Bhubaneswar Buzz

Nabakalebara: A simpler interpretation of the divine (Part I) by Amrita Satpathy


There is a feverish anticipation (despite all the scandals) brewing up in my home state of Odisha for the much awaited event of the last two decades, “the Nabakalebara”. This is the second “Nabakalebara” in my lifetime. The first time it happened, I wasn’t even aware of the word. And perhaps so were you, maybe some of you don’t even know about it yet.

jagannath nabakalebara bhubaneswar buzz

In the pic. Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra depicted on a Pattachitra, a traditional painting form of Odisha
Well, I have already posted three recipes, and I think now is a good time to know about Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu and the raison d’être of Odiya Tourism. I’ m not joking. I hate to say it but this is the truth. If your acquaintance asks you about the state you hail from, you must not just say, “I am from Odisha” for you will be rewarded a questioning look. You must follow it by, “You know, Jagannath Dham, Puri”. And then see some recognition set in. However, with mixed feelings I can proclaim that many people (read foreigners) know more about Jagannath than the people of Odisha (and India).


Ok enough of dramatic lamentations. So what if you did not know about Lord Jagannath and the famous Nabakalebara (New Embodiment). You will get to know most of it by the end of this 3-part blog. By the way, I dedicate this blog to my 2 year son and my 65 year old father. This is more like Granpa’s gift to sonny boy. I am sure he will love to read it when he grows up. The way his face lights up when he sees the picture of Jagannath, my folks become sure about the process of rebirth. For what child could at the age of 14 months sing the flawlessly the lines:

“Jagannatha Swamy, Nayana Patha Gaami, Bhava Tume”
By the way, it would not be fair if I did not dedicate this blog to all the expats (enthusiastic Odiyas living elsewhere and within Odisha) and the non-Odiya (but interested) public in general. After all this blog is about Odiya culture and Jagannath is the supreme deity for Odiyas.


Let us then understand how Jagannath, based on whose name the word “Juggernaut” was coined, evolve. Frankly, I don’t understand why the English contorted the name of my Lord in this manner. We adore Jagannath as if he is a beloved member of our family. The first invitation card of a forthcoming marriage/any auspicious occasion is first sent to Lord Jagannath. Even before the nubile Odissi danseuse begins to showcase her art, she invokes the blessings of the lord Jagannath by doing a “Mangalacharan”.  And on Ratha Yatra day, lakhs of devotees assemble on the Bada Daanda (big road) in front of the centuries old Jagannath Temple, to pull the chariots of Jagannath and his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra. The mammoth chariots move at a very slow pace as the location gets charged with the cries of “Jai Jagannath”. Owing to the massiveness of the chariots and inertia of motion, sometimes they run over people. But common belief has it that “being run-over” is attaining Moksha and therefore out of the cycle of rebirth. Just like those pilgrims who go to Amarnath or to Mecca/Medina! Let us then begin from the beginnings:


The Chaar Dhams (4 holy abodes):


There are four supremely holy places which most Hindu pilgrims must visit at least once in their lifetime. They are the famous Char Dham of Badrinath, Dwaraka, Puri and Rameshwaram. These were established by Adi Guru Shankaracharya. Lord Vishnu is the aradhya devata (primarily worshiped deity) in these four pilgrim sites. In Badrinath (North), he is worshipped as Badrinarayana and in Dwaraka (West) he is known as Rannachhod (another name of Lord Krishna. In Rameswaram (South), people offer their prayers to Sri Rama and in Puri (East) he is known as Jagannath. Look closely and you will understand that by doing this, Shankaracharya wanted to integrate the Indian Peninsula. And what better medium than Religion!
In the Pic. The Jagannath Temple at Puri in the night


Adi Guru Shankaracharya was born in troubled times. Those were the darkest days of Hinduism, when the religion that had been misrepresented and had become too orthodox and in a way brutal for the common masses, was fragmenting into several other religions (Buddhism, Jainism, etc.). Shankaracharya waged a crusade against the Buddhist and Jain monks and breathed a new lease of life into the dying religion and encouraged those who had converted to return to the fold. He is the father of the Hindu Vedanta philosophy. In fact, most temples in Odisha have lions pouncing upon elephants near the entrance to the temples. This is symbolic of Hindu dharma’s victory ( represented by lion, Goddess Shakti’s mount) over Buddhism (symbolized by the elephant as a reference to Lord Buddha).


