Published in Sunday Midday, Mumbai, 6 Sept 2009

Imagine a crowded sanctum sanctorum of a thousand year old temple filled with the light of lamps and the smell of camphor, and three gigantic brightly painted wooden idols staring down at you from a platform. That is what you experience in the temple of Jagannath in Puri, Orissa. Nowhere else is Krishna enshrined with his elder brother, Balaram, and his younger sister, Subhadra. He is black as soot and has circular eyes; Balaram is white and Subhadra is turmeric yellow. The images seem malformed. Nowhere else does one find Krishna depicted in such a totemic, almost tribal, form. Some say this was originally a tribal shrine, appropriated by Brahmins. And that is attested by legend.

The story goes that thirty six years after the Mahabharata war, Krishna was fatally wounded by the arrow of a hunter called Jara. Arjuna rushed from Hastinapur to save his dear friend and cousin, but it was too late. By the time he arrived, Krishna had left his mortal body and ascended to Vaikuntha, his heavenly abode. His beautiful body lay in the shade of a Banyan tree, surrounded by birds and animals and termites spellbound by his beauty. What was left behind, despite its beauty, was with great reluctance cremated. Fire consumed everything except Krishna’s heart that was cast into the sea. It floated and transformed into a beautiful image called Nilamadhava that was found by a tribe in Orissa who enshrined it in a cave.

When King Indradyumna learnt of this relic of Krishna he decided to build a temple that he felt was more appropriate for God. The task of securing Nilamadhava from the tribals was given to Indradyumna’s most intelligent courtier, Vidyapati.

Knowing that Nilamadhava was jealously guarded by the tribals, Vidyapati came up with an elaborate plan to find its location. The chief of the tribals, Vishwavasu, had a daughter called Lalita. Vidyapati successfully seduced Lalita but refused to marry her unless as dowry he was given a darshan of Nilamadhava. With great reluctance, out of love for his daughter, Vishwavasu agreed.  But after marriage, when it was time to go to the cave, Vishwavasu said, “I will take you there blindfolded.” Vidyapati realized then that his father-in-law was no fool.

Determined to outwit Vishwavasu, who clearly suspected his intent, Vidyapati let himself be blindfolded but on the way, quietly dropped mustard seeds on the forest floor. After the rains, these seeds germinated and sprouted bright yellow flowers that served as a trail to the secret shrine, much to Vidyapati’s delight.

Before long, to the horror of the tribals, King Indradyumna stood at the gate of the cave determined to take Nilamadhava to the temple he had built. Vishwavasu begged the king to let Nilamadhava be. Even Vidypati appealed to the king for he had seen the image and had been overwhelmed by the deity’s beauty and the simplicity of tribal devotion. “But it is mine,” said the king, storming into the cave, only to find that the image had disappeared, clearly refusing to fall into the hands of the arrogant king.

Indradyumna realized his folly and begged for forgiveness. In compassion, Nilamadhava appeared to the king in a dream and advised him to walk on the sea shore. There, the king found a log of wood with marks of Vishnu. From this wood,would come the images that Indradyumna could enshrine in his temple. But the wood was too tough for the royal artisans to carve. The king was at his wits end, wondering what to do.

One day, an old man came to the king and said he could turn the log into the desired image, provided he was allowed to work without any disturbance in a closed room. The king agreed. A room was provided in which the old man locked himself with the log of wood. For days, the king heard the sounds of wood being cut and thumped and he grew increasingly impatient to see the form the log of wood would finally take. One day, however, the sounds of cutting and thumping stopped. There was an eerie silence in the room. Fearing the worst, the king opened the door. Inside there was no old man, but Vishwakarma, the artisan of the gods, painting three incomplete idols. Vishwakarma disappeared and the king was left with the three incomplete idols of Krishna, his elder brother and their younger sister. That became the form of the image that Indradyumna enshrined in his temple.

Since the image is made of wood, it is replaced every twelve years. In effect, the old image ‘dies’ and is ‘cremated’ and a new image is carved from a new log of wood – and the divinity passes on from the old to the new in an elaborate ceremony. Thus the deities experience the cycle of life and death, like their devotees. The incomplete images are a reminder that no one earth is perfect. Even Krishna, locally known as Jagannath, or lord of the world, has no hands or feet or eyelids or ears, but he always sports a smile, seeing all with his circular cartwheel eyes, stretching his malformed limbs to welcome devotees and comfort them as they endure the trials of an imperfect world.