Tonight is the great holy night of ‘Swapna Aadesh’ or the dream revealing the direction and location of the holy neem trees. ‘Banajaaga Jatra’ or the journey to search for the sacrosanct neem tres that will give body to the Lords of Puri started on Sunday, 29th March or Chaitra Shukla Dashami. Tradition has it that this journey must begin 65 days before ‘Deva Snan Purnima’. The intricacies and quaintness of this process are unprecedented in hindu culture. Intense with mysticism, faith, devotion, and folklore, this journey fascinates the mind of the devouts who wait with bated breath to know the location of the special ‘daarus’ or the trees that will encase the divine ‘brahma’. But why are the idols carved out of wood?
The special journey of ‘banajaaga jatra’ is led by the chief ‘daitapati’. ‘Daitapatis’ are the servitors of the Lord who are believed to have descended from ‘Vishwabasu’ the tribal or ‘sabara’ chieftain who worshipped a stone as ‘Nila Madhava’. This tale relates to the Satya Yuga and in Nila Madhava lies the tribal theory of origin of Lord Jagannath. There is no veracity to myths and this rendition here is exactly as I heard it from my grandmother and my aunts who were all ardent devotees of Lord Jagannath.
Legend has it that after Lord Krishna was killed by the arrow of the hunter Jaraa, the Pandava brothers and Jaraa tried to cremate the Lord’s body. However the Lord’s heart did not burn and was thrown into the sea. It transformed into a lustrous and luminescent object that floated and was noticed by a tribal king called Vishwabasu who on reaching it discovered a blue stone that radiated effulgence. Understanding that this was no ordinary stone, he took it with him and placing it in a cave called ‘Nila Kandara’ began to worship it secretly as ‘Nila Madhava’ or the blue god.
Meanwhile King Indradyumna of Malwa who was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu had a dream of Nila Madhava and was desperate to worship him. However he could not understand where he could see the Lord in the form of Nila Madhava and therefore sent out emissaries in all directions to look for him. One of his ministers called Vidyapati was sent to the east. In due course of the search, Vidyapati arrived in Odra desha. He took refuge in the house of the tribal chieftain Vishwabasu and tried to make secret enquiries about Nila Madhava. He noticed that Vishwabasu went out every morning for a few hours and after he returned he smelled of camphor, incense, sandalwood, and fragrant flowers. Vishwabasu had a beautiful daughter called Lalita. Vidyapati fell in love with Lalita and married her in due course. He then asked his wife about where her father went to every morning. Vishwabasu had sworn Lalita to secrecy about Nila Madhava and except for the father and daughter no one else knew about the Lord. Vidyapati however coaxed the secret out of his wife and influenced her to request her father to take him there. Vishwabasu was very sad and upset at the turn of events but had to heed to the request by his daughter and son-in-law. He placed a condition that Vidyapati would be blindfolded and taken to the sacred spot where he would be allowed to have a glimpse of the Lord. He would also be blindfolded on the return path. Vidyapati however took some mustard seeds and sprinkled them as they walked along. Vidyapati was enraptured on seeing the beautiful form of Nila Madhava. On his return from Nila Kandara he took leave of his wife and father-in-law telling them that he had some urgent work to attend to and left for Malwa. Meanwhile, Nila Madhava appeared in Vishwabasu’s dream and told him that he would now be leaving Nila Kandara to be worshipped elsewhere.
After the rains, the mustard seeds sprouted into saplings. Vidyapati returned to Odra desha with the king and his retinue. However on reaching Nila Kandara they found that Nila Madhava was missing. The king imprisoned Vishwabasu but that night the Lord revealed himself to the king in a dream and ordered him to free Vishwabasu. He further told the Lord that he would appear in the form of a log of wood in Purushottama Kshetra or Puri and that the king should build a temple for him there. An imposing temple was built in Puri and as it neared completion, the king received information that a log of wood with four branches had been washed ashore. The log was brought with homage, honour and paegentry and placed on the sacred pandal. Carpenters were then called in to carve it into an image of the Lord. However none of them were even able to make a dent in the log. The king became restless but that night the Lord again appeared in his dream and told him that he would himself get his image carved. The next morning a tottering old carpenter approached the king and told him that he would carve the images. It was Lord Vishwakarma in disguise. The old man’s only condition was that he should be left undisturbed inside a room until the work was complete and that he would not be requiring food or water. He requested that loud music be played outside the door of the room so that no one could hear any sound emanating from the room. The king agreed to the conditions.
