As the home of Lord Jagannath and his siblings, PURI ranks among Hindu India’s most important sacred sites, visited by a vast number of pilgrims each year. The crowds peak during the monsoons for Rath Yatra, the famous “Car Festival”, when millions pour in to watch three giant, multicoloured chariots being drawn up the main thoroughfare. At the centre of the maelstrom, the Jagannath temple soars above the town’s medieval heart and colonial suburbs like some kind of misplaced space rocket. Non-Hindus aren’t allowed inside its bustling precincts, but don’t let this deter you; Puri’s streets and beach remain the focus of intense devotional activity year round, while its bazaars are crammed with collectable religious souvenirs associated with Lord Jagannath.
Three distinct types of visitor come to Puri: middle-class Bengalis lured by the combined pleasures of puja and promenade; young Western and Japanese backpackers enjoying the low-key traveller scene; and thousands of pilgrims, mainly from rural eastern India, who flock in to pay their respects to Lord Jagannath. Over the years the three have staked out their respective ends of town and stuck to them. It all makes for a rather bizarre and intoxicating atmosphere, where you can be transported from the intensity of Hindu India to the sea and back to the relative calm of your hotel veranda at the turn of a bicycle wheel.
Until the seventh and eighth centuries, Puri was little more than a provincial outpost along the coastal trade route linking eastern India with the south. Then, thanks to its association with the Hindu reformer Shankaracharya (Shankara), the town began to feature on the religious map. Shankara made Puri one of his four mathas, or centres for the practice of a radically new, and more ascetic form of Hinduism. Holy men from across the whole Subcontinent came here to debate the new philosophies – a tradition carried on in the town’s temple courtyards to this day. With the arrival of the Gangas at the beginning of the twelfth century, this religious and political importance was further consolidated. In 1135, Anantavarman Chodaganga founded the great temple in Puri, and dedicated it to Purushottama, one of the thousand names of Vishnu – an ambitious attempt to integrate the many feudal kingdoms recently conquered by the Gangas. Under the Gajapati dynasty in the fifteenth century Purushottama’s name changed to Jagannath (“Lord of the Universe”). Henceforth Vaishnavism and the devotional worship of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, was to hold sway as the predominant religious influence in the temple. Puri is nowadays one of the four most auspicious pilgrimage centres, or dhams, in India.
Western-style leisure tourism, centred on the town’s long sandy beach, is a comparatively new phenomenon. The British were the first to spot Puri’s potential as a resort. When they left, the Bengalis took over their bungalows, only to find themselves sharing the beach with an annual migration of young, chillum-smoking Westerners attracted to the town by its abundant hashish. Today, few vestiges of this era remain. Thanks to a concerted campaign by the municipality to clean up Puri’s image, the “scene” has dwindled to little more than a handful of cafés, and is a far cry from the swinging hippy paradise some still arrive here hoping to find.Read More
The Jagannath temple
The Jagannath temple
The mighty Jagannath temple in Puri is one of the four holy dhams, or “abodes of the divine”, drawing pilgrims, or yatris, here to spend three auspicious days and nights near Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity. The present temple structure, modelled on the older Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneswar, was erected at the start of the twelfth century by the Ganga ruler Anantavarman Chodaganga.
Despite the temple’s long-standing “caste no bar” rule, non-Hindu visitors are obliged to view proceedings from the flat roof of the Raghunandan Library, directly opposite the main gate. One of the librarians will show you up the stairs to the vantage point overlooking the East Gate. You should make a donation for this service – but don’t believe the big sums written in the ledger.
From the rooftop a fine view encompasses the immense deul, at 65m by far the loftiest building in the entire region. Archeologists have removed the white plaster from the tower to expose elaborate carving similar to that on the Lingaraj. Crowning the very top, a long scarlet pennant and the eight-spoked wheel (chakra) of Vishnu announce the presence of Lord Jagannath within.
The pyramidal roofs of the temples’ adjoining halls, or mandapas, rise in steps towards the tower. The one nearest the sanctuary, the jagamohana (Assembly Hall), is part of the original building, but the other two, the smaller nata mandir (Dance Hall) and the bhoga-mandapa (Hall of Offerings) nearest the entrance, were added in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These halls still see a lot of action during the day as worshippers file through for darshan, while late every night they become the venue for devotional music. Female and transvestite dancers (maharis and gotipuas) once performed episodes from Jayadev’s Gita Govinda, the much-loved story of the life of Krishna, for the amusement of Lord Jagannath and his siblings. Nowadays, piped songs have replaced the traditional theatre.
