Odisha has always been a land of divinity. It has always been inhabited by people who associate great respect and attachment to the divine. Since the beginning of time, it has accepted and gave refuge to multiple communities that have come to its doors with varied customs and religions. The plethora of beliefs have happily coexisted here, mixing and mingling together enriching the Odia culture.
There has been mention of Kalinga, the ancient name of Odisha even in the epic of Mahabharata. This land has been continuously inhabited and evolved with multiple forms of religion practiced here over different eras of time. From the unknown religious practices of the predominantly tribal culture during the pre-ancient era to rudimentary Hinduism, a raging Buddhism, Jainism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Tantrism, Vaishnavism of the ancient and pre-medieval era to the more recent Islam and Christianity of the medieval and modern era, Odisha has seen it all. Every religion has found honour and following in this land. The state is replete with cultures and heritages both tangible and intangible associated with each one of them throughout different phases of its history. Different great empires of Odisha gave huge patronages to one or the other religion which made them thrive and flourish on this soil.
Jagannath Puri (Image credits – http://instagram.com/naveen_odisha)
Inhabiting such a religious land, Odias have been naturally filial to all forms of deities and divinities from every religion that prevailed here. But among all the forms and practices if one tradition that has unanimously gripped the hearts and minds of the Odia race, it’s the all-encompassing Jagannath culture that has managed to bring every other tradition into one sublime fold. In Lord Jagannath’s legends, stories, systems, and practices one can trace the presence of all other religions. In the citadel of Jagannath culture at Puri, a true amalgamation of various religious paths is seen. Here the tribal culture is mixed with the Indic Brahmanical religions be it Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. There are even connections to Sikhism that were thought to be incorporated by the visit of Guru Nanak himself. The myriad daily rituals in the temple throughout the year and various festivals associated with Jagannath give a clear glimpse of the multiple religious orders that have merged into the cult.
Who is Lord Jagannath –
Lord Jagannath is the most popular presiding deity of Odisha. Jagannath is a Sanskrit term that is a mixture of two words, ‘Jagat’ meaning Universe and ‘Nath’ meaning Lord. Jagannath translates to ‘Lord of the Universe’ and very aptly so. The origin of this extraordinary deity who reigns the very consciousness of Odias and Hindus alike is also equally interesting as much as it is shrouded in mystery.
Jagannath (Image credits – http://instagram.com/nisha_p_a_t_e_l)
It is today known from various historical records, scriptures, and ancient manuscripts that Jagannath was a famous deity even in the ancient world who was known throughout the subcontinent. He is typically worshipped in a trio with his siblings in all His temples. But His main temple is the world-renowned ‘Srimandir’ in the eastern coastal temple town of Puri. Odisha has always been more famously identified as the Land of Jagannath.
Syncretic Jagannath cult –
Jagannath is a unique God who is variously identified by followers of various religious orders. First and foremost He is today widely popular as a form of Vishnu who resides in the temple with his consort Lakshmi. The Gaudiya Vaishnavites see Him as Krishna with his distinct black hue who is worshipped along with his siblings, elder brother Balarama and younger sister Subhadra. The Shaivites see him as Bhairava along with his consort Shakti as Devi Bimala. Balabhadra is also regarded as the white-skinned Shiva. The Followers of Shaktism see the Jagannath cult as the temple of Shri or Mahamaya or Adishakti. One of the four Adishakti paths in India is the Bimala temple inside the Puri Jagannath temple complex. Moreover, Devi Subhadra is a form of Shakti, widely considered the sister of Vishnu. The temple itself is also named ‘Sri’mandir after her. The Tantrik practitioners see him as a tantric God Kalabhairav who is worshipped along with Bimala, a form of Kali of their tradition.
Sibling triad, the presiding deities (Image credits – Google images)
The Buddhists worship Him as Jagannath, a concept of Shunya propounded in Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddhists believe the Neela Chakra atop the temple is a representation of the Dharma Chakra of Buddhism. The Jains see him as a form in their Nath tradition following the various Naths as their 24 Tirthankaras. Moreover the concept of Moksha, the ultimate salvation is called Kaivalya in the Jagannath cult, a term exactly similar to the Jain teachings. The Sikhs also consider Jagannath a manifestation of the Supreme. Reportedly hymns of Jagannath are a part of Guru Granth Sahib.
Jagannath most notably is considered an original tribal God who was transferred into the Hindu fold. The most popular origin theory establishes this fact. Various typical tribal rituals are followed in the temple to this day. This makes Him a tribal God too who is still revered by the tribals.
The mysterious Jagannath culture thus converges and unites every path into one. As famous historian Jadunath Sarkar once put it “The diverse religions of Odisha in all ages have tended to gravitate towards and finally merged into the Jagannath worship, at least in theory”. Thus the various influences on the Jagannath culture have shaped the cult in its present form and in turn it has helped shape the Odia identity of inclusivity and universalism.
Srimandir as the very centre of Jagannath cult –
Srimandir temple complex (Image credits – Google images)
Srimandir or Bada Deula is a huge temple complex in the town of Puri and the very heart of the Jagannath Cult. The unique temple complex is a congregation of many religious orders. Besides the main temple, the premise has hundreds of other temples dedicated to various Gods of other paths. Since the time of its inception, it has served as a centre for assembling scholars debating and discussing various social norms and practices that have helped shape the Odia culture. In a way, the temple had served as a cultural center of Odisha getting influenced by it and also influencing it.
