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Jagannath deities

Image Courtesy: http://www.jagannathtemplepuri.com


“Jai Jagannath!” (Long live Lord Jagannath!) – this is how the devotees in Puri greet each another. The word ‘Jagannath’ is derived from two words ‘Jagat’ and ‘Nath’ which combined together means ‘the Lord of the Universe’.


Jagannath Temple Puri

Image Courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jagannath_Temple,_Puri

Each region in India has its own favourite deity. Ganesha, his parents Shiva and Parvati, Vishnu and his divine consort Lakshmi, Saraswati, and the many avatars (forms) of the last five deities are among the most popular.

In Eastern India which largely worships Durga (avatar of Parvati), Jagannath – the presiding deity of Puri, is predominantly worshipped as the Supreme Divinity, especially in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). Jagannath is worshipped as Krishna (avatar of Vishnu) along with his elder brother, Balabhadra and younger sister, Subhadra. The holy trinity has been associated with intense religious fervour since medieval times.

Odisha is the land of Lord Jagannath. People in this state treat him as the eldest member of the family. All auspicious events are launched by first invoking his blessings. His synonym is Purusottam, so his abode Puri is known as Purusottam Kshetra.

Located 60 km from Odisha’s capital city of Bhubaneswar, on the eastern coast of India, Puri is also known as Jagannath Dham (seat of the Lord of the Universe), the oldest and most significant of Jagannath’s many shrines in the world. It is also one of the four holy Char Dhams (four sacred Hindu pilgrimage places) considered extremely auspicious to visit for Hindus, the other being Badrinath (in Uttarakhand), Dwarka (in Gujarat) and Rameswaram (in Tamil Nadu).

The Jagannath Temple, one of the finest specimens of ancient Kalinga style of temple architecture, was built atop its ruins in the 12th century by Kalinga ruler Anantavarman Chodaganga Dev. It was completed in its present form by King Ananga Bhima Deva in 1174. Over the centuries, the temple attracted numerous renowned religious teachers of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion, visited the temple in 1505. The “Lion of Punjab” Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the owner of the famous Kohinoor diamond, was so drawn towards this temple that he willed the Kohinoor diamond to it from his deathbed in 1839.

The temple is closed for non-Hindus. Yet, the cult of Jagannath invites the curiosity of scholars across the world. Its origin and evolution has remained a mystery and a widely studied subject. Even during the British colonial rule, the temple was given special consideration for both economic and political reasons. British historians were attracted by the temple whose worship practices had by then integrated diverse religious traditions of the region and grown into a huge phenomenon. And of course, the grand festival of Chariots –the world-famous Rath Yatra – introduced by the 12th century king of Kalinga on completion of the temple, which captured the imaginations of the likes of ancient international travellers and the 19th century British colonists, and continues to amaze till today.

Origins of the cult of Jagannath

Following the tradition of Vaishnavism, all Jagannath temples in the world worship the Lord as Krishna with his elder brother Balabhadra and younger sister Subhadra.

However, according to experts, the Jagannath cult has tribal origins. The earliest people of Odisha, the Savara tribe, worshipped logs of wood as their god. It is also said that aboriginals worshipped an image of their god Neel Madhava (the blue-coloured Vishnu) on blue stone. Moreover the Daitapatis, who have a fair share of responsibilities to perform rituals of the Jagannath Temple, are claimed to be descendants of the aboriginals or hill tribes of Odisha. The concept of Puri’s Jagannath and the image of the deity do not conform to ancient Hindu tradition. All Hindu deities are either carved in stone or metal, but the main deities of Puri’s Jagannath Temple are made of wood – of margosa (neem) tree. The neem tree is a medicinal plant and can last long.

