Puri, believed to be one of our oldest cities, has a modest appearance. It is dominated by three strangely powerful and abstract idols of Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, his sister Subhadra and brother Balraam.
Mainstream Hinduism in their presence must remain on hold. And even though today the Brahmin Pandas scuttle about acting important, at the time of the annual ceremonial of the Rath Yatra (during which the Lord leaves his temple with his siblings to go visit their aunt), the city relapses into Kalinga, the ancient land that has always been a rare mixing bowl of diverse cultures and religions.
Nine hundred years ago, one myth has it, a certain Ganga king raised a fantastical temple to Jagannath, as an avatar of Vishnu. But the real history of this grand deity goes back thousands of years to a largely tribal Kalinga. In aboriginal traditions, a humanised physical representation of a deity is rare. But in case of Lord Jagannath and his siblings we do have three magnificent statues. The Jagannatha Vigraha or idol, is said to represent Lord Vishnu.
But it does not portray the Lord as a muscular and handsome man lying upon the Shesh Nag or a young Krishna with a flute flanked by Radha or a Bal Gopal crawling on all fours as a baby. The idols within the Jagannath temple remain powerful images but are mostly large faces with huge disc like eyes. They have tiny stumps for arms on either side, and no legs.
Religions in India are layered with remnants from various popular cults. The Tibetan Buddhist Lama Taranath describes how by the tenth century, after repeated onslaughts on Buddhism by a mainstream Hinduism (revived by Adi Shankaracharya), Buddhism lost a lot of ground in the north and thereafter sought refuge in Orissa Bihar and Bengal. By late 12th century as the Islamic forces closed in there, the Buddhists seem to have been totally isolated from the lives of the common folk in the area so when the Muslim General, before setting the libraries on fire, enquired of the locals about the the kind of books the libraries contained, he drew a blank. By the time the Ganga rulers came into power in Orissa and built the temple, stray seeds of the Buddhist thought mixed with local religions like the Dharma sect of the Shavara tribals had entered a Krishna lore come floating from the west. The Shavaras worshipped a formless deity Niranjan or Neel Madhav.
According to Pt Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, the cult of Lord Jagannath later subsumed the cult of Niranjan because one of the new names acquired by Jagannath in Kalinga, was Neel Madhav. “A Shoonya, formless and destroyer of a thousand impediments/Above everything, the greatest giver of boons/Is our Lord Niranjana”— wrote Ramai Pandit of the Munda tribal community in his Shoonya Purana.
The spectacular shrine at Puri was perhaps the first conscious experiment in synthesising India’s diverse religions and religious principles that flourished in the east around the 12th Century. With its rich forests, relatively peaceful interior and flourishing sea ports, Orissa was a precious meeting point for all major Hindu and non-Hindu cults: Buddhism, Jainism,the Tantrik Nath Siddha Panth and various tribal religions that pre dated all of these. It is also noteworthy that in erecting the grand temple to the Lord Jagannatha, Raja Ananta Varman Choda Ganga of Orissa diverged from the tradition of building temples next to holy rivers. He selected a site on the sea shore as the temple housed a deity whose form spanned the seas.
Since wood has a limited life, after a spell of twelve or nineteen years, new wooden idols have to be freshly carved to replace the old ones. This ritual is called Nav Kalevara (taking of a new form). Wood is a recurring theme in the forest dweller tribals’ legends surrounding Lord Jagannatha. As always in India, poetic stories are soon deftly spun around available facts. In a 15th century tale from an Oriya epic by Sarala Dasa, the log from which the idols are carved, was originally a tree that grew when the indestructible body of Krishna floated in from Dwarika Puri in the west to the eastern coast of Orissa . The tribals who found the body, brought it ashore and buried it and eventually a tree grew upon the grave from which a Buddha statue was carved. Another legend describes how king Indradyumna who had been chasing a dream to locate the powerful deity of Neelachal, meditated upon the Lord Narasimha and saw a tree arising out of the seas. A divine carpenter then crafted the Lord’s image for him.
The image however, remained incomplete as the carpenter, despite his instructions for being left alone with his tree, was disturbed before he could craft the body. The resultant idol is still worshipped in a mutant form.
Those opposing the entry of non-Hindus (read mostly Sanatani), are wrong. At the beginning of the Rath Yatra, the priests first carry out the idols from the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and place them upon three Raths. After this rituals that are actually a mix of mainstream Hindu, Buddhist and tribal traditions must be performed by men from all castes and sects who together pull the chariots with strong ropes to their destination, some two miles down the road, while the town resounds with sounds of priests and masses singing, dancing and chanting prayers and banging on gongs . The king of Orissa signals the movement of the Raths after he has swept the path with a broom as a humble sweeper.
There are other stories denying untouchability. Jagannatha’s wife Mahalakshmi according to one tale, discovered the greatest devotee of the Lord in an untouchable woman Sriya Chandaluni. The Goddess not only visited her home, she also departed from the usual Hindu caste taboos regarding food and ate Chandaluni’s offering with pleasure. Upon hearing of this, Balbhadra, Jagannatha’s elder brother, is said to have compelled the Lord to ban her entry into the sanctum sanctorum. An enraged Lakshmi is then said to have stomped off with all her wealth, edibles and priests (Sevakas), and got another temple built for herself.
Hungry and assetless within a temple abandoned by Lakshmi, the brothers first tried self cooking and failed. Then dressed as Brahmins they went begging but no one would serve them food. They then arrived hungry and humbled at Lakshmi’s door and were told this is the abode of a Chandal where food can be served only to those who vow not to practice untouchability. The promise was readily given. And to this day, during the Rath Yatra, before the sacred car moves, an untouchable must offer a coconut to the Lord. The King of the area on the other hand, turns a humble sweeper and sweeps the path of the Yatra with a broom before helping pull the chariot.
The Maha Prasad of the Lord (consisting of rice, Dal and vegetables), the Pandas inform you, must as per orders of the Lord, always be eaten off leaf plates within the premises of the temple. And people from all castes must sit together on the ground and eat it together.
Only such a Lord of the universe, Jagannath could have had a Muslim devotee like Salbeg. Legend has it, that Salbeg, the son of one Lalbeg, a 17th century Mughal Subedar at Cuttack and a Brahmin widow he had married. As a Muslim, Salbeg could not enter the temple so he took to composing and singing songs for Lord Jagannath. At each Rath Yatra he would stand outside the temple and sang soulfully to his Lord. They say the Rath paused before him each time. Even after four centuries, all three cars carrying Lord Jagannath, his sister Subhadra and brother Balraam, will still make a brief halt at the grave of the musical Murid