Ratha Yatra (Oriya: ରଥଯାତ୍ରା) is a huge Hindu festival associated with Lord Jagannath held at Puri in the state of Orissa, India during the months of June or July. Most of the city’s society is based around the worship of Jagannath with the ancient temple being the fulcrum of the area. The festival commemorates Lord Jagannath’s annual visit to Gundicha mata’s temple via aunt’s home (Mausi Maa Temple which is near Balagandi Chaka in Puri).
Three richly decorated chariots, resembling temple structures, are pulled through the streets of Puri. This commemorates the annual journey of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balarama, and their sister Subhadra to their aunt’s temple, the Gundicha Temple which is situated at a distance of 2 km from their temple. This is the only day when devotees who are not allowed in the temple premises such as non-Hindus and foreigners, can get their glimpse of the deities. During the festival, devotees from all over the World go to Puri with an earnest desire to help pull Lords’ chariot with the help of other priests pulling the chariots with ropes. The huge processions accompanying the chariots play devotional songs with drums, tambourines, trumpets etc. Children line the streets through which the chariot will pass and add to the mass chorus. The Rath carts themselves are some approximately 45 feet (14 m) high and are pulled by the thousands of pilgrims who turn up for the event; the chariots are built a new each year only from a particular type of tree. Millions of devotees congregate at Puri for this annual event from all over the country and abroad. It is also broadcast live on many Indian and foreign television channels.
Myths and legends of the origin and emergence of Jagannath
The legends regarding the origin of Jagannath, which have been recorded in various sources such as Mahabharat of Sarala Dasa, Deula Tola of Nilambar Das, Skanda Purana, Brahma Purana, Narada Purana, Padma Purana, Kapila Samhita etc., suggest the tribal as well as Brahmanical links of the deity in the initial stages.
It should be noted that, despite repeated references to King Indradyumna in the Jagannath lore below, Indradyumna remains a legendary figure and his historicity cannot be established on any safe ground. Some have identified him with the Indradyumna of the Mahabharat and considered him to be quite an ancient figure of the early Vedic era. Drawing from poet Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharat, Indradyumna can be identified with Indraratha, the Somavamsi king of the tenth century AD. But identification of Indradyumna with Indraratha is at variance with the long-accepted tradition that Yayati I, the remote predecessor of Indraratha, built the Jagannath temple at Puri.
The following principal Puranic legends are associated with the emergence of Jagannath:
According to the legends, in the Satya yuga, Indradyumna was a Lunar Dynasty king of Somavamsa lineage. A traveling pilgrim came before Indradyumna and described the great God Nila Madhava (Blue Vishnu) being worshipped at Nilachal (Blue Mountain) in Odra (Orissa). The pilgrim disappeared after telling the story. At the king’s request, his priest and his younger brother Vidyapati went in search of the legendary divinity. Vidyapati reached the forest in Savardvipa on the banks of the river Mahanadi. The Savara king, Visvavasu, received Vidyapati and promised to show him Nila Madhava the next morning. Vidyapati did not touch food or water before seeing the Lord. Seeing the eagerness of Vidyapati, the Savara king had him bathed in Rohini-kunda and seated him under the kalpa tree. There Vidyapati saw Nila Madhava being worshipped by the Devas. Then Vidyapati returned to Avanti, the capital of King Indradyumna.
After listening to Vidyapati’s account, Indradyumna set out for Nila Madhava, along with the priest, Vidyapati, and his followers. But as it turned out, Nila Madhava had disappeared on the very day that Vidyapati had returned to Malava. Upon reaching the spot, they found the god missing and the entire area covered with the golden sand of the coast. The shocked king Indradyumna was apprised of the message of Brahma by Narada: that the King must worship the deity with one thousand asvamedha yajnas.
The divination of Nila Madhava went on:
“In this world I will not give you darshana in the form of Nila Madhava, but I will manifest in four forms: Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra, and Sudarshana chakra. Wait near Cakra tirtha, and a daru would come afloat. I will manifest in the form of a very large, fragrant, reddish log, and the signs of sankha, cakra. gada, and padma will be seen everywhere on that form. Go there. Take Me out and make four deities from that log. Then you will be able to worship Me.”
Upon receiving the devotion of the King, the Purusottama himself took the form of Visvakarma and secretly made the idols of daru (wood). Thereafter, Brahma himself established the holy idols on Vaishakha Sukla, on Pushya star.
The traditional version lacks historical support, as the identity of Nila Madhava remains unclear. For this reason, this traditional account of the emergence and origin of Jagannath worship remains a myth only. However, in the Orissa town of Kantilo, there is a temple dedicated to a deity named Nila Madhava, of uncertain genealogy.
