This July, I had the pleasure of being part of the Rathyatra of Lord Jagannath in Puri, gaining an insider’s view of the elaborate preparations and documenting the grand finale of the Rathyatra and Nabakalebar 2015, witnessing first hand man’s overwhelming devotion and faith.
It all began a month ago, when a chance phone call from an old friend introduced me to the story of Lord Jagannath and the yearly Chariot Festival or Rathyatra in the city of Puri , Orissa.
I was intrigued and hungry for more, and so when Piyush (my similarly named and follicled friend) made me an offer I ….Well, you know the rest, I had to take him up on it.
The fact that I was being invited to be part of Piyush’s documentary on Lord Jagannath during the Nabakalebar Rathyatra made it all the more exciting.
The Nabakalebar or ‘New Form’ of Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra happens once every 12-19 years during which time the trinity renounce their previous form and are reborn amidst of much ritual and fanfare.
So stay with me as I take you through a journey in the past and the present, to understand the life, birth and rebirth of Lord Jagannath and what makes Jagannath consciousness such a universal phenomenon.
Puri: City of the Divine
Puri is a town of immense religious, spiritual and historical significance, and hence; catnip to the writer and photographer in me.
Considered one of the four dhams or pilgrimage sites for Hindus in India the others being Dwarka, Rameswaram and Badrinath; Puri has a deep connect to the story of Lord Jagannath.
Puri is also home to the Govardhana Matha, one of the four key institutions of its kind around the country. There are numerous mathas or monasteries of various denominations of Hindu sects all across Puri, each with their own unique stories. I had the pleasure of meeting the current Sankaracharya of the Govardhana Matha and had a very interesting conversation with him on the history and doctrine behind Lord Jagannath and his universal appeal. Just one of the many enlightening conversations I had with priests, scholars and royalty over the course of my .journey
In addition to the wealth of historical gems hidden among tales of the city; it is home to numerous temples, including the true starting point of our story : The Jagannath Puri Temple.
A train journey and long walks on the beach
My journey started on the 13th of July from Ahmedabad on the Ahmedabad-Puri express. For most purposes it is an excellent train; however my definition of excellence on rail journeys is based on a limited yardstick- cleanliness and timeliness.
As far as cleanliness goes, the train was a pleasant surprise; timeliness however was a bit of an issue. Apparently the ADI-PURI Exp regularly runs about an hour and a half late. Other than that minor inconvenience this is an excellent train to travel to Puri by.
I finally arrived at Puri station around 10am ( an hour and a half late as expected) on 15th July. I was checked into the Toshali Sands Resort , a lovely little getaway with the all the trappings of a luxurious stay- wide open spaces, palm trees galore, private beach, swimming pool, ayurvedic spa; the works. Excellent if you are looking for some R&R before an intense trip or are trying to recover from one.
I woke up the next day to a sultry but clear skied morning. A quick chai and I took the resort van to their private beach. As we bumped along the narrow path cutting through the thick forest our rather noisy van rudely interrupted a couple of monkeys having breakfast. After about ten minutes the road opened up to a gloriously deserted beach which I spent the next two hours there exploring. I came upon a cosy little alcove tucked away among the arched branches of trees flanking one side of the beach and amidst the calming shade and whispered breeze of this little hideaway, I took a moment to catch my breath, marshal my thoughts and exhale a little thank you…
After this tranquil morning diversion, I gathered my equipment and luggage and made myself to the minibus headed to the Grand Road and the Jagannath temple.
It was time to go to work.
The humility of a king, an impregnable temple & love in the time of war
A half hour later I was walking down the long stretch of road known as the Bada Danda or The Grand Road.
There was a whisper of wonderment in the air as the crowd bustled around oblivious to the heat and the humidity. Lines of Boy Scouts made for a joyous, raucous sight , water sprayers strapped to their backs as they sprayed pedestrians, giving them much needed relief from the sticky heat.
Eventually I reached the Singhdwara or East entrance of the Jagannath Temple. Just across the temple was The Grand.
