The most significant of Lord Jagannath’s many shrines in India is the one in Puri, which we have visited very recently.
Together with Badrinath, Dwarka and Rameshwaram, Puri is one of the Char Dhams, the four revered sites of Hinduism identified by Sri Adi Shankaracharya. While legends attribute its origin to divine influence, historians believe that it was built by emperor Anangabhimadeva III, of the Ganga dynasty in the 12th century.
In the temple, Jagannath (literally, Lord of the Universe), a form of Vishnu, is worshipped as part of a triad, along with his sister Subhadra and elder brother Balabhadra (also known as Balarama). Interestingly, the early epigraphic and literary sources, dating to 12th century, refer only to a unitary deity, Purushottama Jagannath, and not the triad. Sudarshana Chakra, a disc-like weapon used by Vishnu, is worshipped as the fourth deity in the sanctum.
The idols have a distinct form; they are decorated wooden stumps with large round eyes, stumps for arms, and with the conspicuous absence of legs. The images of Jagannath and Balabhadra are about 6 ft (1.8 m) tall, while Subhadra stands a little shorter at 5 ft. Sudarshana Chakra, approximately the same height as the two male deities, is red in colour. Here it is represented by a wooden pillar or which a chakra is carved, unlike its traditional representation as a metal disc. Neem wood, considered the most auspicious wood to make idols of Vishnu (Bhavishya Purana), is used to make all the four images.
A popular legend explains the distinct form of the idols in Jagannath Temple. During Satya Yuga, a few years after Krishna’s death, a group of tribals found a relic of Krishna that had survived the cremation fire. They enshrined the relic in a cave and worshipped it as Nilamadhava. The mighty king, Indradyumna learnt about the fabled Nilamadhava and wished to install the idol in a grand temple. Vidyapati, Indradyumna’s most trusted minister, was assigned the task of acquiring the idol.
Vidyapati realized that his task was difficult because the tribals were very secretive about their God, and decided to marry the tribal king’s daughter in order to gain his confidence. As a part of the dowry, he asked for a darshan of Nilamadhava. The tribal king reluctantly agreed to the request, and after the wedding a blindfolded Vidyapati was taken to Nilamadhava’s cave shrine. But the clever Vidyapati outwitted his father-in-law by leaving a trail of mustard seeds as he was taken to the shrine. After the rains, the seeds sprouted into a bright yellow trail of mustard flowers leading right up to the secret cave.
However, when king Indradyumna finally reached the cave, Nilamadhava had disappeared. The God did not approve of the trickery involved in the attempt to acquire him. After deep penance by Indradyumna, Nilamadhava appeared in his dream one night and told him to go to the nearby beach where he would find a log of wood with Vishnu’s symbols carved on it. The king was instructed to use this wood to make idols for his grand temple.
The king found the log, but to his utter dismay, in spite of every effort, the royal carpenters could not cut through the wood. Eventually, an old man arrived at the court and said that he could transform the log into images of the deity. In return, he asked to be left to work undisturbed in a closed room. The old man was none other than Vishwakarma, the divine architect.
Initially, the guards outside the room could hear the sounds of cutting and hammering on the wood. Suddenly one day there was silence. When the queen learnt of this, fearing the worst had befallen the old man, she got to the door opened to check on him. Inside, the queen found not any old man. On being disturbed, Vishwakarma disappeared without a word and all that was left behind were incomplete wooden stumps. And king Indradyumna enshrined the Gods in their unfinished form in this temple.
The wooden idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana are made every 12 years from the wood of the Neem tree and the old idols are cremated. The carpenters are said to be blindfolded when the idols are finally made and the mystical inner core (said to represent the soul) is transferred from the old body to the new one. The installation of the new idols is called Nabakalevara. The last one was held in 2015.
Apart from its religious significance within Hinduism, Jagannath Temple is noted for its magnificent architecture. The east-facing temple, built on an elevated platform, towers 65 m, that makes it the tallest surviving temple in Odisha. The temple compound is massive, covering an area of 37,161 sq m. The interior is protected from profane eyes by a massive stone wall 20 feet high. Within, rise about 120 temples dedicated to the various forms of Hindu Gods.
The temple is similar in plan to other Orissan style; a central complex of four structures which is surrounded by smaller shrines and two enclosures walls. The main group included, as elsewhere a rekha deul, a jagamohan with pyramidal roof, a natamandapa, and a bhogamandapa. These four structures stand in a line and are oriented to the east. Originally the rekha deul and jagamohan were so placed that the rays of the morning Sun could penetrate into the depths of the shrine through the eastern doorway of the assembly hall. These two buildings constitute the original building. The natamandapa and the bhogamandapa were added respectively in the late 13th and 15th century.
