Daitapatis attend to the Lord’s daily needs and during this period which lasts almost a fortnight,he is offered fruits and berries as are available only in jungle.A mystical veil hangs over the proceedings at Anasara Tati.In tongues of Sabara tribe,the word Anasara translates to ‘to dry up’ which refers to the drying up of the multiple coats of paint applied to the trinity before their public appearance for Rath Yatra.
The journey of Purushottama from the mythical Blue Mountains or Nilachala where he was secretly worshipped as Nilamadhaba ‘God who radiates blue light’ by Viswabasu,the Sabara chieftain to the temple at Puri as Jagannatha after being discovered by King Indradyumna is a story heard and repeated in all Odia households since childhood.This famous lore of King Indradyumna’s messenger Vidyapati marrying Viswabasu’s daughter Lalita and later exploring the secret location of ‘Nilamadhaba’ by sprouting mustard seeds on the way is the most accepted of the myths of Lord Jagannath.This tale gained coin from the 15th century Odia literary source of ‘Deula Tola’ or’Making of the temple’ by Nilambara Das.
There is a slightly different version of the same story in Sarala Das’s Odia Mahabharata but highly interesting.
As has been the literary custom of retelling and reinterpretation of the Mahabharata over many ages in India,Sarala Das while providing the Odia version of the long epic ,linked the lore of Jagannatha to the mythical story of Krishna and hence indirectly to Lord Vishnu.The story of Jagganatha begins soon after the end of Mahabharata war as per Sarala Das,where in after Krishna’s death at the hands of the tribal Jara Sabara in Dwarka,the unburnt body parts of him came floating to Puri in form of a wooden log on sea.This log was received by King Indradyumna who persuaded Viswakarma,in form of a carpenter to carve out images of the Lord.The god-carpenter left them unfinished when the impatient queen Gundicha tried to open the door of the workshop when no sound was heard of the wood work.
There are no ends to the stories and the thick layers of mythology adds up as time passes over the centuries.The thick cloud of stories obscures everything ,revealing only a small hint as to how the story may have developed.
Throughout the ages ,people have seen the Lord in their own image,in their own personal scheme of things.While anthropologists have interpreted the three colors of the trinity to stand for races of humanity viz. Jagannath(black) for Negroids,Balabhadra(white) for Europeans and Subhadra(yellow) for Mongoloids. Religious scholars have likened the trio to many ancient trinities –like the ancient Jain trinity of Samyak Jnana,Samyak Charita and Samyak Drusti,or the Buddhist triad of Buddha,Dharma and Sanga.
The cult of the Lord transcends everything concerned .In a manner of saying ,he becomes what his devotees want him to be.Accepted by all and accepting everything,the Lord and his siblings stand for a system of belief that embraces all things and yet remains unchanged at it’s centre. To Vaishnavites around the world,he is Krishna,the incarnation of Vishnu,for the poet Jaydeb,he was Radhamadhaba in his epic poem Gitagovinda.In Sankaracharya’s ‘Jagannatha Astakam’ he was proclaimed Master of the Universe.For his beloved devotee Salabeg,he was the wild elephant who comes swaying in Pahandi onto the Grand Road and to millions who come to see him daily at his temple,he is simply-Kalia.In this manner,Jagannatha is everything and yet none of them.He evades a definition and hence remains a mystique in his own way.
As history stands,all mysteries become legends and turn immortal in a way.
In rural Odisha,a farmer looks at the sky which is grey with monsoon clouds and at the same time of the year,the Grand Road is washed anew with rains.On second day of the bright fortnight,the sun rays strike the Nilachakra wheel and Patitapabana flag at summit of the White Pagoda while the three colourfully decked chariots remain in shade near Singhadwar as the sun rises behind them from the ocean.As the sun warms the avenue at Grand Road,millions are swarming to the epicentre after a ceremonial dip in the sea shore of Puri.From bent old men to perplexed little children,from saints to sinners,all wait for the Lord to arrive at his chariot.
Nandighosa stands to the extreme right of the three chariots with yellow and red colored stripes.Jagannatha is Krishna or Pitambara,the one attired in golden yellow robes. Guarded by Garuda and charioted by Daruka,Nandighosa’s summit is adorned by the Trailokyamohini flag.
In the middle stands Debidalana or Darpadalana,literally ‘The trampler of pride’.This chariot of Devi Subhadra is decked in robes of red and black-the color being associated with Shakti and Mother Goddess. Guarded by Jayadurga and navigated by Arjuna-the charioteer,the flag of Nadambika flutters atop.