A quaintly elegant restaurant with a delectable range of veg and non veg cuisine, The Grand was built in an annex of the Puri Palace; a sprawling estate with a pristine white one storied mansion that houses the royal family of Gajapati Maharaj – who started The Grand as a service to the devotees who come to worship at the Puri temple. The food, made without onion or garlic, and cooked according to temple and regional traditions is simple yet elegant; much like the Gajapati himself.
Gajapati Maharaj Dibyasingh Deb; is an elegantly dressed middle aged man with salt and pepper hair dressed usually in simple churidar kurtas with a traditionally colored shawl draped across his shoulders. He is the Head of State and the Chief Servitor of the temple and Lord Jagannath. To many, he is the “Chalonti Pratima” or the Living Form of Lord Jagannath.
An incredibly well read and eloquent man; his library, in which my interview with him took place, is a treasure trove of books on theology, philosophy, history, art and culture.When I asked him about the title bestowed upon him, he said with a characteristically humble smile “There is only one living form of the Lord and that is the Nila Madhaba or Lord Krishna. There was a time when the Kings of Orissa also fulfilled the task of ruling the state. Today we are first and foremost a servant of the Lord.”
But, I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Back at The Grand, I sipped on sweet tea and munched on a piping hot uthapam (yes, yes, I know, I know…you’re in Orissa, what’s with the South Indian meal, oh you South Indians!blah blah blah…I like uthapams, so bite me!)
I sat back enjoying the peaceful reality of the moment, and the anticipation of the days to come. As I soaked in the sights and sounds below me, the chariots of the Gods stood across the road with stoic dignity, their vibrant hued glory still muted as artisans worked tirelessly to complete them in time for the Rathyatra two days away.
To many , the chariots may have looked like a framework of wood and draped cloth. However, to the devout that crowded them, fevered brows pressed fervently against unpainted wheels, arms clutching desperately out of love, devotion and sometimes out of sheer desperation? They were symbol of love, hope, comfort, and so much more.
Craftsmen of unbelievable skill worked with frenzied focus, some chiseling away at blocks of wood, others painting them with loving care, breathing into them …life. Under dexterous hands these inanimate chunks of wood grew into the regal strong jawed charioteers with enviable mustaches and proud horses with mane like the wind.
Finally after two cups of tea, I spotted Piyush in his classic loud exotic printed shirt fashionably late as usual as he lugged his gear out of a rickshaw. After a brief but heartfelt reunion we left our gear at the Srikshetra Bhakta Nivas– a series of apartments built within the compound of the Puri Palace and our home for the next few days. Owned by various key members of the royalty, and the temple community of which Piyush’s father is a key member, the Srikshetra Bhakta Nivas is a peaceful oasis of solitude and quiet from the frenetic preparations outside.
First stop-The Jagannath Puri Temple. A beautifully constructed edifice with evidently multiple influences, the temple architecture would appeal to the architect and the artist alike.
We stood outside the Singhadwara admiring the stone lions sculptures silently guarding the entrance. Three other gates and their stone totems kept constant vigil – The Ashwadwara or Horse gate to the south, The Vyagradwara or the Tiger gate towards the west and the Elephant Gate, the Hastidwara watches the north.
A colorfully draped monolith stood regally in front of the Singhadwara. Christened the Aruna Stambha after the charioteer of Surya Dev the Sun God, this pillar once adorned the porch of the Konark temple. Built as a tribute to the Sun God, the Konark temple is a stunning structure built to look like a huge chariot drawn by seven horses. When the temple fell to ruin and the presiding deity was removed, this pillar was brought to Puri and installed where it stands till today.
The temple itself is an imposing structure and a wonderful depiction of Kalinga architecture (Many theories abound about the influences from Sumerian and Egyptian cultures, but since these stories that are highly debated and subjective to opinion, I will not delve into them too deep……for now).