The second legend is associated with the Vaishnava sect and narrates that Krishna appeared before a great devotee, King Indradyumna, and ordered him to carve a deity from a log which would eventually wash up on the shore at Puri. Upon finding the sacred log, Indradyumna searched for a craftsman to carve the idols. In due course, a mysterious old Brahmin carpenter appeared before Indradyumna and accepted the commission. In reality, this carpenter was the divine craftsman Visvakarma in disguise. The carpenter insisted that he not be disturbed while he was carving the image of the deity, and then began his work in complete isolation behind closed doors. The carpenter’s strict condition was that no one should enter into the temple premises while he was within.
Everyone was anxious about the divine work, including the King Indradyumna and the Queen. Every day they gathered outside the closed door, to listen to the sound of carving. During this time the carpenter never emerged. After a few days of waiting outside the room, all sound suddenly stopped. The impatient Queen, worried about the fate of the carpenter and assuming the worst, opened the doors. The Queen found the idols of the deity half-finished and the carpenter vanished. The divine condition of isolation had been breached, before the idols could receive arms or legs. So they have remained in that unfinished form to the present day.
According to the Skanda Purana, there was a divine prophesy that King Indradyumna would arrive at the Purushottam kshetra and desire to settle down there after renouncing Samsar. In the legend, Visvavasu led Vidyapati (brother of Indradyumna) across the steep heights of Neelachal mountain and showed him the Rohini-kunda and a kalpa tree to the east of the pond. Jagannath’s idol had once been established between the Rohini-kunda and the kalpa vat, where it was now hidden beneath a mound of sand. Tribhuneshwar then instructed Narada that Indradyumna should construct a magnificent temple of Jagannath at the same place.
Narada pointed out a tree that was unique in that it had only four branches on it. Indradyumna, following the instructions, ordered that the divine tree be uprooted and installed on the mahavedi inside the temple. When that was done, Lord Vishnu manifested himself on the altar as an old carpenter, Vishwakarma.
Here the legend begins to parallel the Vaishnava version above: Vishwakarma agrees to carve four idols for Indradyumna, on the condition that the door of the temple should be shut and nobody should try to enter the temple or disturb the carpenter until the idols were ready. Indradyumna promised to follow these conditions and Vishwakarma began his work. However, out of curiosity, the King (or in some versions, Queen Gundicha) could not help stealing a glance at Vishwakarma’s work. Vishwakarma, upset at the breach of promise, vanished without completing the idols. Thus, Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra are still represented with incomplete limbs.
Sarala Dasa Mahabharata version
Jagannath Theme in Pattachitra painting
According to Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata, the mortal remains of Krishna transformed into a wooden form and floated up to the Puri sea shore. Jara Savara, an aborigine, picked it and worshipped it. Subsequently, Indradyumna, the king of Somavamsa, had three wooden images made out of the log and established a grand temple for the images.
Origins of the Cult of Jagannath – alternate theories
In the Rgveda, verse 10.155.3, there is mention of a Daru (log of wood) floating in the ocean. Vedic prayers have indicated taking shelter in the Daru.
In spite of the fact that Acharya Sayana, the noted commentator on the Vedas, has categorically interpreted the hymn with Jagannath as the daru floating at the sea shores, some scholars have refuted this interpretation under the argument that the hymn deals with “Alaxmi Stava” of Arayi.
William Bruton, the first English traveler to visit Puri and to see the Jagannath temple, made a certain counter-factual observation in 1633 that the image of Jagannatha “is in shape like a serpent, with seven heads” and the holy pagoda is “the mirror of all wickedness and idolatry”. Thus, Jagannath became known to Europeans as a pagan divinity of monstrous form. To the Europeans, the iconography of Jagannatha remained a mystery from the time of Bruton’s visit until the 19th century. Bernier visited Puri in 1667 and left the first reliable description of the Car Festival, but failed to give any account of the image. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier later described in detail the priceless jewelry of Jagannatha, which however, he never saw.
With the more enlightened views of the 19th century, the problem of the iconography of Jagannath became a fascinating field for speculation. After the British occupation of Orissa in 1803, the temple and its priests received special treatment from the East India Company, which decided to protect the institution for economic and political reasons. Europeans were still excluded from the great sanctuary and even General Alexander Cunningham, one of the doyens of Indian archaeology, had a rather vague knowledge of the appearance of the Puri images, chiefly based, it seems, on secondary sources. The restrictions imposed on non-Hindus did not prevent a number of scholars from observing the strange rites at Puri, which included the suspension of caste-rules during the Car Festival, nor from drawing conclusions concerning the origins of the cult of Jagannath.
As noted by Jagannath cult researcher, O. M. Starza, since the complex rites of the Brahmins had given Christian scholars a low opinion of Hinduism, they endeavored to explain the enlightened features of the Jagannath cult by suggesting that it originated in the noble religion of the Buddha. It was thought, for instance, that the temple of Puri occupied almost certainly the site of an earlier Buddhist shrine, without any real evidence to support this view; while General Alexander Cunningham‘s suggestions that the figure of Jagannath was derived from the Buddhist symbol of the triratna (or taurine) was accepted even by such authorities as the Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy.
