The Jagannath Temple in India: Home to a Trio of Deities and Numerous Religious Festivals
The Jagannath Temple is an ancient temple located in Puri, a city in the state of Odisha on the eastern coast of India. This temple is dedicated to Jagannath, a Sanskrit name which may be translated as ‘Lord of the Universe’.
Jagannath has been described as “a collective representation of the Triad (Jagannath – Balabhadra – Subhadra)”. Thus, although the temple in Puri is known as the Jagannath Temple, it is a trio of deities that are worshipped there. Balabhadra and Subhadra were the siblings of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, the former being his older brother, whilst the latter his younger sister. In addition to these three main deities, there are a number of other deities, such as Sridevi and Bhudevi, who are worshipped in this temple as well.
The Construction of the Temple
The Jagannath Temple was built during the 12th century AD. Its construction began during the reign of Chodaganga, a king of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty, and was completed during the reign of his successor. Subsequently, the Jagannath Temple developed into an important center of pilgrimage.
Alternatively, in the legendary account of the temple’s construction, its foundation is attributed to a king of the Malava Kingdom (a kingdom mentioned in the Mahabharata) by the name of Indradyumna.
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According to this legend, Indradyumna was a devotee of Vishnu, and desired to meet his god face to face. One day, the king was informed about an incarnation of Vishnu as Nila Madhava. Therefore, Indradyumna sent priests to seek out this deity. They all returned to the king unsuccessful, except for a priest who was named Vidyapati. The story of how Vidyapati discovered the god’s whereabouts will be related in the next two paragraphs.
God Vishnu Bronze, 10th–11th century, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India. (CC BY 2.5)
Whilst Vidyapati was seeking Nila Madhava, his travels brought him to an area inhabited by a non-Aryan tribe known as the Savaras. He stayed with the tribe for some time, and was hosted by its chief, a man by the name of Visvavasu. He also married the chief’s daughter, Lalita, who would be instrumental in helping him locate Nila Madhava. During his stay with the Saravas, Vidyapati noticed that his father-in-law would go out each day around noon. When he returned, he smelled of sandalwood, camphor and musk. Vidyapati asked his wife about this, who revealed that her father went to worship Nila Madhava, despite being instructed by her father to keep it a secret.
Watercolor painting on paper of Indradyumna seated in a carriage. (Public Domain)
After hearing this explanation, Vidyapati requested Visvavasu repeatedly to see the god. Finally, Visvavasu relented, and, blind-folding the priest, took him to see Nila Madhava. Vidyapati secretly kept some mustard seeds in his cloth, and dropped them as he was walking. These seeds would later sprout, thus allowing Vidyapati to find his way back to Nila Madhava without the aid of his father-in-law. In the meantime, the god spoke to Visvavasu, telling him that he desired royal worship from Indradyumna. The tribal chief therefore felt cheated by Vidyapati, had him tied up, and locked him away in his house. As a result of Lalita’s pleas, however, Vidyapati was released and allowed to return to his king. The priest informed Indrayumna about his discovery, and the king eventually built a temple to the god (after a series of tribulations).
A sketch of the Jagannath temple dating back to 1815. (Public Domain)
The Temple Today
The present Jagannath Temple was built on a gigantic raised platform in the center of Puri, and is enclosed by a wall approximately 7 meters (22.97 feet) in height. There are four gates that allow access into the temple compound, each of them facing one of the four cardinal directions.
On the gate facing the east, there are stone images of two lions, and it is therefore called the Lion Gate. In a similar manner, the gates facing the north, south, and west are known as the Elephant Gate, the Horse Gate and the Tiger Gate respectively.
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There are four structures that make up the Jagannath Temple – the Vimana / Bada Deula (the sanctum sanctorum, which is surrounded by its own wall), the Jagamohan / Mukhasala (the porch), the Natamandir (the audience hall), and the Bhogamandap (the hall for residuary offerings).
The Singhadwara (the main entrance to the Jagannath Temple) in 1870 showing the Lion sculptures with the Aruna Stambha Pillar in the foreground. (Public Domain)
Festivals and Ceremonies at the Temple
Numerous religious festivals are celebrated at the Jagannath Temple throughout the year. One of the most famous festivals celebrated at this temple is perhaps the Ratha Yatra (known also as the Chariot Festival), which is held annually during the month of June or July. During the festival, the statues of Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra are taken out in a procession to Gundicha Temple, where they remain for nine days.
The statues are placed on huge chariots during this procession, and the English word ‘juggernaut’ is said to have its origins in the misconception that devotees of Jagannath are crushed under the wheels of the chariots during the festival.
The Rath Yatra in Puri in modern times showing the three chariots of the deities with the Temple in the background. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Another ceremony performed in the Jagannath Temple is the replacement of the old statues of the deities with new ones. Unlike most other sacred statues in Hindu temples, the statues of the Jagannath triad are made of wood. Unlike stone or metal idols, such statues do not last as long, and therefore have to be replaced every now and then. In the case of the statues in the Jagannath Temple, they are replaced once every 19 years.
An elaborate ceremony is carried out with the aim of transferring the gods from their old bodies to their new ones. At the end of the ceremony, the old statues are buried in the Koili Baikuntha, a graveyard for old statues located within the temple complex. The last time this ceremony was performed was in June 2015.
The backside of the Jagannath temple with the 'Koili Baikuntha' garden in the foreground. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Featured image: The Jagannath Temple in Puri. Photo source: Public Domain.
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Available at: http://jagannath.nic.in/?q=home