The picture shows Hindu priests performing a ritual at the feet of three deities
The Rath Yatra statues of three deities, Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and their sister Subhadra (image courtesy: Umang Sharma)

Sala Bega and the Rath Yatra

Every year, in the lunar month of Ashadh (June-July), Odisha gears up for its most spectacular festival of the year. The Jagannath Rath Yatra,  the annual chariot festival in Puri,  is associated with the procession of mammoth wooden chariots carrying a trio of deities –  Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and their sister Subhadra.

Rath Yatra or the Chariot Festival is almost the lifeblood of the entire state.

The Rath Yatra processional leaves the Jagganath temple and makes its way to Gundicha Temple in front of thousands of congregating devotees. The trio of deities stays there for nine days before traveling back to the Shree Mandira.

Every year, the chariots roll down about 200 meters on Grand Road, and in the midst of the Hindu festivities, they make a symbolic stop in front of a Mazar (tomb). While this ritual may seem like a routine stop to many, the truth is far more fascinating, going back to the Mughal era, Lord Jagannath, and his famed Muslim bhakt, a man called Sala Bega.

The Story of Lord Jagannath and Sala Bega

In the 17th century,  Jahangir Quli Khan, also known as Lalbeg, was the Subedar of Bengal (1607-1608) during the reign of Mughal emperor Jahangir. During a military excursion in Odisha, he encountered a beautiful Brahmin lady returning from her bath. She was a widow, but Lalbeg, mesmerized by her beauty, apparently took her back to his home.

The two eventually fell in love and were blessed with a son they named Sala Bega.

Here’s where the legend takes an interesting turn. As soon as he was old enough, Sala Bega joined his father’s campaigns. Unfortunately, Lalbeg was killed in battle and Sala Bega was grievously injured. His mother, a devotee of Lord Jagannath, prayed for his survival and her son made a remarkable recovery. This miracle turned Sala Bega into an ardent devotee of Lord Jagannath.

Sala Bega becomes a Jagannath devotee

Sala Beha was drawn to Vishnu and learned about  Jagannath from his mother. His passion took him to Puri, but he was refused entry due to his Muslim faith. Undeterred, Sala Bega made a pilgrimage on foot to Vrindavan and lived the life of an ascetic in the company of sadhus. It’s said that he would recite bhajans honoring Krishna.

Yet, he longed for a darshan of Lord Jagannath. According to the legend, Sala Bega fell ill while on his return to Odisha to attend the Yatra. He prayed to Lord Jagannath to grant him a darshan.

The Rath Yatra had already begun its annual processional towards the Gundicha Temple, when inexplicably, the chariot came to a sudden halt in front of Sala Bega’s hut. It didn’t move. Only after the Muslim bhakt got his darshan, did the chariot roll on in its journey.

That first time, no one could explain what happened except to surmise that divine intervention orchestrated that moment of interfaith harmony.

A favorite child

The legend goes on to say that when the chariot made its unscripted stop in front of Sala Bega’s home, the King of Puri and the temple priest were worried.

Then, the head priest had a dream in which Lord Jagannath appeared to be waiting for his favorite child. It was a significant moment for Sala Bega. Following the incident, the temple priests performed all rituals on the chariot itself for seven days. At the end of the seventh day, Jagannath’s Muslim devotee arrived to seek a darshan. This time, nobody stopped Sala Bega from paying his respects to the Lord.

The picture shows the deity of Lord Jagganath at the temple in  Puri
The picture shows the deity of Lord Jagannath at the temple in Puri (image courtesy: Umang Sarma)

A great Odia poet

Today, Sala Bega is remembered as one of the greatest Odia religious poets of the early 17th century.

Though he was a Muslim by birth, his devotion to Lord Jagannath and the bhajans he wrote made him immortal in the canon of devotional music for a Hindu deity. His bhajans are still sung today, and his story is an inspiration to people of all faiths.

Every year, the chariot now makes a stop in front of Sala Bega’s Mazar. This simple act is a profound example of how unwavering faith between man and God can overcome the divisions of caste, creed, and religion.

Umang Sharma is a media professional, avid reader and film buff. He has worked as a journalist for over 12 years and is addicted to breaking news! He enjoys researching and writing about socio-political,...