The inquisitive queen would press her ears to the door and hear the faint knocking of wood being carved. The sounds grew fainter by the day. On the 21st day however she heard no sound. She panicked at the thought that the old man must have died due to lack of food and water. She implored the king to have the door opened and with much reluctance the king agreed. On opening the door they found that the old man had disappeared and in the room stood four incomplete idols. Everyone was stunned into inaction and wondered what to do with these unusual looking idols. However the king was divinely ordained in a dream to install the idols in the sanctum sanctorum and worship them as Balabhadra, Subhadra, Jagannath, and Sudarshan.
‘hari anant hari katha anant’. There are hundreds of small sub-tales and stories interwoven to the basic myth that I narrated above but then Lord Jagannath’s vastness and expansiveness is too huge and immeasurable to be put down in words. While He is real and reachable, he is also enigmatic and full of legends. This therefore is only the gist of stories that I heard over and over again in my childhood and growing up years (as I am sure almost every oriya child did) about the origin to the idols of the holy foursome being made of wood. An entire heritage woven around dreams , an entire cult that has so many myths. That dreams still remain a hugely significant part of the great ritual of Navakalebar to reflects an unshakeable belief and faith in the heritage that has been handed down, thus also making the cult of Jagannath a unifying factor in oriya culture and tradition.
The ‘Daitapatis’ therefore are the descendants of Vishwabasu and thereby looked upon as descendants of the Lord himself. They play the leading role in the ‘banajaaga jatra’ and will be the persons who will find the sacred trees. The group this time is led by the chief Daitapati Haladhar Dasmahapatra. The first leg of the jatra covers Puri to Kakatpur via Konarak. On Sunday, 29th March, after the Madhyan Bhog, the temple servitors gave the ‘aagyan mala’ or the sacred permission for the search to the ‘banajaaga jatra’ team by handing over four garlands from the four idols in the sanctum sanctorum. After receiving the ‘aagyan mala’ the team then proceeded from the ‘Singhadwar’ or the Lion’s Gate to the ‘Shri Nahar’ or the palace of the King of Puri, the ‘Gajapati Maharaj’. Here they took part in the ‘gua teka’ ceremony in which they received sanctified betel nuts (gua) from the Raj Purohit or the royal priest symbolizing the king’s entrustment of responsibility to the team for this divine search. From there the group went to the Jagannath Ballav Math for the night where some specific rituals were performed. On Monday evening they left the math and walked the marine drive from Puri tthrough Konark and finally to Kakatpur resting at various ashrams and temples on the way. Kakatpur is the sacred spot where the group will halt at the ‘Bada Deuli Math’ and await the Goddess Kakatpur Mangala’s ‘swapna aadesh’ or divine directions in a dream. Yesterday the group performed the ‘marjana’ or the ritual bath of the goddess and ‘yajna’ or the fire ritual. Tonight the servitors prostrate before the goddess and then await her directions in the Bada Deuli Math.
Which little village or hamlet hosts a divine tree is steeped in wonderment. A tree that will be catapulted to sanctity and sacredness as the first rays of dawn fall on it tomorrow morning. 19 years ago a tiny village called ‘Dadhi maachha gaadia’ near Khurda was the privileged host of Lord Jagannath’s ‘daaru’ (sacred neem tree) and I had the great fortune of going there to see the rituals over a few days. A generous servitor had doled out a few leaves of the sacred tree which had made me ecstatic. Wonder if I will have the fortune to go and have a darshan of a ‘daaru’ this time as well.
A full moon night, the moon having just emerged out of eclipse, signifying transformation and change. Change is the only constant and the ‘Navakalebar’ ritual is an exemplary metaphor of this ultimate truth.