In the Bhilsa Topes monuments, Alexander Cunningham has identified the Jagannath triad as the Buddhist triad. Cunningham argues that the following two points are sufficient to conclude in favour of the Buddhist triad:
“the suspension of caste during the festival and the belief that the image contains the relics or bones of Krishna”. In support of second point he says that “(it) is also not at all Brahmanical, it is eminently characteristic of Buddhism.”
Cunningham asserts that the Brahma Padartha/Mani (Divine Life material) is nothing but a Buddhist relic (Buddha’s Tooth).
In the same line, noted writers like W. W. Hunter, A. Stirling, John Beames and N. K. Sahu in book A History of Orissa, Harekrushna Mahatab in his History of Orissa. and Mayadhar Mansingh in his The Saga of the Land of Jagannatha opine that it is a Buddhist triad.
In fact, there is no historical evidence of worship of Jagannath at Puri prior to the 10th century AD, when Yayati Kesari was the ruler. The Buddhist King Indirabhuti‘s Jnanasiddhi mentionsabout the place of Jagannath.Nilakantha Das has mentioned that the Sabaras were worshipping the image of Jagannath made of neem wood in a place called Sambal (Samal, now in Talcher of Angul District) in Oddiyana, the kingdom of Indrabhuti, which was even prior to the rule of Yayati Kesari -I. Indrabhuti has described Jagannath as Buddhist deity in Jnanasiddhi.
In the narrative by Indrabhuti, Jagannath was worshipped by the Savaras in one of the Budha Viharas. During the rule of King Sasanka and feudatory chief Madhav Raj-II, many anti-Buddhist campaigns were undertaken. Therefore, the Buddhist Jagannath was shifted before the arrival of Hieun-Tsang and destruction of the Puspagiri Vihar. In this period, Indrabhuti emerged as a worshipper of Jagannath in 717 AD. There are various opinions about the place where the image of Jagannath was lying buried. The Madala panji (The Temple Chronicles) identifies this place with the village Gopali of Sonepur district of Orissa. The Madala panji records a legend of King Yayati recovering the wooden images of Jagannath from the Sonepur region, where they lay buried for over 144 years. Thereafter, King Yayati reconstructed the wooden images from Sonepur forest tribes.
|“||Jagannatha, according to them is a generic term, not unique, as much as Lokanatha or Avalokiteswara. ln fact, the name Jagannatha could be applied to any Deity, which is considered supreme.||
The book Gyanasidhi written by Indrabhuti, as published from Baroda, has descriptions about Jagannath worshipped as Buddha.
Pranipatya jagannatham sarvajinabararcitam |
Sarvabuddhamayam siddhi – byapinam gaganopamam |
Sarvadam sarvasattwebhyah sarvajna vara vajrinam |
Bhaktyaham sarvabhaven kakshye tatsadhanam vajrinam |
“Jagannath is worshipped by the greatest Jainas, he is in the form the almighty Buddha, full of wisdom and compared to the sky. He offers everything to all the living beigs. He is omniscient and best among the Bajjajanis . I offer my solemn prayer to that Jagannatha with devotion and tell the way of his Sadhana“.[
Many of the ancient poets of Orissa have also explained Jagannath as the form of Buddha and worshipped as Baudhabatara (incarnation of The Buddha). Sarala Mahabharata:
ସଂସାର ଜନଙ୍କୁ ସେହୁ ତାରିବା ନିମନ୍ତେ
ବଉଦ୍ଧ ରୁପରେ ବିଜେ ଛନ୍ତି ଜଗନ୍ନାଥେ ॥
ବଉଦ୍ଧ ରୁପରେ କଳି କଳାନ୍ତକ ସାଧି
କୁଟାନ୍ତକ ଦର୍ପଗଞ୍ଜ ଅଟ କୃପାନିଧି ॥
saṁsāra janaṅku sēhu tāribā nimantē
bauddha ruparē bijē chanti jagannāthē
bauddha ruparē kaḷi kaḷāntaka sādhi
kuṭāntaka darpagañja aṭa kṛpānidhi
English translation: (unknown)
Sastha di sa antarena, pada je pani hela khina |
Baudharupa heba pain, padapani chadile tahi ||
ଠାକୁରେ ବୋଇଲେ ରାଜା ହୋଇଲୁ କି ବାଇ,
କଳିଜୁଗେ ବସିବୁ ବଉଦ୍ଧ ରୁପ ହୋଇ ॥ (Deuḷa toḷā, Oriya Bhagabata)
ସମୁଦ୍ରେ ମେଲିଣ ପ୍ରଭୁ ଦିଅ ଦେବରାଜା,
କଳିଜୁଗେ ପାଇବେ ସେ ଦାରୁରୁପେ ପୁଜା ॥
ṭhākurē bōilē rājā hōilu ki bāi
kaḷijugē basibu bauddha rupa hōi
samudrē mēliṇa prabhu dia dēbarājā
kaḷijugē pāibē sē dārurupē pujā
Sunya sanhita: Nija bansa gheni baudharupare nilachale achi rahi[
Tahun baudharupe bhagabana, rahile purusotama bhubana |
Baudharupe nilagiri mohi ||
The texts of the above prove that Jagannath was worshipped in Puri by the Oriyas as a form of Buddha from a long time. Jayadeva, in Gita govinda also has described Buddha as one among the Dasavatara. Indrabhuti, the ancient king of Sambalaka (present Sambalpur district) of Oddiyan used to worship and proved Jagannth as Buddha. This culture also influenced Buddhism in Nepal and Tibbet. That is how Buddhadeva is also worshipped as Jagannath in Nepal.
