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Growing up, while reading English author Desmond Bagley’s last novel Juggernaut (pub 1985), one could not be but amazed at the huge eponymous rig, which, while moving a transformer, attains a symbolic role for the populace of Africa’s Nyala. Much later did I draw the connection between the English term and the Sanskrit word Jagannath, a title given to Krishna, meaning “lord of the world.” In fact the word Juggernaut was adapted from the Sanskrit in the mid-nineteenth century to connote a unstoppable metaphorical force.

Intrigued by the findings I took my first pilgrimage to the sea-side city of Puri – the home of Jagannath – an abstract representation of Krishna, or Vishnu – as a teenager. Over the years, I have fallen in love with the city, its innumerable wonders and the mysteries surrounding Jaganath, his Puri temple and the mammoth Rath Yatra that takes place every year and sees lakhs of pilgrims make their way to get an opportunity to pull the ropes of the holy chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra.

Millions of devotees throng to Puri each year for the annual Rath Yatra. (shreejagannatha.in/photo-gallery/ photo, used with permission)

Incidentally, Rath Yatra, which is held annually in Puri, Odisha, is considered to be the oldest chariot procession in the world – a journey that starts from the Jagannath Temple and ends at their aunt’s home, the Gundicha Mata Temple.

Jagannath Iconography

For those who have never been, the iconography and physical appearance of the triad of deities at the temple is in itself something amazing. In the temple, Jagannath stands with Balabhadra and Subhadra. Apart from the principal deities, Sudarshan Chakra, Madhava, Sridevi and Bhudevi are also worshipped on the principal platform.

Interestingly, Jagannath does not have any anthropomorphic aspect. It has not been designed to represent the image of a human being, and instead is represented by a massive square head, merging with the chest into one piece of wooden stump. The eyes are large and round while the hands are seemingly unfinished – as hypothesized in myths and legends.

The idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana Chakra are made of neem wood. Neem wood is chosen because as per the Bhavishya Purana it is the most auspicious wood the make idols of Vishnu.

Nabakalebara

The grandest celebration of Puri Jagannath, the Nabakalebara celebrates the rebirth of the deity and His transmigration from one body to another. The ritual takes place every 12-19 years.  It was first organised in 1575 A.D by Yaduvanshi Bhoi King Rama Indra Deva. During this festival the deities are carved from a special type of neem wood, known as daru bramha. The new wooden idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshan are welcomed to the temple in ritualistic celebration, while the old idols are buried in Koili Baikuntha in accordance with century-old Odia scriptures.

Interestingly, ahead of the carving, the logs are brought into the Temple at Puri and kept at the Nirman Gruha, hidden from public view for one month. Only the senior priests are allowed to partake in sculpting and the eldest priest performs the Ghata Paribartan (“the transfer of the Bramha”).

Snan Yatra and the Holy fever

In Jyaishtha, Jagannath dev celebrates Snan Yatra. The Lord and His siblings are decorated with floral crowns, covered from public view and bathed with a hundred and eight pots of water.

Once done, it is believed that the deities catch a cold. They retire from public view for fifteen days in order to recover. This period is called Anavasara. A day prior to the rath yatra, Netroutsav is performed by painting the eyes onto the freshly bathed bodies of the Lords.

The annual Festival of Chariots in Puri. (shreejagannatha.in/photo-gallery/ photo, used with permission)

The Chariots

A rath is built for each of the three deities ahead of the Rath Yatra festival. Each chariot houses one main deity along with nine others. Nine sages are also depicted on each chariot. The largest rath soaring at forty-five feet is the red and yellow chariot of Lord Jagannath. It is called Nandighosa and it alone takes two months to construct. The horses Shankha, Shveta, Balahaka and Haridasva have the honour of pulling the Lord’s chariot. Maruti, the Lord’s charioteer reins the horses. While Lord Jagannath’s chariot Nandigosha moves on 18 wheels, Taladwaja, the chariot of Lord Balarama, is set on 16 wheels. And, Goddess Subhadra’s Padmadhwaja has 14 wheels.

The Duty Of The King

Ahead of the commencement of the journey, the Gajapati (King) of Puri is supposed to sweep the floor with a golden broom – symbolic of the king being nothing but a mere servant of the God.

Following the journey, Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra stay at their aunt’s house for a week as it is believed that Goddess Laxmi, upset with her husband, Lord Jagannath for having left her behind has damaged his rath in anger.

The three Holy siblings embark on the Bahuda Yatra a week later and the yatra ends with the Niladri Bije, which marks the return of the deities into the Garbha-griha.

The Prasadam

Another very intriguing thing about the temple is the way the bhog is cooked. The prasad is cooked in 7 pots kept one over the other, but surprisingly, the food in the pot which is kept at the top gets cooked first. Also, every day the same amount of bhog is cooked in the temple but no food gets wasted and no devotees remain unfed.

For those visiting Puri, one thing they will notice is that the flag atop the temple always floats in the opposite direction of the wind – which defies scientific reasoning. Not only that, the chakra atop temple – 20 feet in height and weighing a top is visible from any corner of the city. And finally, prepared to be amazed by the fact that no birds or planes fly above the temple – a phenomenon which still remains a mystery.