The different faiths of Hinduism – Shaivism (Shiva is the Supreme Being), Shaktism (Goddess is Supreme Being) and Vaishnavism (Vishnu is the Supreme Being) have their own interpretations of Jagannath and worship the deities accordingly. So Jagannath is venerated as Vishnu, Krishna and Bhairava; Balabhadra as Shiva and Krishna’s brother Balarama; and Subhadra as Krishna’s sister and Vimala, the divine consort of Shiva and a manifestation of Durga and Lakshmi. The goddess is also regarded as the creator of kala (time). Jagannath is said to assume the form of any God to satisfy his devotee’s desire. A pillar-like structure, the Sudarshan Chakra, may have originated in processional Shiva lingas or in Vaishnavite tradition followed in tribal areas, but it also symbolizes the wheel of Sun’s Chariot. Not only Hinduism but even Buddhism and Jainism are connected with Jagannath. This fusion of diverse faiths makes the Jagannath Temple unique in Hinduism.

The worship is now identified more with the Vaishnavite tradition of Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra. The fourth major deity in the temple, Sudarshan Chakra (Celestial Wheel) validates the theory of Jagannath as an aspect of Krishna consciousness.

Jagannath is also called Darudevata – the wooden God or Daru Brahma. ‘Daru’ in Sanskrit, means wood or timber and Brahma means the all-pervading soul, the universal life force, the God of gods.

The Deities

jagannath deities

Image Courtesy: https://www.iskconbangalore.org

Inside the temple’s inner sanctum, the main trinity of deities are worshipped on a bejewelled platform (called Ratnadevi) along with four other deities – Sudarshan Chakra, Madhava and his consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi. The images of the trinity are carved and decorated wooden stumps having massive square heads with large eyes. Two additional stumps make for the arms of the deities, which are portrayed only till the waist. Depending on the season, they are adorned in all the finest clothing and jewellery.

The image of Jagannath is about six feet tall and predominantly black in colour with round eyes. Balabhadra is also about the same height and white in colour with oval-shaped eyes. Subhadra is about five feet tall and yellow in colour with oval-shaped eyes.  Sudarshan is red in colour and is represented by a wooden pillar on which a chakra is carved and clothed unlike the traditional representation as a metal discus. According to social anthropologists, these four colours represent the four races in the world.

Since the idols are made from wood, they’re subject to decay over time and need to be replaced. This is done once every eight to nineteen years. The ceremony of replacement of the images is known as Nava Kalevara or Naba Kalebara.


Nabakalebara, the periodical renewal of the wooden images of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshan symbolizes reincarnation with the creation of new images and destruction of the old ones. It takes place once every eight to nineteen years when the Hindu month of Ashadha is followed by another month of Ashadha. The last Nabakalebara ceremony was performed in June 2015. Prior to it was in 1996.

The four neem trees that would be used for making the new images of Jagannath and his siblings need to have certain qualities and must also bear holy symbols – shankha (conch shell), chakra (wheel), gada (mace) and padma (lotus).

The temple organizes a special team of more than one hundred sevayats (servitors) of Jagannath temple besides other support staff and government officials to search for the appropriate neem trees, locally known as Daru Brahma, in a procession called the Banajaga Yatra. The journey make take 15 days to 1.5 months. As per the long-standing tradition, they first worship Maa Mangala Temple at Kakatpur, around 50 km from Puri. It is said that the deity appears to them in their dreams revealing the location of the holy trees.  The tree for each of the four deities will be in a different place. After the four trees are ‘identified’, the team announces the place in an order. Thereafter, tight security is arranged by the state government at the location of the sacred trees. Jagannath’s tree is the last to be announced. The wood is chopped up at an auspicious time after performing prescribed rituals at the place.


Each of the four logs is separately brought to the temple by a wooden six wheeled cart. Starting at an auspicious hour with the fullest of secrecy the new images are carved by a special team of carpenters in a special enclosure inside the temple to the accompaniment of devotional songs and Vedic chants from outside.

