Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

July 4, 2015

First published July 3, 2015


Gazing at a dying god

Published on 4th July, 2015, on .

For an Odia like me, despite being born and raised in faraway Mumbai, visiting Jagannath temple in Puri is to visit a beloved relative. I may skillfully slip past other relatives when on a whirlwind business trip like this one, but I cannot avoid this very delightful god-friend of mine, especially when he is dying.

Jagannath means “lord of the world” and is the form of Hindu gods Krishna/Vishnu worshipped in Odisha. Locally Jagannath is called Kaliya, for its black colour, with great affection, although modern colour prejudice makes many insist that Krishna is actually blue. He is God, of course, spelt with a capital G, but more than that he is your friend, as the dominant mood in the temple is of sakha-bhaav, devotion through the emotion of friendship.

The unique feature of the temple is that Krishna is worshipped not with a spouse, but with his siblings, his elder brother Balabhadra and his younger sister Subhadra. The images are malformed, with no hands or feet, and disproportionately large heads. They are not made of metal or stone, but of wood and cloth and resin, and therefore must be replaced from time to time, leading to rituals in which the enshrined deities fall sick, die and are reborn.

I landed at Bhubaneswar airport on a Monday evening and drove straight to Puri, which is about 2 hours away, determined to do a night darshan and a morning darshan and be back by lunch for my professional engagement. Darshan is the fundamental ritual in any Hindu temple visit. You look at the deity, and the deity looks back at you. That eye contact can be understood as the Hindu communion, a moment of connectedness between the finite and the infinite. “I hope the temple will still be open?” I asked the driver. “Oh sir, it will be open till 3am due to the current ceremonies. Not to worry!” I forgot I was going to Puri, where the deity loves to party late into the night and wake up at leisure.
The drive was wonderful. No traffic, mercifully, and a fantastic road, with the state gearing up for Nabakalebara, or the ceremony of the deity’s rebirth, which takes place every 10-19 years. It is a ritual that takes place when the extra month (adhik maas) meant to align the Hindu lunar calendar to the solar cycle appears in the summer so that there are two months of Ashadha (June-July), not just the one. Every year, in the month of Ashadha, when the summer is at its height, the deity and his siblings step out to bathe in public, unable to bear the heat inside the temple. This happens on Snana Purnima. When you bathe with 108 pots of water under the blazing sun, you fall ill. And so every year, for the fortnight that follows, Krishna and his siblings take ill and are kept in a recovery chamber called anasar ghar. When they recover, appetite returns and they wish to eat the food cooked by their aunt Gundicha, whose house is a little away from his temple. So Krishna steps on his grand chariot and makes his way there. This is the start of the famous nine-day Jagannath Rath Yatra (this year it begins on 18 July), whose gigantic chariots inspired the British to coin the word “juggernaut”. I was going to Puri just a week after the bathing ritual. Only this time the sickness was prolonged–45 days–during which the old image would “die”, and a new image would be “born”.

We stopped at Bata Mangala temple, or the temple of the goddess of the path. You pay obeisance to her by lighting a ghee lamp tipped with camphor before you enter the city. Bata Mangala is a Thakurani (goddess), fierce but auspicious (mangala). Odisha is full of these Thakuranis whose divinity is highly parochial, unlike the more universal Jagannath. This goddess and others like her protect Sri Purushottama Kshetra, as Puri is traditionally called in the Skanda Purana. Her temple is a roadside shrine actually, but the location is particularly important, for it is here that you get your first glimpse of the majestic and beautifully lit temple tower (shikhar) with its fluttering flags across rice fields and coconut groves.

I reached the hotel in time to eat the famous temple food or mahaprasad, known locally as abhada. The Puri temple is famous for its kitchen, where large pots of food are placed on top of each other and cooked with wood fire and steam. It is possibly the largest pressure cooker in the world. Food is the tangible manifestation of love, and this temple food is made available to all via the market of bliss (Ananda Bazaar) located adjacent to the temple. I ate khichdi and two types of dal and a vegetable dish. It was served on a banana leaf, and, out of respect for the deity, we sat on the floor, ending the meal with Odisha’s famous sweet dishes (known to outsiders as Bengali sweets!) such as caramelized cheesecake (chhena-poda pitha) and baked rasgulla, with nolen-gud kheer (date-palm jaggery porridge).