Anangavajja, the guru of Indrabhuti (Also described as Acharjya, Jogi, Jogiswara and Mahacharjya in the Tengur cannons). Pragyonpayabiniscayasidhi, written by Indrabhuti and published from Baroda also has description of Jagannath by Siddha Anangavajja.
Sada parahitascaiva carjayahkampyacetasa |
parjyupasyo jagannatho guruh sarvarthasidhida dah |
Polish Indologist Olgierd M. Starza has reviewed various theories on the tribal, Buddhist, Jain, or Vaishnav origins of Jagannath in The Jagannatha Temple at Puri: Its Architecture, Art And Cult, (1993) (page nos. 53-64) and has arrived at the conclusion that “…several early theories regarding the origin of Jagannatha have been refuted; only the tribal theory remains a possibility…” (page no. 72).
The factors responsible for the acceptance of tribal origin theories are as under:
- The structure and shape of Jagannath deity is commensurate to a pillar. The Savaras, the earliest tribal inhabitants of Orissa, were tree worshipers, and their rituals involved dancing and singing before the Kitung or Jaganata or God. It has been argued by some authors that when the Vedic Aryans migrated to Orissa, they adopted the local tribal tradition of Jaganata worship, and effected the transformation of the tribal wooden pillar Jaganata to aryanized Jagannath. In fact, among tribals of Vindhya region, tree or khamba (pillar or post) worship is prevalent.
- A deep association of a class of non-Brahmin, tribal origin servitors, called Daitas, exists with the worship of the Jagannath deities. These Daitas are the hereditary servitors of Jagannath. They are inextricably and exclusively connected with the funeral rites of Jagannath during the Nabakalevara (New embodiment/renewal) ritual and bear the sole responsibilities of Snana Yatra and Shri Gundicha Yatra. The instances of worship of Jagannath by Savara is also mentioned in Darubrahma Gita written by Jagannath Dasa in the 16th century CE and in Deula Tola written by Nilambara Das in the 17th century CE.
- The images of the Jagannath triad are built out of neem wood, as opposed to universal use of stone for construction of images of all brahminical Hindu deities.
- There is no caste distinction in the cult of Jagannath which is akin to the practices of tribals and significantly different from Vaishnavism.
These assumptions state Jagannath with a class of aborigines, called Savaras, the peculiar shape as a pillar and typical nature of the wooden icon of the deity and his associates, Balabhadra and Subhadra; many scholars have held that Jagannath has originally been a tribal deity of Savara origin.
Anncharlott Eschmann has pointed out that the Nabakalevara (New Embodiment) ritual is the ceremony of periodical renewal of the body of the deity, is a tribal custom. Such practices of renewal of wooden deity are found among the primitive tribes like Savaras and Khonds.
British historian William Wilson Hunter in the first volume on the British province of Orissa and the temple of Jagannath has remarked that the aboriginal people worshiped a Blue Stone inside dense forests as Nila Madhava. Hunter in Orissa: Volume I ascribed the blue (Nila) colour to the use of the common chlorite schist stone of Orissa hills in which all the ancient images of Orissa were being made. As per Hunter, the dravidian God, who was offered raw, uncooked food by the primitive tribes. Hunter hypothesized that with the passage of time, the Aryan elements assimilated Jagannath into fold of Hinduism where as per more sophisticated customs, Jagannath is being offered cooked food. The synthesis is clear even at present since worship methods of both these two folds (Tribal and Brahminical) coexist side by side at the Jagannath Temple, Puri.
Nilakantha Das in The Orissa Historical Review Journal, April 1958, opines that Savari Narayana of Madhya Pradesh (Dakshina Kosala), was brought to Puri from Phuljheur of Madhya Pradesh where a wooden deity was worshiped. This Narayana of the Savaras and became Jagannath.
Prof. B. C. Mazumder (ed), in the Typical Selections from Oriya Literature, 1921, maintains that Seori-Narayana has been located in the Bilaspur district of present Chhattisgarh state, which was then in the kingdom of Dakshin Kosala, where in the 7th century CE a line of rulers of Hinduized Savara origin, established its rule with Sivpur, in the north of Raipur. for its capital.