What differentiates Jagannath from the other three deities is that they are made of stone while Jagannath is made of wood. Any question of wear and tear is ruled out in case of the other three deities. However, in case of Jagannath and his siblings the wood has to be changed once in every 8, 12 or 19 years. This year the Nabakalebara is being held after a span of 19 years. The wood of the Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is specifically used for making the idols because wood from the other trees is prone to pests. However, that is not the case with the Neem Tree. The virtues of the Neem tree are extolled in Ayurvedic literature with each part of the tree being used for its medicinal properties. Just do a wiki search and you will know for yourself how it helps retard the growth of over 500 varieties of insects, mites, ticks and nematodes.


Banajaaga Jatra: The Search “Party”
When you are dealing with a deity, there has to be some folklore. Nabakalebara usually happens in the month of Ashadha (corresponding to June/July in the Gregorian calendar). In the years when Nabakalebara happens the month of Ashadha stretches to almost the beginning of August. The Banajaaga Jatra (Expedition in search for the holy tree) starts right after Maha Vishubha Sankranti (also the Odiya New Year). It is common knowledge that about 40-50 Daitapatis embark on the expedition. According to protocol, on the first day they halt at the Deuli Matha and leave at the first light of the dawn. Then they proceed to Mangala Mandir where they perform several incantations, lie down in the temple premises and observe a fast till the Goddess shows one of their chiefs, the direction of the holy trees.
It could be a myth or it could be a primitive way of market research. I will tell you why…
Thanks to the media, a best kept secret is now out of the bag. What was usually a covert operation has been publicized to the hilt. The general public never got an inkling of which tree would be “The One. The Daitapatis would secretly go on this mission, procure the trees and then let the world know. Many believe that the entire process is pre-planned because historically the trees have been sourced either from Undivided Cuttack district or Undivided Puri district. But never, ever beyond that.
Two important reasons come to my mind:
1. Proximity of these two locations to easily transport the wood to the temple premises
2. Cuttack and Puri were the business powerhouses during the golden days of Kalinga.
Here’s an explanation for the second point. Puri, owing to its location suited maritime activities. And Cuttack which was originally the capital of erstwhile Kalinga also hosted the centuries old famous maritime trade festival of Boita Bandana (also known as Bali Jatra). Odisha strategic location helped it trade with the various South East Asian countries viz. Bali, Java, Sumatra etc.)
Specifications of the Holy Trees:
All Neem Trees cannot be Holy trees. The have to pass through certain stringent tests to qualify. Some of the conditions are as follows:
1. No bird should have built its nest on the tree
2. There should be a ant hill/termite mound nearby
3. A cobra should be residing in that termite mound
4. People should not have cut the tree at any point of time
Interestingly, these seem quite logical and self explanatory. If there is an ant hill/termite mound nearby, it forms a perfect place for a snakes residence. Usually cobras reside in anthills. Now, people are generally afraid of snakes, so they won’t venture to cut the tree for fear of the snake. Usually, birds do not build their nests on trees where there are snakes nearby, for the fear of the snake eating the eggs/chicks. I told you all this was explanatory. By the way, I am not referring to those signs part of shankha, chakra, gada, padma because I find it akin to modern art and hence open to interpretations.
(P.S. I will continue on the topic of Origin of Jagannath, Brahma Parivartana, Assigning of Roles and Responsibilities to Sevayats in my next post. Keep watching this space for more! In case you have any queries, just put it in the comments below.)
Jai Jagannath!