PURI : THE LAND OF MYTHS, MIRACLES AND LEGENDS
As the gentle fragrance of Incense wafts along with the humid, slightly salty coastal breeze from the Bay of Bengal, the sound of prayers and shlokas (Verses) drift from myriad temples, filling the air with a very palpable religiosity. Amidst the hustle bustle of “Bada Danda,” the biggest market complex in the beautiful city of Puri, stands the “Shree Mandir,” popularly known as the Lord Jagannath temple. Besides the “Ratha Yatra,” the great chariot festival of the trinity, namely Lord Jagannath, his brother Bala Bhadra and their sister Subhadra, that attracts millions of pilgrims and tourists from various parts of the world, this huge architecture housing innumerable sacred Hindu Gods continues to occupy its pride of place, both geographically and in the hearts of countless devotees.
Almost everyone, who has either been to the city or read about it in books, knows about the history of the great temple, its rituals, and the various stories associated with the Lords. But there are countless other riveting legends associated with the great city that only the inhabitants can relate with great enthusiasm. Being a native of Puri, the land of unexplored myths and legends, I was always fascinated by the stories that my grandmother would tell me and my siblings during power cuts in the nights. We would all hear with rapt attention.
Among the very many lesser known legends, there is one that tells us about how Lord Jagannath, acquired his existence. The Skandha Purana, one of the most ancient books containing many Hindu Mythological episodes, reveals the origin of the Lord of the universe in a rather interesting story.
Hundreds and thousands of years ago, when Man and God walked the earth together, King Indradimna, the ruler of Puri, had a dream one night. He dreamed about a huge log of wood that had floated to the shore. As he woke up the next day, he gathered his soldiers and walked to the shore. A huge wooden log was indeed lying at the same place. The King instinctively knew that the dream was given to him by God. The log of wood meant that the Gods wanted the king to build an idol of the Lord of the universe out of it. But Alas! The king was after all a human being. To build the Lord’s idol was not in the capacity of an ordinary human but somebody with divine powers.
The king folded his hands and requested Lord Brahma to send somebody who could carve the idol out of the wood. Thus came Vishwakarma, the Lord revered as the “Principle Universal Architect”, in the guise of an eighty-year-old man. He imposed a condition that he would need a chamber to himself where he would work relentlessly for 21 days without food or water. He instructed that nobody should enter the chamber before the completion of 21 days. The King did as he was told. A chamber was given to Vishwakarma, while guards waited outside the closed doors.
It was only within 14 days when the guards informed the king that the sound of hammer was no longer heard from the chamber. The King rebuked the soldiers asking them to respect the conditions put forth by Vishwakarma. No one should open the chamber before 21 days. But the queen began to worry. She pleaded with the king to open the chamber doors, as she feared Vishwakarma dead. The king finally agreed, and as they burst it open, a disappointed Vishwakarma told the King and the Queen that he would no longer continue with his work as they could not fulfil his conditions. With these words, he disappeared. Thus the idols remained half finished.
As we know, the idols of the trinity do not have limbs. The hands are not complete. The story above is the legend behind it. As we siblings were awed by the story that our Grandmother related, she went on to explain the significance of it too. “Why do you think Lord Jagannath, Lord Bala Bhadra and Goddess Subhadra are still worshipped in that form? It is because there is still a sense of completeness in those incomplete figures. The Hands are half made, because it extends to infinity, warmly embracing anyone who comes their way. Their eyes are round because nobody knows the extent of their circumference. After all they watch the universe.”
