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.