By - Shiva Narayan Singh (Journalist and News Editor of ‘Rashtradeep’ Cuttack)
Lord Jagannath of Puri in Orissa on the shore of Bay of Bengal is the reigning deity of Hindus in general and people of Orissa in particular. Yet, his appeal is not limited to any specific geographical, sectoral, cultural and national entity, rather it ascends to a universal level. This is why he is called ‘Jagannath” or the Lord of the Universe. Devotees from around the world cutting across nationalities, regions and religious beliefs throng with utmost devotion to have a glimpse of the lord who is the symbol of synthesis, unity and integration.
Jagannath cult is so old and mystic that one cannot say exactly when it originated. Various vedic literatures and mythologies sing the glory of Jagannath or Purusottam as the incarnation of Vishnu. From another research resources it has been amply proved that this cult existed even prior to vedic era. According to these sources Jagannath originally belonged to tribal ‘Sabara’ community and they used to worship him secretly. Later he was brought to Puri. He being the universal God belongs to all. Various sects like Vaishnab, Shaiba, Shakta, Ganapatya, Buddhist, Jain find semblance of their religious dogmas and symbols in Jagannath. Jagannath had also an ardent devotee in the form of Salbeg who was incidentally muslim by birth.
Lord Jagannath and his abode at Puri has been attracting many spiritual leaders representing various sects and religious communities. Adi Shankaracharya selected it to establish ‘Gobardhan Peeth’. He also composed ‘Jagannathastakam’ (Sanskrit hymn with eight stanzas). Other religious leaders and saints who came here and worshipped Jagannath were Madhwacharya, Nimbakacharya, Sayanacharya, Ramanuj, Ramanand, Tulasi Das, Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and local saints like Jagannath Das, Balaram Das, Achyutananda, Yasobant, Sishu Ananta and Jayadev. Various Mutts and Ashram founded by these saints at Puri are still in existence and are associated with Jagannath temple in some way or other.
According to mythological description King Indradyumna brought Jagannath from Sabar King Biswabasu and constructed the original temple which was later destroyed. Exactly when this original temple was built and destroyed is not known. Jajati Keshari also built a temple. The present 65 metre high temple was built by Chodagangadeb and Anangabhimadeb in 12th century. But the cult of Jagannath has been existing from pre-vedic age till now. In the present temple the presiding deity Jagannath is worshipped along with brother Balabhadra and Sister Subhadra in the sanctum sanctorum. The images have no legs, ears and nose. Only Jagannath and Balabhadra have two hands each bereft of wrists and fingers. The images are made of Neem wood and they are changed in every twelve years. There are many myths and folktales about these images. The imposing temple stands in a compound surrounded by a 20 feet high wall within which lie several smaller shrines. A traditional porch, sanctum sanctorum, hall of offerings and a pillared hall of dance form the rest of the temple.
Puri has been known by several names over the centuries such as Nilagiri, Niladri, Nilachal, Purusottam, Shankha Kshetra, Sri Kshetra, Jagannath Dham and Jagannath Puri.
Twelve important festivals are celebrated here. But the most important among them which has achieved international fame is Rath Yatra or Car Festival. This festival falls in the month of Asadha (corresponding to June-July). Jagannath alongwith brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra take an annual vacation to Gundicha Ghar, their aunt’s house. The deities undertake this journey in decorated chariots, this is why it is called ‘Rath Yatra’ or Car Festival. The three deities in separate chariots are pulled by devotees to the Gundicha temple on grand road. The names of the chariots are Nandighosa (45.6 feet high), Taladwaja (45 feet high) and Darpadalan (44.6 feet high) which are ascended by Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhdra respectively. The chariots are elaborately made and decorated in a riot of colours symbolizing the significance of each deity. Deities are brought from the temple to the chariots which are parked outside in a tradition which is called ‘Pahandi Bije’. The Gajapati king performs ‘Chhera Pahanra’ in which he has to sweep with a golden broom. Then only the chariots are pulled. The deities remain in Gundicha temple for seven days and return to the main temple in the same fashion. Thus ends the nine day long car festival. When this unique tradition of car festival started is not known. While the word ‘Rath’ finds mention in the Rig and Atharba Veda and the concept of Sun God ascending the chariot is linked to mythologies, still some researchers connect the car festival to Buddhist tradition.
The significance of the car festival is that lakhs of devotees get the opportunity to have a heart felt glimpse of their beloved deities. As if the deities come outside to mingle with the general public. The car festival has become so popular and it has assumed so much importance that it is no more limited to Puri only. Similar car festivals are being celebrated at different places in the country and in foreign countries too. Lord Jagannath’s worship is so closely associated with the sentiment of Oriya people that one can find Jagannath Temple car festival at almost every village and city of Orissa.
Lord Jagannath and his car festival symbolize synthesis, unity and integration. Though seated at Puri he is the Lord of universe and his sublime appeal is universal. All belong to him and he belongs to all. All are equal before his wide eyes.