Chasing the Chariots: Nabakalebar Rathyatra,Puri 2015- Birth of a God

The Rathyatra has always been an event where emotions run high as lakhs of devotees gather to an electric atmosphere every year. This year being the Nabakalebar made the anticipation even more intense.

The Nabakalebar: Birth of the Gods

According to the scriptures, once every 12-19 years the Hindu Calendar has one extra month and during this time, Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra, shed their previous forms and are reborn in new bodies.

The build up to the Nabakalebar starts around March 29 culminating with the Rathyatra. It begins with handpicking a very select group of people – 150 to be precise consisting of 100 daitapatis from 50 of the oldest families in the state and an assortment of carpenters, people from the state administration, and the police.

Their first task is to head out in search of the Daru Brahma; Daru being the local word for wood, and Brahma meaning the cosmos, so roughly translated the Daru Brahma is “The cosmos symbolized by wood.”

After conducting a puja at the Maa Mahamangalam temple in Kakatpur, the group splits into four before setting out in search of the Daru Brahma. It is said that while the puja is being conducted, the daitapatis are graced with a vision as to the approximate location of the Daru. Once they begin their quest, they have 15 days to find it.

The scriptures have very detailed rules regarding the selection, cutting and transport and carving of the Daru.

Take for instance the specifications of choosing the tree from which the new idols will be carved:

  • It has to be a neem tree, which is considered as holy as the pipal.
  • It has to be near a body of water
  • An ant hill has to be in the vicinity
  • The roots of the tree must have a snake pit; specifically a cobra’s
  • No birds should be nesting in the tree
  • No branches should be broken or cut and there should be no creepers growing on or nearby
  • It should be surrounded in three directions by hills.
  • The tree should have forms in the trunk or in the knots of the tree trunk resembling a chakra(disc) or a Shankh (conch) chosen for Lord Jagannath’s idol. Similarly, there are signs signifying trees for the remaining idols.
  • They have to be a very specific genus of neem, which, are very rare
    • The Sahada : said to help relinquish man’s ego.
    • The Varuna: said to destroy pride and anger
    • The Bilva: according to Ayurveda, it possesses great healing powers
  • There has to be a hermitage, a Shiva temple and a cemetery nearby.

This year it is said the form of Goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Lord Jagannath was seen clear as day on the trunk of the tree chosen to be turned into the new body of the Lord.

Each tree is cut once each with a golden and silver axe before finally being chopped down by an iron axe. The trees are cut down in a very specific order –  first for Sudarshana, then Balabhadra followed by Subhadhara and finally Lord Jagannath.

The logs are then swaddled in festive silk cloth and transported on bullock carts amidst much celebration, pulled along the way by the people of the villages it passes.

Upon reaching the Puri temple the Daru Brahma is placed in the Koili Vaikuntha  or “Burial ground of Heaven.”  Over the next 21 days, the idols are carved in great secrecy; none of the carvers leave the temple during that time.

Three days before the Chariot festival, in this case night of our arrival in Puri, was the transfer of souls from the old forms to the newly carved bodies of the Gods- the Brahma Parivartan or the Great Transformation.

Brahma Padarth: The soul of a God

The transferring the soul is conducted by a handpicked group of  Daitapatis. Interesting the Daitapatis are not Brahmins but from a tribal background (stemming perhaps from the tribal origins of Jagannath, more on that later), who for generations have been responsible for the care of the idols and the temple. The actual ceremony is done by 4 of them, who conduct this ceremony in secret within the temple.

I was lucky enough to get an interview with the Daitapati who was in charge of this ritual.

“We unwrap the swaddling around the old idols and take from it the Brahma Padarth or the soul and carry it to the temple. We do this blind-folded, and with our hands covered in cloth. None of us really know what it is, but I can say that the experience of holding it in your hands is like holding lightning in your palm. In that one moment when I feel that divine energy go through my very soul, I consider myself blessed that I was chosen by My lord to serve him. I must have done something very good in my past life”

What is this Brahma Padartha? No one really knows; some say it is a relic or maybe even a part of Lord Krishna himself ( probably based on the legend that when Krishna was cremated after his death, his heart remained un-burnt and intact), others speculate it must be a fossil or a tantric talisman of some kind. Others even say it is of other worldly or extra terrestrial origin …cue twilight zone theme music (Night Shyamalan, are you listening?)

Love and dancing on the streets

The 17th of July 2015 or eve of the Rathayatra, is the day of Naba Jaubana or New Youth. On this day the new idols are placed on the Ratna Singhasana or Diamond Throne. After 58 days of separation from their beloved Lord Jagannath, people are allowed to view their Lord. This year, however, due to various reasons, the deities weren’t open to viewing. However, that did nothing to dampen the spirits of the devout.

