Anish Gupta & Aaleya Giri

Vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya navani grhnati naro parani tatha sarirani vihaya jirnani anyani samyati navani dehi…

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. This philosophy of the Bhagvata Gita is the essence of the Nabakalebar Rath Yatra celebrations of Sri Jagannath temple at Puri.As Odisha is immersed in beholding this mystical experience, a few controversies have cropped up plaguing the religious sentiments of the devotees. The recent allegations of slip-ups in some rituals performed during Nabakalebar and links between ruling politicians and authoritative daitapatis (servitors) have caused a great fiasco. Though Brahma Paribartan was programmed to be held in the “wee hours” of June 16, it was performed in afternoon, igniting anger among people and political parties across Odisha. Suresh Mahapatra, the chief administrator of the temple, states that as the four daitapatis, assigned to perform Brahma Paribartan, prepared to enter the closed room to perform the ritual, daitapati Jay Krushna demanded that his aging father Kashinath Dasmohapatra would accompany them. On being opposed, a scuffle ensued which delayed the prime ritual. Threatened by the public resentment and political criticism, the Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) suspended the father-son duo.

Since Jay Krushna is the Puri District President of Biju Yuva Janata Dal, the incident has caused great embarrassment to the ruling BJD, which is in trouble now. The chief administrator further comments that they are probing the allegations that nearly 40 daitapatis struggled to enter the closed room, and would take stringent action against those who took cellphones inside the temple during the sacred ritual. They would also probe if anyone has recorded the secret ritual.

Last year another controversy happened when it was suggested that the devotees of Lord Jagannath would not be allowed to climb over the chariots during the procession. A clash between daitapatis and the police over permitting people to climb the chariots triggered the controversy in 2011, which intensified when an American national was allegedly beaten up by the temple police in 2012 and a distinguished Odissi dancer Illena Citaristi was allegedly humiliated by daitapatis the following year when she tried to move close to the deity. Shankaracharya, the chief of the decision-making body of the temple, was asked to advise the SJTA whether non-Hindus were allowed climb the chariots and touch the deities. Describing the practice as “Mahapap”, the Puri seer
recommended that except the designated daitapatis and temple administration officials no one can climb the chariots.

All these controversies have stirred our inquisitiveness to unravel the mystery which mesmerises the devotees and at the same time to question the autonomous power of the temple administration which often gives a myopic vision of Hinduism.Nabakalebar, which means new body, is an ancient ritual associated with Sri Jagannath. As the deities Sri Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshan are made of neem wood, the idols decay. Hence during this ritual, the idols are replaced by new ones. A year which has two Ashadha masa (month) is considered auspicious for conducting the ceremony. This generally happens every twelve to nineteen years. Preparations for the ceremony start in the month of Chaitra.

It is believed that during the first half of the 10th century, Mahashivagupta I Yayati, also identified to be the legendary Yayati Kesari of the Madala-Panji, discovered the Daru Brahma of Sri Sri Jagannatha. Nearly 145 years before his reign, Yavana King Raktabahu attacked Kalinga and destroyed Puri, the abode of Sri Sri Jagannatha. Protecting the deities from being defiled, the priests transported them to a secret place near Sonepur. Yayati took initiative to find out the deities and discovered three ruined Daru Brahmas under a tree in village Gapali. Since the idols had completely decayed, he decided to craft new Daru Brahmas. He found the sculptures and re-established the deities in the temple at Puri. Since then the ritual of Nabakalebara is being celebrated.

The deities are crafted from unique Neem wood known as Daru Bramha. After following an elaborate ritual, the Pati Mahapatra family, accompanied by daitapatis, Lenka, Maharanas, Brahmanas, Deulakaranas and police officers, leads the procession known as the Banajag Yatra to seek the divine blessings of Maa Mangala, who is believed to appear to them in their dreams revealing the location where they would find the holy tree.

The Daru Brahma from which the deity of Sri Jagannath is to be carved out should be darker than the trees which would be used for the deities of his siblings resembling their complexion. Having four principal branches, embodying four arms of Sri Narayana, is essential for the Daru Brahma for Sri Jagannath. The Daru Brahma should be close to a water body and a cremation ground. An ant-hill should be adjacent to the tree and at the roots of the tree, there must be a snake-pit of a cobra. There should not be any nest in the tree. No branches should be broken or cut. The Daru Brahma should be surrounded by three mountains or located near a three-way. No creepers should be grown on the tree. There must be Varuna, Sahada and Vilva trees nearby. There must be a hermitage and a temple of Lord Shiva in the vicinity. A natural impression of conch-shell and chakra on the tree trunk is a prerequisite.

When Daru Brahmas are located, they are brought to the temple in wooden carts and the new idols are carved by the Maharanas. The carving takes place within 21 days in a special enclosure inside the temple, known as Koili Baikuntha, near the north gate. Throughout this period while devadasis and temple musicians sing “Akhand Bhajan” outside Koili Baikuntha, shlokas from the Vedas are chanted continuously by Brahmin priests to prevent any sound of the crafting being transmitted outside.

Once the new deities are crafted, they are carried inside the inner sanctum of the temple and placed in front of the old deities with utmost confidentiality. No one is allowed inside except the three eldest daitapatis. Doing puja or offering food is prohibited during this period. The ceremony of the great transformation takes place three days before the Rath Yatra. On the midnight of Krishna Chaturdashi the Tattva Padartha is transferred from the old deity to the new in complete silence, and the transformation becomes complete. However while transferring the soul known as Brahma Paribartan, the three daitapatis are blindfolded: a piece of Lord Jagannath’s cloth is wrapped around their hands.

The new idols are then seated on the altar, the “Ratna-Singhasana”, while the old idols are carried to Koili Baikuntha and given samadhis in a sacred ceremony before dawn. It is believed since time immemorial that anybody who sees this ceremony, apart from the priests who perform it, will die.
The temple rituals then recommence and devotees are allowed inside the temple for Nabajoubana Darshan. On the third day, the new deities emerge from the temple for the Rath Yatra, which commemorates his annual visit to his birthplace, Gundicha Temple, and aunt’s home along with his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. The deities return to the main temple after spending nine days. The return journey of Puri Jagannath Ratha Jatra, known as Bahuda Jatra, befalls after nine days.

The deities travel in huge chariots which are constructed on the occasion of Akshay Tritiya every year. The chariots have spiritual significance. The chariot of Lord Jagannath is known as the Nandighosh or Chakradhvaja, which means tumultuous or a blissful sound. Balabhadra’s chariot is known as the Taladhvaja, which means powerful rhythm. Subhadra’s chariot is called the Padmadhvaja or Darpadalan meaning destroyer of pride. According to the Upanishads, the human body resembles a chariot which has to be driven by a Lord, our sarathi. Rath Yatra symbolises the journey from the material existence to the spiritual. The incomplete, imperfect figure of Sri Jagannath signifies the imperfections all around us.

When such divine and mystical phenomenon is to be experienced and realised, it is disheartening to see that the spiritual rituals are manipulated for personal or political gains. Every year Rath Yatra is needlessly given controversial hues on trivial issues. Some ignorant souls, in their attempt to protect and redefine Hinduism, present a narrow perception of it.

It is high time that our enlightened Hindu spiritual leaders intervened and saved this prestigious and ancient ritual from being defamed. Hinduism is all-encompassing, let’s celebrate it!

(Anish Gupta and Aaleya Giri teach Economics and English respectively at Delhi University. They can be reached at Views expressed here are personal.)


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