Verrier Elwin, anthropologist, ethnologist and tribal activist, in his book Religion of an Indian Tribe has narrated that:
“The god Jagannatha had appeared in Seori-Narayana and an old Savar used to worship him. The king of Orissa had built the great temple at Puri and wished to install Jagannatha in it, and he found a Brahmin to fetch it from Seori-Narayan, but nobody knew where it was except the old hermit, Savar. The Brahmin besought him in vain to be allowed to see the god and even went so far as to marry his daughter, and finally the old man consented to take him blindfolded to the place. The Brahmin, however, tied some mustard seeds on a corner of his cloth and made a hole in it so that they dropped out one by one on the way. After sometime they grew up and served to guide him to the spot. The Brahmin then went to the Seori-Narayana alone and begged the god to go to Puri. Jagannatha consented and assuming the form of a log of wood, floated down the Mahanadi to Puri, where he was taken out and placed in the temple.”
As per Elwin there is an alternative Savara legend, according to which there are three most important and prominent kittungs (Gods) – two brothers and a sister, Ramma, Bimma and Sitaboi. Ramma is always coupled with the brother Bimma. The legend maintains that it was from them that the Savara tribe was born. Such a set up has significant resemblance to the Jagannath triad.
The argument, that because there is no caste distinction inside the Jagannath temple, the images are of Buddhist descent, cannot be accepted on merit. Verrier Elwin has argued that:
“They (The Savars) have no caste feeling, and they do not excommunicate one of their members if he changes his religion. Most of them have no idea of untouchability and accept food even from the Douss (Douss are treated as inferiors).” (The Religion of an Indian Tribe)
Though Dr. Mayadhar Mansinha thought it (Jagannath triad) to be a Buddhist triad, in his other book History of Oriya Literature, he writes:
“Originally a god of the tribal Savaras, and adopted later successively by the Aryan faiths of Jainism, Buddhism, Tantricism and Vaishnavism, Jagannatha bears the indelible impress of each of these cults even today. The traditions and practices which centre in an around this famous temple are also still South Indian or Dravidian to a large extent.”
The theory that Jagannath triad is a Vaishnava cult has been ruled out as there is no semblance of Nila Madhaba in the present triad images, nor are three images on the same platform being worshiped by the Vaishnavites. Further, the Brahma Padartha (life substance) has been argued not to be Lord Krishna’s mortal remains, since puritanism in the Vaishnavism does not permit mortal remains to be inserted in a sacred image.
Further, the Buddhist relic, the tooth relic, cannot be the Brahma Padartha (life material), as the relic has been kept at Anuradhapur in Sri Lanka.
In connection to the possible tribal origins of the Jagannath cult, a pertinent point has been raised by Pandit Nilakantha Das in The Orissa Historical Review Journal, April 1958, whereby it has been argued that:
“Before Choraganga actually came to Orissa it appears from tradition that, Nilmadhava so much made of the Nihilists and perhaps accepted by the local Savaras, with whom also perhaps mixed up Uddas, has just been replaced by the image of the neem-wood, called Sawrinarayana. Chodaganga deba instead of disapproving the attempt seemed to take ready advantage of the incident, specially as his Hindu patriotism as well as the imperialistic outlook dictated him to make the powerful Savara element of his newly annexed land completely his own and consequently, the new god more liberal and universally popular among these Savara people as well as the Hindu public. Jaina or Buddhist worship and practice were also retained there in making the offering acceptable by all clans and castes with equal reverence.”
All the above facts and arguments point to a possible tribal origin of the Jagannath worship.
Tribal Narasimha origins
As per current predominant thought, Jagannath, embodies the metamorphosis of tribal god into a pre-eminent deity of the classical Hindu pantheon. The icon is carved out of wood (not stone or metal), and the tribes whose rituals and traditions were woven into his worship are still living as tribal and semi-tribal communities in the region. This tribal god may have taken a fairly circuitous route to his present pinnacle, via absorption of local shakti traditions and merger with the growing popularity of the Narasimha and Purushottam forms of Vishnu in the region in the medieval era.
As regards to archeological findings, Queen Vasata in the eighth century AD built the famous Lakshman temple built in brick at Sripur or Shreepur on the banks of river Mahanadi in present Mahasamund district. Sirpur or Shreepur was then the capital of Dakshin Kosala (Chhattisgarh region) kingdom. The Laxman temple is believed to have been built in the 8th century by Vasata, the daughter of King Suryavarma of Magadh. The temple plaque opens with a salutation to Purushottam, also titled Narasimha, suggesting a trend in Vaishnav tradition to stress the ugra (violent) aspect of Vishnu. This possibly culminates with Jagannath, widely revered as Purushottam until the end of the 13th century, which had close connections with Narasimha who became popular in Orissa in the post-Gupta period.