Out on the streets people thronged in the hundreds, celebrating the rebirth and return of the Gods to their thrones. One group of devotees were an exceptional delight. All dressed in simple robes of white, this group of extremely graceful men seemed to be channelling the love of the gopis as they danced and sang in glorious abandon, lost in their love for their Jagannath.

They not only didn’t mind me taking pictures of them, they were more than happy to even pose for me…repeatedly.

These beautiful people, might have been looked at askance any other place, any other day.

But there on the streets of Puri, broad as the open arms of the Jagannath idol, there was only love. An unstoppable surge of benevolence and love for humanity washed over everything and everyone…even the most jaded and cynical of us.

I stood amidst the chanting, swaying, and devotionally delirious crowd; washed over by a sense of contentment and confusion as I pondered over the concept of faith.


Such a positive word. A word filled with… What exactly?  Hope? Love?


Or is the truth something more grimy? Is the face of faith not one of glowing divinity,  but one lined   by rites of passage ,  scratched by the blasting sands of time, trial and tribulation


As I gazed into the eyes of the devout,  I see pain and a grim determination to hold on to some resemblance of control over their lives.


Looking past the white knuckled desperation,  you see something more.  something buried deep in us all. The need to reconcile. To reconcile ourselves to our past,  our future and with the world around.  To get a sense of bearing even as the world around us shifts,changes and turns on its axis… Ad infinitum ad nauseum


And at the end of it all…to rest at last content,  and at peace


Peace… Within and without.. Because isnt that what the human condition is all about?

I am not a religious man, but at that moment, I felt that peace that was – for want of a word that can truly do the feeling justice- Divine. Fleeting,  transient but undeniable.

The energy was palpable as people waited eagerly for the festivities to come. And for reasons spiritual in my own way, so did I.

Food for Thought

That night we had a special treat waiting for us. Mahaprasad– piping hot, straight from the temple kitchen!

Considered the largest kitchen in the world, the temple kitchen can feed upto 1 lakh people a day. Only earthen pots and pans are used to cook the Mahaprasad. A fleet potters make and deliver thousands of such utensils to the temple- Everyday! Once the food is cooked, all the utensils are destroyed; not a single piece being used more than once .

The Mahaprasad is first offered to Lord Jagannath and then to Goddess Vimala; who is believed to be the incarnation of Shakti; after which it is distributed among the people as blessing.

The Mahaprasad consists of around 56 different rice, milk and vegetable items made under very stringent rules. The 2000 men who cook the food keep their hair and mouths covered to prevent any contamination of the food.

The temple cooks must bathe and pray, cleansing themselves before they start cooking. It is said that the food is prepared by the Goddess Lakshmi herself and that the cooks who serve at the temple are merely an extension of Her. It is believed that if the food is not prepared according to proper procedure or if the Goddess is not pleased with it, a mysterious black dog appears in the temple. The food is then buried in the ground and the whole procedure is started from scratch.

The food  is cooked in pots that are placed one on top of the other on the Vaishnava Agni, the kitchen fire that is never extinguished. There are five pots in each stack and strangely, it is the food in the top pot that cooks first.

Another inexplicable occurrence, truth or legend it’s difficult to say; is that when the food is cooked, it has absolutely no aroma or flavour, it is only after being offered to the Gods, that its aromas fill the temple corridors and spills out on to the streets.

Chariots of the Gods

After relishing a delicious meal of the Mahaprasad, we stepped out to take one last look at the chariots, as they stood lined up in front of the temple in all their bedecked, bedazzled glory.

The now painted wooden charioteers stood patiently, chins jutting out with an almost human pride, moustaches twirled regally as people gawked at their chiselled (pun intended) good looks.

The thick jute ropes that would serve to pull the chariots lay coiled on the ground ready for the superhuman efforts of thousands of people desperate to grasp them and pull the chariots, thus ensuring freedom from all worldly suffering.

Bathed in a flood of light, the chariots stood regally awaiting their divine guests. Each chariot is distinguished by size, the color of the horses that draw them, and the shimmering drapes that adorn them.

Lord Jagannath’s chariot draped in red and yellow, its crest adorned by Garuda and drawn by 4 white horses, is called Nandighosa or ‘Sound of Bliss” At 45 feet in height, resting on 16 wheels and weighing over 65 tons, it is the largest of the three.

With Hanuman on its crest, Lord Balabhadra’s chariot has a red and green canopy, and is drawn by 4 black wooden horses on 14 humongous wheels. At 44 feet in height, the Taladhwaja or “Rhythm of Power” is slightly smaller than the Nandighosa.