The two compound walls around the temple are Meghanada Pracira, the outer wall, and Kurma Pracira, the inner wall. The temple has entrance gates in all the four cardinal directions; the eastern gate is called Singha Dwara (lion gate), the southern gate is called Ashwa Dwara (horse gate), the western gate is called Vyaghra Dwara (tiger gate) and the northern gate is called Hathi Dwara (elephant gate).
The main entrance to the temple is through the eastern gate that is Singha Dwara. In front of it stands the Aruna Stambha, a 16-sided iron pillar dedicated to Aruna, charioteer of the Sun God. This almost 8 m high pillar stands on a carved 1.8 m high pedestal, and has a beautifully carved Aruna image on its top. The pillar, once a part of Konark temple complex, was installed here in the last quarter of the 18th century.
To the left of the Singha Dwara is a small water tank where devotees can wash their feet and hands before entering the temple. Crossing the Singha Dwara, 22 steps called baisi pahacha lead to the massive complex. On entering, there are the small temples of Shiva and Ganesha on either side. Further inside, are two outer rings of small shrines with the main temple in the middle.
The main temple stands on a huge raised platform that is believed to be the base of a small hill known as Nilagiri (or blue hill). The lowermost portion of the platform is decorated with friezes of elephants, horses, camels and processions of warriors, while the upper part is carved with scroll, floral, geometric designs, as well as processions of horses and elephants.
The main temple was once covered with a thick layer of lime plaster to protect it from erosion. The architectural and sculptural merits of the Purusottama-Jagannatha Temple were formerly difficult to estimate because it was covered with lime plaster by Narasimhadeva of Khurda in 1636-37. This earned it the title of the ‘White Pagoda’ amongst British and other foreign sailors. Fortunately, in 1975, the Archeological Survey of India undertook the conservation of the temple and is ensuring that it is intact.
The outer walls of Jagannath Temple as well as the many subsidiary shrines are adorned with beautiful sculptures of deities, scenes depicting their lives as well as floral patterns. The ten incarnations of Vishnu are represented on the upper jangha (outer wall), and stories from the life of Krishna can be seen along the lower jangha. One must take time out to admire these carvings. At the same time one must be aware of the monkeys hopping around the complex, ready to snatch your belongings.
The Deul consists of a tall shikhara housing the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), where the deities, Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra, along with Sudarshana are installed on a platform called ratnabedi (literally, the jeweled platform).
The shikhara is topped by an amalaka (a huge carved circular piece made of several dressed stone blocks with carved fluting making it look like an amalaka fruit) resting on the beki, a unique indigenous innovation of Odishan architects. On top of the amalaka is the nilachakra, the wheel of Vishnu, made up of ashtadhatu, an alloy of eight metals. On every ekadasi (eleventh day of the waxing moon) a lamp is lit on top of the temple near the wheel. The flag tied to the nilachakra is known as Patita Pavana. It is changed daily and considered as sacred as the deities in the sanctum sanctorum.
Like most major Vishnu temples, the entrance doors to the sanctum depict his two semi-divine guardians Jaya and Vijaya. The inner walls of the sanctum have three of Vishnu’s dasavtara – Narasimha, Vahmana and Varaha – carved on a wall each. In front of the sanctum is the audience hall, nata mandir, 21 m in length and 20 m wide. At the far end of the hall, in the line of vision of the ratnabedi, is the pillar called Garuda Stambha. This is the same pillar next to which Shri Chaitanya once stood in meditation looking at his God and one can still see, what is believed to be, the impression of his finger marks on it.
Next to the nata mandir, on the west, is the 18 m x 17 m hall called bhoga mandapa from where the main deities are offered food. It has a pyramidal roof, and sits on a richly-carved plinth. Its walls are adorned with sculptures and paintings depicting stories from Krishna’s life. A passage connects the bhoga mandapa with the kitchen complex so that offerings cooked in the kitchen may be brought here directly.
Of the many smaller temples in the complex, the most significant are the Ganesha Temple at the base of the Kalpavata, the banyan tree; Bimala Temple dedicated to the guardian deity of the temple complex, to the left of the main temple; and Lakshmi Temple, dedicated to the consort of Vishnu (Jagannath). The ancient Kalpavata tree is believed to have been standing at the same spot since Jagannath Temple complex was first built. Devotees believe it fulfills the desires of those seeking its blessings.
The main road in front of Jagannath Temple leading to Gundicha Temple, 3 kms away, is called Bada Danda, and is best known for the multitudes that gather here for the annual Rath Yatra. This wide road encompasses the pious-yet-recreational essence of Puri. It is crowded with kiosks selling flowers, incense sticks, coconuts, earthen lamps, as well as mahaprasad.
Further down the road there are colourful souvenir shops selling images of Gods and Goddesses, trinkets made of sea shells, appliqué crafts, beautiful silver filigree jewellery and ikat weaves. These shops come alive especially in the evenings.