I then made my way to the temple around 11pm. The path leading to the temple is called Bada Danda (the major path). It’s a wide road lined with stores, houses, including the palace of the Gajapati maharaja, the king of Puri, considered chalanti pratima (living representative of the deity). At the south end of the street is the main temple and at the north end is an empty temple, the Gundicha ghara, where Jagannath and his siblings spend a fortnight during the Rath Yatra festival. The Rath Yatra is a symbolic journey of Krishna back to his childhood, hence taken along with siblings, not wife Lakshmi, who is left behind in the main temple, much to the latter’s irritation, which is enacted out ritually by priests (and maharis or temple dancers, in the days of yore), to evoke the feeling that even the great Jagannath has marital problems just like the guy next door.

In between the two temples is the tiny Mausi-ma temple, another “aunt”, another Thakurani where Jagannath stops for a snack of burnt pancakes (poda-pitha). This temple is linked to the story of how once Balabhadra and Krishna did not let Lakshmi enter the temple as they found her visiting the house of a Chandala, or untouchable. The consequence of this decision was disastrous: all food disappeared from the temple and the city, for Lakshmi is the goddess of food and food does not discriminate between people. Hungry, the brothers apologized to the goddess who agreed to feed them only in the house of the Chandala woman, who became Mausi-ma.

The temple continuously tosses between tales of egalitarianism and caste hierarchy. You are told that the temple rituals involves a vast jigsaw puzzle of priests (panda) and helpers (sevaks), who belong to various castes, not just Brahmins. You are also told how any touching of the sacred food by non-Brahmins before it is offered to the deity results in its pollution and how the food has to be thrown away and the temple has to be washed if a non-Hindu enters the precinct. At the gateway of the temple is the shrine of Patita Pavana for the benefit of non-Hindus who are not allowed to enter the temple. In the 16th century, Guru Nanak was initially not allowed to enter the temple as he was mistaken for a Muslim until the king intervened. When he finally witnessed the aarti inside the shrine, he was inspired to compose the famous Gagan Mein Thaal hymn that equates the ritual of waving of lamps to the rotating celestial spheres.

At the brightly painted gateway, with images of Jaya and Vijaya, the doorkeepers of Vishnu’s heaven, Vaikuntha, and Lakshmi on the crest, and the impressive Aruna Stambha, or pillar of the dawn-god, shifted from Konark Sun Temple long ago, you realize the temple complex is located in a walled precinct, a virtual fortress, for it has been attacked and ransacked and desecrated nearly 18 times in the past 1,500 years. The earliest was in the fifth century by the Indo-Greek king Raktabahu, during which time the priests hid the image of the deity in a cave far away. In the 16th century, Kalapahad, a Muslim convert, not only raided the temple but also burned the images of the deities. It is attacks such as these that may have inspired the rebirth ritual, whereby the immortal deity can be killed but always comes back with a smile, defying death. The wall, known as wall of Meghnad (son of Ravana) keeps the sound of the sea from entering the temple, a “miracle” attributed to the Hanuman shrine outside.
There are four doors to the temple: the lion door facing east, the horse door facing south, the elephant door facing north and the tiger door facing west. You enter through the eastern gate and climb up the legendary “22 steps” where devotees can avail of services of priests, who sit under very traditional-looking parasols, to conduct various Hindu rites of passage. I witnessed a young couple performing shraadh, a funeral ritual that involves feeding crushed rice balls to ancestors. Near the elephant door is Koili Vaikuntha (where the new deities are carved out of neem tree logs or Brahma-daru procured in a complex ritual process, and the old deities buried). During my visit, the entire complex was shrouded in an overwhelming sense of tragedy and anticipation. A few days after my visit, a blackout was imposed on the entire city and blindfolded priests conducted the Brahma-parivartan ceremony, whereby the Brahma-padartha (the symbol of the God’s divinity) was taken out of the old wooden image and placed in the new. The actual ceremony was delayed allegedly because of internal temple politics, according to news reports, that has upset devotees. But life goes on.

The temple is a massive stone structure, a combination of the south Indian Dravida and the north Indian Nagara styles of architecture, the former associated with circular base and pyramidal roofs and the latter with square base and curvilinear roofs. The main shrine has a food room (bhoga mandapa), an assembly hall (jagamohana), a dance hall (nata mandapa) and finally the womb room or the sanctum sanctorum (garbha griha). On its walls are fantastic motifs, fine images of war and pleasure and sex. There is an interesting motif of a lion dominating a cowering elephant. Local guides tell you it is the triumph of willpower over desire and death.