After Anantavarman Chodagangadev, who commissioned the temple at Puri, his chief queen, Kasturikamodini, built a temple in his homeland in Tekkali (present Andhra Pradesh), east of his first capital Kalinganagar, in 1150 CE. The temple was dedicated to the god Dadhivaman, and the inscription reveals that the image installed was of the wooden God, and not the famous Puri Trinity of Jagannath-Balabhadra-Subhadra. Scholars maintain that such fact means that Chodagangadev was a devotee of this god, and as the god’s name is preserved in Tekkali in this early period, it seems likely that “Dadhivaman” (or the tribal form of this Sanskritised name) was the original name of the wooden god.
As the original wooden god was a unitary figure, temples for the single deity continued to be built even after a Trinitarian image emerged at Puri. Even today there are 344 Dadhivaman temples in Orissa, which perpetuate the original state of the god. The Kondh continue to practice a ritual renewal of wooden posts.
There is also something striking about the figures constituting the Jagannath triad. Subhadra’s image consists of only a trunk and a head, but Jagannath and Balabhadra are larger, with a trunk, over-dimensional head, and arm stumps. But while the heads of Subhadra and Balabhadra are oval with almond-shaped eyes, Jagannath’s head is curiously flat on top and is dominated by enormous round eyes.
Scholars explain this in terms of Narasimha’s association with wooden posts representing tribal deities. In the Andhra village Jambulapadu (Anantapur), Narasimha Svami is worshipped as a pillar to which a sheet shaped in the form of a lion’s head is attached. This lion-head explains Jagannath’s large round eyes, typical of Narasimha on account of his fury (krodh). The head of the Jagannath image makes sense when perceived as a lion’s head, where the emphasis is on the jaws, rather than as a human head.
Facts regarding the origin and evolution of Jagannath
The following salient issues emerge from the discussion:
(i) The wooden deity is of very remote ancestry, but the exact lineage has not been established due to paucity of archeological and epigraphic evidences.
(ii) Both the terms Jagannath and Purushottama are descriptive epithets. These are derivatives of the description of the supreme Godhead as Purushottama in the Bhagavat Gita or Jagannath in Valmiki Ramayan.
(iii) All the rulers of the region had worshipped this deity as their own and had left marks of their own beliefs and rituals into the cult.
(iv) The present triad is a later innovation. Even the Vaishnavite legend of Indradyumna does not mention the triad. The single God may have become a triad because of the different religious outlook that the ruling powers were upholding. During the reign of emperor Kharavela, a single deity Kalinga Jina existed. No evidence or information exists about the pre-Kharavela period. Hence, it has been assumed that since at the time of emperor Kharavela, there was a single deity, the possible assumption of existence of a triad does not stand. The existing triad has been hypothesized alternatively as Vaishnavite trinity of Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra, Shaiva triad of Samkarsana Balaram as Shiva, Krishna and Ekanamsa, Buddhist triratna, or Savara triad of Ramma, Bimma and Sitaboi.
Transformation from unitary icon to triad
The Madala Panji observes that Neela Madhav transformed into Jagannath and was worshipped alone as a unitary figure, not as the part of a triad. It is significant to note that the epigraphic sources refer only to a unitary deity Purushottama Jagannath. These sources are silent on the existence of Balabhadra and Subhadra. Such state of affairs has led to arguments that Purushottama was the original deity and Balabhadra and Subhadra were subsequently drawn in as additions to a unitary figure and formed a triad.
As per scholars, Devi Subhadra could be subsequent addition upon the resurgence of Shaktism as the consort (“Not sister”) of Jagannath. At some point of time the figure of Lord Balabhadra may have been added to satisfy the Saivas to the existing couple Jagannath and Devi Subhadra. At this juncture, a major change had to be introduced into the relationship between the deities since as per traditional Oriya culture, the elder brother is not permitted even to see the face of younger brother’s spouse. Therefore, as a solution, the erstwhile consort (Shri) of Jagannath was relieved from dual images of Jagannath-Shri and Subhadra, the sister to both to deities was introduced.
In the 1970s, there was a joint German-Oriya attempt at a serious investigation to these issues. Its results have been published in the magum-opus The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa. In a note appearing in JRAS, 1981, pp. 26–39, as per noted historian, Dr. Hermann Kulke has tried of late to prove (with the academic help of Oriya scholars) that the Puri temple had been originally built by Ganga king Anantavarman Codaganga (1078-1147 AD) for Vishnu (Krisna) and Lakshmi and that Balarama was introduced there at about 1230 AD), during the reign of Anangabhima III [1211 – 1239 AD] after Devi Laksmi‘s transformation into Subhadra. This is because there is an Oriya convention, according to which the younger brother’s wife (i.e. Krishna’s wife Lakshmi) could not have lived in the same house with her husband’s older brother i.e. Balarama.