The temple features a special area with a raised platform called Mukti Mandap where religious personalities from all over the country arrive for contributing their perspectives. Probably this was another reason for the Jagannath culture transforming into a melting pot of so many diverse ideologies not only prevalent in Odisha but from the entire geographical expanse of India. Every system, as opposing as they were from one another gradually merged into the cult.
The temple also features very elaborate distinctive rituals reminiscent of the different religious orders they have been taken from. First and foremost the chief deities are regarded as living Gods and undergo a daily lifestyle that a typical Odia householder follows. They dress up, eat meals, get entertained, go for walks and recreations, give audiences, sleep etc, just like any common person. These features are very different from the usual Hindu rituals followed in other temples of India. They make Him closer to the devotees creating oneness with them.
Nabakalebara sand art (Image credits – http://instagram.com/prasadprajesh)
The Gods of Srimandir undergo death and rebirth in a fixed cyclical manner every 12 to 19 years. The old idols are buried and new ones given life in a famous ultra-secretive ritual called Nabakalebara. This practice is a direct influence of the tribal culture. Along with Brahmins, a distinct tribal order called Daitapatis serves in the temple with exclusive rights of worship for a month each year during the world-famous Rath Yatra festival. This is a gross diversion from the Hindu faith but a beautiful intermingling of Brahmanical and tribal practices of Odisha.
The deities undergo different veshas or attires in which they are transformed into different Gods throughout the year. This is another attempt at showing the Jagannath triad is an all-pervading divine power. The temple follows the religious practices of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Tantric practices, all integral parts of Odisha’s history. Thus, no Odia is left out of the fold and everyone belonging to any community and identity group resonates with the Lord.
Mahaprasad (Image credits – http://instagram.com/dashlaxmipriya)
The temple food called Mahaprasad too is a very distinct feature of the Jagannath cult. It’s a very elaborate form of food comprising an array of both dry sweet and savory dishes as well as a detailed meal system with various rice dishes, dals, curries, salads, etc. Since the olden days, Mahaprasad has served as a repository of Odia food culture. Different dishes from different regions of Odisha find presence in the Mahaprasad. Even the age-old cooking techniques are preserved and still practiced by the temple cooks.
It is an established ruling that there would be no practice of racial and caste discrimination in the temple and most notably in the distribution of Mahaprasad among the devotees. This is another practice deviant from the established Hindu norms and binds the Odia race together as one before the omniscient Lord.
Ratha Yatra –
Rathas on the Grand Road (Image credits – Google images)
The most famous ritual of the Jagannath cult is the Ratha Yatra. Each year the deities come out of the temple to mingle with devotees and go on a vacation like any other person. Rituals associated with the Ratha Yatra too show an admixing of various practices contributing to the culture over the period.
Chhera Pahanra (Image credits – Google images)
There is a ritual of symbolic sweeping of the chariots called ‘Chhera Pahanra’ by the King of Puri as a mark of blurring of caste barriers. This symbolizes everybody is equal before the eyes of the Lord. During the Ratha Yatra, the idols can be touched and hugged by the devotees on the Grand road. These extraordinary practices make Jagannath the God the masses, the God of all Odias rather than a God enshrined in a temple.
Today Ratha Yatra is a global festival celebrated worldwide without any consideration of caste, color, creed, country, and ethnicity. Jagannath’s mass appeal stems from the fact that every religious and spiritual follower finds their presence in the cult.
Stories and Legends –
There are many stories both mythical and historical associated with the Jagannath cult. Every story is religiously followed and revered by Odias. If some stories just are a reflection of the Odia household life, others showcase the grandness of Jagannath in receiving the adulations of devotees from across a wide spectrum of class, status, and background. Hearing and feeling the legends have shaped the Odia consciousness to be more tolerant and accepting of the world around them.
There is an interesting story of even a Muslim devotee called Salabega who is considered one of Jagannath’s greatest followers. Even today, his tomb is at Puri’s Grand road and during Ratha Yatra, the chariot of Jagannath is halted near the tomb for a brief period to acknowledge his devotion.
Today the Jagannath culture has reached far and wide even way beyond the boundaries of not only Odisha but even the wider Indian subcontinent. Jagannath has been a symbol of unified religion and culture from time to time. It has merged different traditions into one great cult. It shows that different religions speak in different forms but ultimately merge into the one Supreme Being.
Odias thronging the Srimandir (Image credits – Google images)
For Odias, Jagannath is not a deity but an emotion, the very part of their lives. The Jagannath culture is a projection of the Odia culture and vice versa. Every Odia connects deeply with the Lord. Cutting across regions, religions, caste, and creed, an Odia devotes his every activity in His name. Still today any Odia ceremony is incomplete without involving Jagannath’s graces and blessings. Odias take inspiration and pride from the Jagannath culture. They learn their lifestyle from His stories. In a sense, Odia's history revolves around the Jagannath culture and is preserved by it as well. It truly is a magnet that binds Odias together and conserves the Odia way of life, teaching them the essence of acceptance and tolerance. The belief that Lord Jagannath watches overall and protects them is the greatest boon that every Odia inherits and would give anything to treasure.
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