Before entering the main shrine, one is expected to visit all the other gods in the complex, including temples of Shiva and the goddess Vimala, guardian of the shrine, and his consort, Lakshmi, who as in most Vaishnava shrines, has an independent shrine of her own. In keeping with the syncretic nature of Hinduism, during Navratri, a male goat is sacrificed to Vimala secretly at night, despite this being a purely vegetarian shrine, honouring its place as a Shakti-peetha. The god does not impose his food preferences on the goddess, unlike Hindutva enthusiasts. In the Lakshmi temple, you find graffiti on the walls, made with white chalk: images of the lotus flowers and the word, ma, or mother, everywhere, as devotees seek the arrival of the goddess of fortune into their lives. As you go around the temple, you see workmen painting a white-coloured path on the stone floor to save pilgrims from burning their feet on the scorching floor.

You get a sense of travelling through time to a medieval period as you see dozens of priests with their dhotis and uttaryas walking around in that massive stone complex. As in all Hindu temples, no footwear or leather products or cameras or mobile phones are allowed inside, though the priests and local police can be seen busy texting and calling on the ubiquitous cellphone.

I finally entered the shrine around 11pm. To my disappointment, the doors were shut. The priest smiled and said, “What’s your hurry? He is ill you know. Wait. The door will open. He will see you.” It reminded me once again that this deity is a living being for the locals. These priests were daitya-patis, not Brahmins, but descendants of aboriginals–Savaras–the original keepers of the “image”, who control the temple during the period of sickness. The story goes that the king Indradyumna had sent a courtier, Vidyapati, to secure a fabulous image of Nila Madhava which was in the possession of Savara tribals. Vidyapati married the tribal princess and asked for a darshan of the deity as dowry. He was taken to the secret location blindfolded. But the clever Brahmin dropped mustard seeds on the way. After the rains, the seeds germinated and the yellow flowers led Vidyapati to the sacred image. However, when Indradyumna came to claim it, a sandstorm buried the image forever, as God did not appreciate the deception and the attitude of conquest. Indradyumna apologized and a dream led him to a floating log of wood (daru) from which he was asked to carve the image of Jagannath. The artisan told the king not to disturb him till he finished the idols but the impatient king opened the door of the workshop and so the idols were left unfinished.

Finally, past midnight, after suffering the heat for over an hour, I got my darshan. I did not see the fabled brightly painted black image of Jagannath with cart-wheel eyes, white image of Balarabhadra and yellow image Subhadra. Since they were sick, they were reclining behind a curtain. To compensate, we saw 10 representatives of the sick deities: three paintings and seven metal figurines. Since the gods were irritable in sickness, the inner shrine had no electricity and there was no sound. In the flickering light of ghee lamps, I saw the 10 images and bowed. I knew the deities behind the curtain were on their deathbed. A few feet outside in Koili Vaikuntha, their new bodies were being carved. The flesh would die, not the divinity.
Next morning, at 8, I went to see the deities again. This time I could enter the sanctum and I realized the images were not in the innermost chamber, but in the dance hall. This was where the mahari devadasis once sang and danced for the pleasure of Krishna, the god who loves to eat burnt pancakes in his aunt’s house and go on boat rides at night and bathe in cold water at the height of summer and quarrel with his wife and then make up with offerings of sweets and saris. This is a god who has lived a full life and will continue to do so when he is reborn, and is ready to ride his chariot once again a month later. It is this world-affirming aspect of Bhagavata Dharma that I love and look forward to every time I visit the lord of the world who resides in Puri.

The Jagannath Rath Yatra will take place this year on 18 July. There are flights and trains from major metros to Bhubaneswar; Puri is a 2-hour drive from there.

Mayfair hotel
(tel. 6752-660101/660660; is a luxury hotel and resort that overlooks the Puri beach and Bay of Bengal. Rooms start at Rs. 10,000 for double occupancy, for a night. Puri Hotel, also on the beach, offers a value option (tel. 6752-222114/223809; Rooms start at around Rs.2,000.

Partaking of Lord Jagannatha’s mahaprasad is the central rite of a visit to Puri. You can purchase as much of it as you want from Anand Bazaar adjacent to the temple. Make a pit stop at Pahala village, renowned for its sweetmeats, on the Bhubaneswar-Cuttack highway (National Highway 5), to sample some rasgullas.

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