The discus Sudarshana chakra was also a subsequent addition to satisfy the Ganapatyas and Sauras. This could only have taken place over the process of Krishna consciousness was well advanced and given the political importance of the cult after Chodagangadev, only under a special royal impact.
Unique and enigmatic are the images of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarsan without any parallel in any Hindu shrine. They are not built according to the injunctions in traditional Shilpa Sastras (Iconography). In fact there is no foundation in traditional sculpture for the construction of image of Gods and Goddesses in wood. And thus the four-fold images of Daru-Brahma stand apart of all the other icons in the temples situated even in the precincts of the great temple.
All the hundred odd sub-ordinate deities all compare to traditional icons by and large, being anthropomorphic in form and built according to scriptural descriptions in stone so as to be eternal and immortal.
Yet the strange descriptions of Chaturdha Murti or four-fold deities is the centre of the Jagannath cult and has dominated Oriya life, art and culture and in the sense it synthesises all the major cults of India. It is not out of place to mention here that Neela Madhav in his primitive shape is now being worshipped on the hill-top Brahmadri or Brahmachala on the bank of river Mahanadi at Kantilo.
Assimilation and synthesis
Seemingly, the origin of Jagannath cult is aboriginal, tribal Savara. However, in course of time, the cult has taken an Aryanised form and various major faiths like Saivism, Saktism, Vaishnavism, Jainism, and Buddhism have been synthesised into this cult.
In the Puri temple, Jagannath is worshipped as Purusottama or Vishnu, Balabhadra as Lord Shiva and Devi Subhadra as Adyasakti Durga. Finally the fourth deity, Sudarsana Chakra symbolizes the wheel of Sun’s Chariot, which attracts the Sauras. The conglomerate of such attributions are called the Chaturdha Murty or the “Four-fold Form”.
Certain scholars like Pandit Nilakantha Das have opined that the three main images of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra represent the Jain Trinity of Samyak Jnana, Samyak Charita and Samyak Drusti. It is also believed that the soul of Jagannath, most secretly hidden within the image of Jagannath, is nothing but a Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. The philosophy of Tantra. which in course of time became an integral part of Buddhism, has also significantly influenced the rites and rituals of Jagannath temple.
Jagannath is also worshipped as “Purusottama” (“The Best of All”). Jagannath is worshipped along with Lord Balabhadra or Balarama who is alternatively considered to be an incarnation of Shesanaga Vasuki. According to some scholars, Subhadra, who is worshipped along with Jagannath, is the Goddess Durga. But some other Vaishnavite scholars regard her as the younger sister of Lord Krishna, because of the similar name.
To the right of Jagannath is the Sudarshana chakra, a post-like structure that may have originated in processional Siva lingas, but that also has some parallels in pillars seen in orthodox Vaishnava contexts, in folk settings, and in tribal areas. Author O.M. Starza (1993) provides information about the processional Siva lingas (p. 70), Vaishnava pillars (p. 97 ff.), modern folk parallels to the Sudarshana chakra (p. 102 ff.), and stakes or pillar-like icons in the tribal settings (p. 105 ff.).
On the other hand, the importance or role of Sudarshana chakra, the fourth deity remains unexplained. Such a combination of deities is unique in India iconography.
The Saiva element in the cult of Jagannath are co-related with the doctrine of Tantricism and Shakta Dharma. According to the Saivas, Jagannath is Bhairav. The tantric literary texts identify Jagannath with Mahabhairav. It will not be out of place to mention here that Jagannath sits on the Sri Yantra” and is worshipped in the Vijamantra ‘Klim’ which is also the Vijamantra of Kali or Shakti. The representation of Balaram as Sesanaga or Sankarsana bear testimony to the influence of Shaivism on the cult of Jagannath. It may be pointed out that the third deity, Devi Subhadra, who represents the Sakti element is still worshipped with the Bhubaneswari Mantra.
The tantric texts also point out the name of Jagannath and his worshipers. According to these texts, Jagannath is Maha Bhairav, and Goddess Vimala is the Shakti. The offerings of Jagannath becomes Mahaprasad only after it is re-offered to Goddess Vimala. Similarly, different tantric features of Yantras have been engraved on the Ratna vedi, where Jagannath, Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra are set up. The Kalika Purana depicts Jagannath as a Tantric deity.
In Vaishnav tradition, Lord Balabhadra is the elder brother, Jagannath is the younger brother, and Devi Subhadra is the youngest sister.
According to the Jain version, the image of Jagannath (Black colour) represents sunya, Subhadra symbolizes the creative energy and Balabhadra (White colour) represents the phenomenal universe. All these images have evolved from the Nila Madhava, the ancient Kalinga Jaina. “Sudarshana Chakra” is contended to be the Hindu name of the Dharma chakra of Jaina symbol. The term “Kaivalya” (“liberation”), exclusively common in the cult of Jagannath, is derived from Jaina tradition.