The gentle but strong Lady Subhadra’s chariot, the Debadalana or “Destroyer of Pride,” is drawn by 4 red wooden horses on 12 wheels. Covered in festive red and yellow and moving on 12 wheels, this is the smallest but most festive looking chariot.

On that night of the17th , the chariots rested in anticipation of their big day the next morning.

Everyone else…was too excited to sleep. So we did what any traveller with restless soul syndrome would do. We set out to look for someone else to talk to.

The history of Jagannath: legend and folklore

Dr. Bhaskar Mishra is a former deputy administrator of the Jagannath temple and one of the nation’s foremost scholars on Jagannath consciousness. He was kind enough to take some time off from his hectic Rathyatra schedule to educate us on the history of Lord Jagannath.

Jagannath, though not traditionally associated with any specific sect of Hindu denomination , shares many common aspects with numerous religious beliefs be it Vaishnavism , Shaivism, Shaktism, and some say, even with Buddhism and Jainism, though this has been  heavily contested by a number of senior members of the Sanathandharm like the Sankaracharya himself.

With no definite record in any of the old texts, there are numerous legends about the origins of Lord Jagannath – stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, Brahminical versions, Vedic alternatives, and even some Buddhist legends.

For the purposes of this journal, however, and based on our conversations with the Gajapati, the Sankaracharya and various members of high standing of the Chinmaya Mission and the temple administration, we will be taking the Skanda Puran as the primary source for details on the origins of Jagannath.

According to the legend, King Indrayumna was a ruler of the Lunar dynasty- the Chandravanshis. One day a traveller arrived out of nowhere and enthralled the king with tales of a great God – The Nila Madhava (Blue Vishnu) being worshiped at the Blue mountain (Nilachal) in Orissa. While the story sank in teasing the King’s curiosity…Poof ! just like that; the traveller vanished.

As per the king’s wishes, the royal priest and his brother Vidyapati set out into the forest to search for this fabled God. When they reached the forest by the banks of the river Mahanadi, they were greeted by Visvavasu, the ruler of the Savara tribe that worshipped the Nila Madhava. Being a hospitable king of a gentle race, he offered his home for Vidyapati to rest for the night, with the promise to show him Nila Madhava the coming morning.

The next day, as promised, Visvavasu took Vidyapati to see the deity being worshipped. Vidyapati, profoundly affected by the God’s presence, humbly took the tribal King’s leave and returned to the Kingdom to inform Indradyumna.

Upon hearing his tale, Indradyumna immediately set out to the forest, with the intention of bringing the idol back to his kingdom.

However…little do the intentions of man hold water in front of the will of God…or so we’ve been told. Reaching the forest, the King was met with the impossible. Not only had the idol vanished but the forest was overrun by the white sands of the coast that had spread and covered it overnight.

Befuddled, the king returned to his kingdom, only to be greeted by the Messenger of the Gods –Narada- who passed on the diktat of Brahma – that the king must worship the deity with a thousand yagnas.

But wait ! theres more !

Narada went on to say that Indradyumna would still not be granted an audience by Vishnu in his Nila Madhava form, but would appear in the form of a large, red, sweet smelling wooden log that would wash ashore marked with signs- a conch, a mace, and a lotus. The king was instructed to construct the idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra, and the Sudarshana chakra from these logs. In that form, the kingdom would be permitted to worship the Lord.

And that, boys and girls, is how it all began.

The story continues, however, giving some sort of an explanation for why the idols look the way they do.

It is said that Vishnu himself approached the king in his form of Vishwakarma who, according to the Puranas, is the patron deity of all artisans and architects, and is considered to be the “Architect of the Universe”. He offered to carve the idols himself, with the express condition that he do it in secrecy within the temple and that nobody should observe or disturb him until he is done. While the King agreed to these conditions as the days passed, the kings wife; Queen Gundicha (who for some reason is also considered Jagannath’s aunt) could not contain her curiosity any longer and decided to sneak a peek.

Angered by this violation of trust, Vishwakarma vanished, thus leaving the idols in their current limbless incomplete forms.

These wonderful tales have not been validated with any kind of historical accuracy, however, they are part and parcel of our tradition and our legends, making our culture that much richer.

Personally I love the explanation Lord Jagannath’s devotees give for their Lord’s unique look.

For the full story on that, and a look at the rituals and happenings on the day of the Rathyatra; stay tuned , as our story – will be continued.

Chasing the Chariots: Nabakalebar Rathyatra,Puri,2015- The Chase Begins

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