There is another very striking feature about the Shree Mandir and its kitchen. Thousands of people flock to the temple to eat the “Maha Prasad”, the food touched by the Lord. Radhu Mishra, a resident of Raurkela, who frequents the Shree Mandir, says, “The way rice is cooked inside the Shree Kitchen is amazing. I have had a chance to visit the kitchen once myself. About 8 to 10 pots of uncooked rice with water are put one on top of the other. The stove is lit under the bottom most pot with all other pots tapering to the top. The stove is extinguished after a period of time. The rice contained in the top most pot is boiled to the same extent as the rice in the bottom most pot. I’m sure this is unprecedented, but quite true. ”
The architecture of the Lord’s temple is exquisite. One can see a huge metallic wheel, referred to as the Neela Chakra, the blue wheel. Its height is over 11 feet with a circumference of about 36 feet. The wheel is said to be Lord Vishnu’s most powerful weapon, Sudarshan Chakra. Attached to the wheel is a deep red and yellow flag about ten yards long that proudly flutters in the air. Another famous sight in Puri is the huge ‘Digabarini’ Pole on the sea shore. This humongous pole has a light mechanism at its top that guides lost boats and ships the shore. There is a legend connecting the two that almost every inhabitant of Puri knows about.
The 1999 super cyclone in Odisha had shaken the entire world. It was one of the deadliest Indian storms since 1971. The city of Puri was on the verge of submerging in the waters of the Bay of Bengal. There indeed was no hope. As Dr. Kalyani Mishra, one of the local residents, recalls that deadly night, “The city was enveloped in darkness for over three days. It was the fourth day of the storm when the raging sea waters completely drowned the sea shore and the waves advanced into the city, flooding the roads. I recall that night with absolute terror. We had started saying our prayers, as we knew there was no hope of survival. Suddenly, in the morning as we woke up, we received the news about the waves having retreated by a hundred meters. The rains had stopped. There was a crowd that had thronged on the streets. They talked about the huge yellow flag that had slipped from the Neela Chakra, flew all the way to the shore along with the air current and wrapped itself around the ‘Digabarini’ Pole. The flag was later taken down and tied to the Neela Chakra. We believe Lord Jagannath saved our lives.”
The Lords are revered with deep devotion but treated as humans at the same time. They are loved, pampered, fed and lulled to sleep with songs from the “Geet Govinda”, written and compiled by Jayadev, a profound Odia poet of the 14th century.
After every 12 years, the idols are buried and new idols built. It is a phase of “Naba Kalebara”, meaning a new body. Just as humans give up their earthly bodies after their term on the earth is over and go on to acquire a new body, so do the Lords. Until the new idols are built, the period is marked by grief. The people believe that the Lords have their life inside their “Naabh” meaning belly button. The new wood required to build the new idols is hard to find and follows many rules and regulations. For instance, the wood must be taken from a tree that has a huge ant hill at the base of it sheltering a black serpent. The tree must have no bird nests on its branches and so on. When the time comes for transferring the life from the Naabh of the old idols into the Nabbh of the new ones, the head priest of the temple, who conducts the ceremony, is blindfolded. The people there believe that the Lord’s Naabh emanates a blinding sacred blue light that must not be seen. The temple premises are shut and the electricity supply to the entire city is cut off for an hour, usually during the wee hours. The residents instantly know the reason and pray to the Gods.
The day following the “Naba Kalebara” sees myriad articles across almost all local newspapers, reporting on how the idol of Goddess Vimla, who is housed in a temple close to the Lords’ temple, has tears spewing out from her eyes. The source of the water is still a mystery and almost every resident of Puri has witnessed this event.
I would like to end this essay with one of the most beautiful yet unfortunately less observed features of the Lords’ idols. Sure, many devotees and pilgrims come to worship the Lords. Sure, the Brahmins in the temple strictly forbid the entry of people belonging to other religions. Yet, how many of us have noticed that the trinity defines brotherhood cutting across race and religion? Lord Jagannath, has a dark complexion, Lord Bala Bhadra, white and Godess Subhadra, a yellowish brown colour. The fact that they come together to be worshipped as brothers and sisters, irrespective of their skin colour, gives us a message of brotherhood that is often drowned out in the fanfare. A message that needs to be learned by all of us.
Long live Lord Jagannath.
NEEL KAMAL MISHRA
SOPHIA COLLEGE FOR WOMEN
referred to this link for the photos and for information: http://www.harekrsna.com/sun/features/04-08/features971.htm
picture credit: Sun correspondent