Jagannath has been depicted as the symbol of godhead in certain other belief systems and faiths as, under:
In Vaishnavism, the Jagannath form is worshiped as the abstract form of Krishna.
The follower of Shaiva Culture maintain that the original shape of Jagannath was in shape of a Linga. Deity Balabhadra is also named as “Shiva” and “Ananta Vasudev“.
The Shaktas claim that in tantra systems, Jagannath has been accepted as Bhairava and associate deity Vimala represents ‘Bhairavi’. Such a belief is reinforced by the ritual whereby only after offering of the ‘Jagannath Bhog’ at Goddess Vimala, it is considered as ‘Maha Prasad‘.
Followers of Buddhism pray Jagannath in mantra “Namoh Jagannath Buddhaya“. In their opinion, Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra represent the Buddha–Sangha–Dhamma triad. A section of Buddhists believes that the tooth relic of Buddha is kept inside the Jagannath idol at the navel circle. Buddists draw parallel in claiming that the Jagannath Rath-Yatra is like the of Rath Yatra for Buddha. The Buddhists also do not follow casteism in society, which is also followed in the Ananda Bazar of Jagannath.
Jains believe that the word “Jagannath” has been derived from the word “Jinanath”. The Jagannath idol resembles with the ancient Jain Idol. The ‘Baisi Pahacha’ (22 steps) leading to the temple has been constructed in the memory of 22 tirthankaras or Kevalins. Similarly, the offerings made to Jagannath is called ‘Kaivalya’.
Mythology of Jagannath
The conquest of Kanchi
One of the most popular legends associated with Jagannath is that of Kanchi Avijana (or “Conquest of Kanchi”), also termed as “Kanchi-Kaveri“. According to the legends, the daughter of the King of Kanchi was betrothed to the Gajapati of Puri. When the Kanchi King witnessed the Gajapati sweeping the area where the chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra were kept during Ratha yatra, the former considered that as an act unworthy of a King and declined the marriage proposal to the later. Gajapati Purushottam Deva, deeply insulted at the retraction and attacked the Kingdom of Kanchi, but was effectively repulsed.
Upon defeat, the Gajapati Purushottam Deva returned and prayed to Jagannath, the deity of land of Kalinga. Moved with the prayer, Jagannath and Balabhadra, left their places in the temple and started expedition to Kanchi on horseback, with Jagannath on a white horse and Balabhadra on a black horse. The legend has such a powerful impact on the Oriya culture that the simple mention of white horse-black horse brings the imagery of Kanchi conquest of the Lord.
On the road, Jagannath and Balabhadra grew thirsty and chanced upon a milkmaid Manika, who gave them butter-milk/yogurt to quench their thirst, and in return, Balabhadra gave her a ring. Later, Purushottam Deva himself passed by with his army. At Adipur near Chilika lake, milkmaid Manika obstructed the Gajapati pleading for the unpaid cost of yogurt consumed by Gajapati‘s two leading soldiers riding on black and white horses and produced the gold ring as evidence. Gajapati Purusottam Deva identified the ring as that of Jagannath and upon the divine support, enthusiastically led the expedition.
It was a war between the Jagannath-led power of Orissa with that of Ganesh-led army of Kanchi. Purushottam Deva won the war, brought the princess to Puri, and instructed his minister to get the princess Padmavati married with a sweeper. . Some writers opine that the Gajapati also brought images of Uchista Ganesh (Bhanda Ganesh or Kamada Ganesh) and enshrined them at the Jagannath Temple.
This myth has been recounted by Mohanty (1980, p. 7). Das (1982, p. 120) notes that this story is mentioned in a chronicle of the Jagannath Temple, Puri, in relation to Gajapati Purushottama. At any rate, the story was popular soon after Purushottama’s reign, as a text of the first half of the sixteenth century mentions a Kanchi Avijana scene in the Jagannath temple. There is currently a prominent relief in the jagamohana (prayer hall) of the Jagannath temple of Puri that depicts this scene.
In modern culture, Kanchi Abhijan is a major motif in Odissi dance..
In Oriya literature, the Kanchi conquest (Kanchi Kaveri) has significant bearing, in medieval as well as modern literature. The first Oriya drama written by Ramashankar Ray, the father of Oriya drama in 1880 is Kanchi Kaveri.
It has been asserted by researcher J. P. Das (1982, p. 120) that the historicity of this event is not certain.
However, the legendary Kanchi Kingdom has been identified as the historical Vijayanagar Kingdom. As per historical records, Gajapati Purushottam Deva‘s expedition towards Virupaksha Raya II‘s Kanchi (Vijayanagar) Kingdom started during 1476 with Govinda Bhanjha as Commander-in-chief. Gajapati Purushottam Deva invaded Thiruvannaamalai of Tiruvannamalai district after crossing river Kaveri.
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