It is said that the temple had been attacked 21 times during the Mughal dynasty. When you see the kind of devastation this purge of religion conducted by the erstwhile Mughal dynasty had wrought all over the country ( as seen in the recount of my Rajasthan travels as well) the fact that the temple still stands unscathed is a tribute to the structural integrity or divine grace of the temple (depending on what kind of stand you’re prone to take)
Standing 214 feet tall, built upon a stone platform spread over a whopping 10 acres, the sheer size and beauty of the temple is a feast for the eyes; the intricately carved sculptures , the magnificence of the dark stone looming over the white pagoda, even the multitude of monkeys and cats in the temple make for an experience in itself.
Entering the temple we passed the wide eyed visage of the Patita Pabana , a replica of the actual idol of Lord Jagannath. During the Nabakalebar when Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are sequestered as part of the rituals preceding the Rathyatra , the Patita Pabana continues to grant an audience to eager devotees.
From a larger perspective though, the Patita Pabana has a greater purpose; one which in spite of rules and regulations that have sprung up over the years, continues to endear him to the masses making Him not Lord Jagannath to the people, but ‘My Jagannath’.
The Patita Pabana or “Redeemer of the Fallen” stands lovingly to the right side of the temple entrance so that he can be viewed by those devotees (well..mainly muslim and foreign devotees. Muslims due to the incidents that happened during the Mughal dynasty and foreigners because apparently all foreigners eat beef.. go figure.) who are not allowed inside the temple. Ironical really, considering that one of Jagannath’s greatest devotees Salabega was a muslim, and it is rumored that even Jesus Christ spent a few years here in Puri.
The story behind the installation of the Patita Pabana goes something like this.
King Ramachandra Deb ruled over Orissa sometime during the 18th century. During his rule the Mughal general Tariq Khan attacked the kingdom and defeated Ramachandra Dev. Vanquished by his enemies the King however, fell in love with an enemy general’s daughter. By marrying her, he regained his kingdom but by the laws that governed the kingdom, lost the right to enter the temple.
An honorable man, the king chose not to take advantage of his position of power, and respected the temple diktat. However he spent his days at the temple entrance, stricken by grief on being unable to gaze upon The Lord.
One night, Lord Jagannath appeared in the king’s dream, instructing him to install an exact replica of his image at the entrance of the gate, so that He would never be separated from any of his devotees.
The King rushed to the temple and prostrating himself at the entrance, cried out the Lord’s name in joy. Hearing him the daitapatis , or the temple servitors rushed out to see what the commotion was. With them was the chief priest, who as it so happened was just telling another priest that he had the exact same dream.
And that is ONE of the stories on how the Patita Pabana came to be installed at the gates, while His colors adorn the flag that flies above the giant blue hued Sudarshana Chakra or Nila Chakra at the apex of the main temple structure.
The Nila Chakra and the Flag have some interesting details and traditions of their own. The Nila Chakra is a large, metallic, elegantly ornate structure around 11 feet in height and 36 feet in diameter, representing the cosmic disc of Lord Vishnu. Made from a mix of 8 different metals or Ashta Dhatu, its bluish tint lends itself to its name, and establishes it’s connect to Lord Vishnu who is depicted as being blue skinned.
The changing of the flag has been carried out every day between 6-7 pm for the last 800 years and is a jaw dropping sight to behold. Two young men belonging to a family of the Chola clan scale the sheer surface of the temple structure with absolutely no equipment or safety net. Trained from a very young age, these young men scamper up the structure effortlessly finally perching precariously on the Nila Chakra as they change the flag. People say there was a time these men had to climb the temple with their backs to the wall, so their feet would not face the sanctum of the Lord, making this process infinitely more difficult.
The rich history and stories living within the walls of the temple held me enthralled, while outside on the streets, more stories waited to be told, etched on the faces and hearts of the throngs of devotees who came to meet their Lord…
In part two of this series, stay with me as Man breathes new life into God. This and many more stories wrapped in legend, myth, and faith come together while we continue to chase the chariots of the Lord.
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