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July 24, 2023

First published July 23, 2023

 in Mid-day

Rashtra-Devta Inside a Tree

A king’s dream about a god in a tree connects Manipur and Sri Lanka with Odisha.

Skanda Purana tells the story, which is at least 500 years old. A long time ago, a log of wood was found floating on the shores of the sea near Puri, where the temple of Jagannath now stands. The local king, who was looking for a suitable image to be enshrined in the temple he had built, In a dream, he was told to carve images of Purushottama from this mysterious log of wood. No artisan was able to do so.

Finally, an old artisan told the king that he could carve the statue, provided he was allowed to do it in private and no one should disturb him. The carving went on for many days. But when the king heard no sound coming from within the artisan’s workshop, he impatiently opened the door and found no sign of the artisan within, but three incomplete images instead. This is the reason why the three statues currently worshipped in Jagannath Puri, considered the rashtra-devata (state god) of Odisha, appear incomplete even today.

A similar story is found in Sri Lanka, in the epic poem, Parakumba Sirita, composed around the same time. A log of red sandalwood is found floating in the sea off Sri Lanka. The local king, Dapulla, is told in a dream to carve a statue out of it. He does not find an artisan for days. Then, a mysterious artisan appears and tells the king not to disturb him while he carves the statue of Upulvan, his wife Sanda Vathi, and his son Dhanurdhara, three statues in all. Upalvan is the guardian deity of Sri Lanka linked to the Hindu Vishnu and the Buddhist Avalokiteshvara. As in the story from Puri, the king prematurely opens the door. Within, he finds the statues but no sign of the artisan or any sign of any wood shavings to show work has been done. For centuries, there was a trading relationship between Sri Lanka and Odisha. The eastern coast of India witnessed sailors travelling to and fro. In old Tamil works, the word for cloth is Kalinga, referring to the Odisha region famous for its weavers. This explains the shared legacy between these two regions.

A similar story is found in Manipur. King Bhagya Chandra had to prove his legitimacy. In a dream, he was told that he would find images of Sri Krishna within a special jackfruit tree. The jackfruit tree was identified, ferried down a river and seven wooden statues of Shri Krishna were carved that are still worshipped today. This Vaishnav culture of Manipur springs from the beliefs and customs established by Chaitanya, who was deeply inspired by Jagannath Puri, whose followers found seven images of Krishna in Vrindavan. Thus, as in Sri Lanka, in Manipur, we find a connection between a king, a tree, and the worship of a state god.

We can take these lores literally as history as many do, or we can realise that these stories as charter myths designed to establish the political authority of a king through a rashtra-devata, or guardian god of a kingdom. That the Sri Lankan story is Buddhism while the story of Odisha and Manipur are Hindu are superficial differences. More important than religion is the belief of the local people, their leaders and the connection to land where they reside.

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