Outside the main building, at the left end of the walled compound surrounding the temple, are the kitchens. The food prepared here, known as mahaprashad, and blessed by Lord Jagannath, is said to be so pure that even a morsel taken from the mouth of a dog and fed to a brahmin by a Harijan (an “untouchable”) will cleanse the body of sin. Devotees mill around carrying pieces of broken pots full of dhal and rice; they can only offer food to the deity from an imperfect pot as Lord Jagannath is the only perfection in this world. Among the ten thousand or so daily recipients of the mahaprashad are the six thousand employees of the temple itself. These servants are divided into 96 hereditary and hierarchical orders known as chhatisha niyoga, and include the priests who minister to the needs of the deities (teeth cleaning, dressing, feeding, getting them ready for afternoon siesta, and so forth), as well as the teams of craftspeople who produce all the materials required for the daily round of rituals.
The Jagannath deities and Rath Yatra
The Jagannath deities and Rath Yatra
Stand on any street corner in Orissa and you’ll probably be able to spot at least one image of the black-faced Jagannath deity, with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra; each figure is legless, with undersized arms and prominent eyes. The origins of this peculiar symbol are shrouded in legend. One version relates that the image of Lord Jagannath looks the way it does because it was never actually finished. King Indramena, a ruler of ancient Orissa, once found the god Vishnu in the form of a tree stump washed up on Puri beach. He carried the lump of wood to the temple and, following instructions from Brahma, called the court carpenter Visvakarma to carve out the image. Visvakarma agreed – on condition that no one set eyes on the deity until it was completed. The king, however, unable to contain his excitement, peeped into the workshop; Visvakarma, spotting him, downed tools and cast a spell on the deity so that no one else could finish it.
The Jagannath deities are also the chief focus of Puri’s annual “Car Festival”, the Rath Yatra – just one episode in a long cycle of rituals that begins in the full moon phase of the Oriya month of Djesto (June & July). In the first of these, the Chandan Yatra, special replicas of the three temple deities, are taken to the Narendra Sagar where for 21 consecutive days they are smeared with chandan (sandalwood paste) and rowed around in a ceremonial, swan-shaped boat. At the end of this period, in a ceremony known as Snana Yatra, the three go for a dip in the tank, after which they head off for fifteen days of secluded preparation for Rath Yatra.
The Car Festival proper takes place during the full moon of the following month, Asadho (July & Aug). Lord Jagannath and his brother and sister are placed in their chariots and dragged by 4200 honoured devotees through the assembled multitudes to their summer home, the Gundicha Ghar (“Garden House”), 1.5km away. If you can find a secure vantage point and escape the crush, it’s an amazing sight. The immense chariots are draped with brightly coloured cloth and accompanied down Grand Road by elephants, the local raja (who sweeps the chariots as a gesture of humility and equality with all castes) and a cacophony of music and percussion. Each chariot has a different name and a different-coloured cover, and is built anew every year to rigid specifications laid down in the temple’s ancient manuals. Balabhadra’s rath, the green one, leads; Subhadra is next, in black; and lastly, in the thirteen-metre-tall chariot with eighteen wheels and a vivid red and yellow drape, sits Lord Jagannath himself. It takes eight hours or more to haul the raths to their resting place. After a nine-day holiday, the sequence is performed in reverse, and the three deities return to the temple to resume their normal lives.
Conventional wisdom has it that the procession commemorates Krishna’s journey from Gokhul to Mathura; historians cite the similarity between the raths and temple towers to claim it’s a hangover from the time when temples were made of wood. Whatever the reason for the Car Festival, its devotees take it very seriously indeed. Early travellers spoke of fanatics throwing themselves under the gigantic wheels as a short cut to eternal bliss (whence the English word “Juggernaut”, meaning an “irresistible, destructive force”). Contemporary enthusiasts are marginally more restrained, but like most mass gatherings in India, the whole event teeters at times on the brink of complete mayhem.