At left stands Taladhwaja,the chariot of the eldest sibling,Balabhadra and if we observe the iconography of the chariot,he is Lord Shiva manifest himself.Decorated with shades of red and bluish green ,the chariot is guarded by Basudev and navigated by the charioteer Matali.Unnani flag adorns the top of the Palm Tree chariot where the nine presiding deities or Parswa Devatas are from Shiva’s pantheon-Ganesh,Kartikeya,Sarvamangala,Pralambari,Hatayudha,Mrutyunjaya,Natamvara,Mukteswara and Shesadeva.
From inside the temple compound the echoes of Kahali,Ghanta and Telengi baja reverberates outside the walls where people wait in anticipation of things to come.The holy trinity along with Sudarsana are brought to the temple’s Singhadwar in a group procession of ‘Dhadi Pahandi’ where all the four move in a single row.As is visible from a distance,Lord Jagannatha and Bhalabhadra have wooden crosses fixed to their backs and thick silk ropes tied around their heads and waists in a ritual called as ‘Senapati Lagi’.All this accessories along with the head gear-Tahia, help in the wonderfully orchestrated swaying procession called as ‘Pahandi Bije’.
As the rhythmic sounds of musical instruments reach a crescendo,Sudarsana- the celestial wheel of Krishna is carried first to Subhadra’s chariot.The carrying of Sudarsana is followed by Lord Balabhadra and then Devi Subhadra is almost rushed to her chariot by the servitors who move through the crowd in a movement no less than running.
At last comes Kalia Dhana,the dark darling of the masses who seems to smile a bit more on seeing the emotionally charged up faces outside the temple.Amid Odishi dancers tapping foot to the rhythms of Mardala and Mridanga,to Sankirtan groups jumping up and down in a devotional frenzy,Jagannatha seems to take his time enjoying such a grand extravaganza.In the words of Salabeg,the Lord sways like a wild elephant as he comes up on the grand road to emancipate all sinners and ignorant.Tears swell in the eyes and million hearts skip a beat as chants of ‘Haribol’ ripples out from Bada Danda.
In a symbolic gesture that has wide social implications,the King of Puri sweeps the three chariots in his own hands through the ritual of ‘Chhera Pahanra’.The Kings of Puri around 12th century A.D declared themselves as ‘rauts’ or servants of Lord Jagannatha and that they would rule these holy lands as his representative. As sweeping and cleaning has been seen as the work of the lower castes since old times,the King sends the message that in the Lord’s eye ,all men are equal and no work is derogatory when done with a clean conscience.
The earthly distinctions of caste,creed and race melts away as a spiritual ardour takes over the proceedings.White horses for Taladhwaja ,Brownish red for Debidalana and Black horses for Nandighosa are tied immediately after the King gets down from each chariot.
The body and the soul is ready to make the spiritual journey to Moksha.From the distance,it looks as if the chariots float on the sea of humanity ,such is crowd around the wooden wheels. Hundreds cling to the long ropes that are laid out on Grand Road as ancient serpents.The ones for Taladhwaja are named after the mythical Basuki Naga and that of Debidalana is Swarnachuda Naguni.The serpent-ropes of Nandighosa is the Sankhchuda Naguni.Three wooden Gods seated in wooden chariots travel down to Gundicha temple,two and half kilometres down the Singhadwara.As an old story goes, six chariots were made as a river stream ran across the Grand Road in past centuries.Three chariots would wait on the other side to carry the Lords to Gundicha after they crossed the water stream.What a sight that would have been if enacted in current times.
Jagannatha,Balabhadra and Subhadra have proclaimed their love for Mahavedi Gundicha as it is the birthplace of the Lords.King Indradyumna had called upon the gods to manifest on earth from this place and hence it’s also called as Janakpuri Gundicha and Jagannatha has special emotional attachments for his place of birth where he stays for seven days with his siblings, donning the ‘Dasabatara Vesha’ for his devotees.With the garden and pond by it’s side,the Adapa Mandapa at Gundicha must be a welcome break from the grand confines of Ratnavedi at Bada deula.
As the Lord is enjoying his vacation ,Goddess Laxmi meanwhile is sulking in anger at the temple for being left behind by the siblings. Such is the anger of the goddess that on the fifth day of Rath Yatra she travels secretly to the Gundicha Temple just to break off a chunk of wood from Nandighosa.She travels and returns through Haragoura Sahi in Puri and avoids the main Grand Road.Though this is supposed to be a secret ritual,this drama is enacted with great excitement and energy on ‘Herapanchami’.
On the ninth day of the beginning of the Rath Yatra,the ceremonies for the return-Bahuda Jatra starts.
As the Lords return from Gundicha temple,the chariots make a stopover at Mausima temple where they receive ‘Poda Pitha’ from their mausi or aunt.This is a unique cake made in Odisha from rice,lentils, jaggery and coconut.
As evening descends and light draws out from the Grand Road,Taladhwaja and Debidalana have already reached near the Lion gate of Singhadwara while Nandighosa stays behind near the King’s palace.Jagannatha’s mood is apprehensive as he knows that Laxmi is still angry at him.As the chariot is grounded,the Lord’s emotions are spread to all around him and they wear worried faces.As the Lord of the Universe spends pensive moments outside in his chariot,Laxmi’s anger has given way to worry because of Jagannatha’s delay in arriving at temple.After a while,unable to bear this bitter-sweet longing to see the Lord,she decides to have a look herself.Dressed in ‘Patta Saree’ and flowers in her hair,the ever radiant goddess leans over the balcony at Anand Bazaar, known as the ‘Chahani Mandap’.Upon seeing Nandighosa so near,she rushes to the chariot and circumambulates it in joy till she receives a garland of acknowledgement from Jagannatha.An elderly servitor carries Laxmi’s image on his shoulders and acts out her part and every attendant and devotee of the Lord play their roles in this subtle and nuanced domestic drama in the life of Jagannatha and Laxmi.The human touch is given to the divine incarnations in a characteristically serious manner which retains a sense of charm to it.
But the Lord’s domestic strife is far from over.As Jagannatha finally enters thus into the temple compound ,Laxmi sends her Devadasis to bar the inner gate of ‘Jay Vijay’ and hold the Lord there.Under Laxmi’s commands ,the Devadasis would not relent till Jagannatha goes himself to the goddess at the temple store house and placates her by offering Rasagollas and sweet words.After a while the goddess smiles and gives away.Jagannatha is Krishna after all,who has his ways with women.
This dramatic duel between Jagannatha and Laxmi is carried out by two opposing teams of Daitapatis who enact a series of mock arguments known in the chronicles as ‘Bachanika’.
With the Lord happily back in his temple ,the Universe comes to order for millions in Puri and they would flock to watch the light fade away over the horizon at Belabhumi,Bay of Bengal.Somewhere near these holy sand beaches,the Chakra of Vishnu must have fallen after being deflected from the conch-shell body of the demon Sankhasura.Vishnu took Matsya Avatar-form of the fish to recover the stolen Vedas from the demon who hid them deep in the ocean bed.The beach where Vishnu’s Chakra fell is called as Chakra Tirtha,the present CT Road in Puri.In the evening hours,thousands of devotees have swarmed the beaches and the mythical celestial wheel is lost to time.The sound of the eternal crashing waves on the sea remind that human life is but a fleeting moment in cosmic timeline where even Vishnu’s chakra has vanished.
On 18th of July 2015,the new idols of Jagannatha,Balabhadra and Subhadra carrying the eternal ‘Brahma’ within them will make the Gundicha Yatra for the first time.Though the neem wood is fresh and so is the paint on the Lord’s eye and lips,the emotions they will evoke in millions is as old as creation itself.They will wait with folded hands and wet eyes for Kalia who will redeem them off their sins and sufferings.
Curious onlookers,scholars,academics,sceptic city folks and simple minded pilgrims from thousands of villages around the country will pour in at Bada Danda-the Grand Road in Puri.Chanting of shlokas and shouts of Haribol will be singled out among the constant buzz of humanity under the humid monsoon sky.
The eternally half-finished idols of the trinity will come swaying in regal manner.The rudimentary hands of Kalia are spread out as if he is ready to embrace everybody.His lips curved in smile simply confirms that.
And through numerous anecdotes,folktales,myths and trivias about the Lord perhaps we will be able to catch a glimpse of the simple and childlike joy of Lord Jagannatha,the beloved of the Odia community who is just happy to make the journey to his place of birth.
Perhaps this smile of Jagannatha on his lips and the embrace of his half-finished hands is the truth we have beem searching all along.This is the center of the dense fog we were looking for.
May be this is the truth we seeked all along.
Soumya D Jena/The Lost Hermit