Once the new images are ready, they are carried inside the temple’s inner sanctum and placed facing the old images. The most important ritual of Nabakalebara is Bramha Paribartan or the transfer of the divine soul of the deities from the wooden bodies of the old images to the new ones. This ritual is carried out in privacy by a very few superiors of the temple. The entire temple is emptied for the ritual except for the servitors. The gates of the temple are also closed. And all the lights of the temple are switched off. It is said that if anybody witnesses this ceremony, apart from the priests performing it, they will die.  The priest performing the ritual is blindfolded, and his hands and feet are wrapped in thick layers of cloth. After the ritual is complete, the new images are placed on their throne. The old images are taken to Koili Baikuntha in the temple and buried there in a sacred ceremony before dawn.

Thereafter, the temple rituals commence as normal. Thousands of devotees across the country throng the temple every day during this period to pay their respects to the Lord. During last year’s Nabakalebara (which was immediately followed by the Rath Yatra), more than 3 million devotees visited the temple making it one of the most visited festivals in the world.

The Temple

Temple Jagannath

Image Courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jagannath_Temple,_Puri


Bounded by a seven-metre high wall, the Jagannath temple complex is spread across an area of over 400,000 square feet in the heart of Puri city.

The main temple, built on a raised platform of stone, stands 65 metres tall with its top crowned with the most revered iconic symbol in the Jagannath cult – Neel Chakra (Blue Discus), the eight-spoked discus of Vishnu. It is distinct from the Sudarshan Chakra placed with the deities in the inner sanctum. The Neel Chakra symbolizes protection by Jagannath. It is made of Asta-dhatu (alloy of eight metals), 3.5 metres high with a circumference of about 11 metres. Above it, a flag – the Patitapaban Bana – swirls majestically dominating the city’s skyline. It’s a new one every day. The flags are changed at sunset (between 6pm-7pm) as per the tradition going on for over 800 years.

The temple complex has four gates facing the four directions. The east-facing gate, Simhadwara (Lion Gate) is the main gate to the temple with two stone statues of lions on either side of the entrance. The four logs of wood out of which the deities are made for Nabakalebara are also brought inside through this gate. The north, south and west facing gates are called Hastidwara (Elephant Gate), Ashwadwara (Horse Gate) and the Vyagharadwara (Tiger Gate) respectively.


In front of the main gate stands an eleven-metre tall monolithic pillar known as Aruna Stambha, dedicated to Aruna the charioteer of Surya, the Sun-god. It used to be part of the world-renowned Sun Temple in Konark till the last quarter of the 18th century, when worship had ceased in the temple and there was no presiding deity in it. The pillar was brought here by a Maratha sage in order to save it from Muslim invaders.

From the main gate, a flight of twenty-two steps leads to the temple’s inner courtyard. These twenty-two steps or Baisi Pahaca, are revered by devotees but their significance is not known.

Inside, to the left is the temple’s sprawling kitchen area where the Mahaprasad is prepared and to the right, the Ananda Bazaar, where the Mahaprasad is sold to the devotees.

Devotees have to circumambulate the main temple before entering it. There are some hundred smaller temples and shrines around the main temple. For a quick visit to the main temple, devotees have to first visit the three most important temples: Ganesha temple, Vimala temple and Lakshmi temple. The Ganesh temple is at the foot of Kalpavata, an ancient banyan tree which is said to fulfill the wishes of devotees. Ganesha is the Lord who destroys all obstacles.

The Vimala temple is one of the most important centres of Shakti worship (Shakti is the female principal of Hinduism and the main deity of the Shakta sect) in the country. The food offered to Jagannath is referred to as Prasad. It becomes Mahaprasad only after it is offered to the Goddess.

After visiting the Lakshmi temple, devotees can proceed towards the main temple which has four sectional structures: Garba Griha (Sanctum sanctorum), where the main trinity of deities are placed on the bejewelled throne – Ratnavedi; Mukhasala, the front porch; Bhoga Mandap (Offerings Hall), where offerings are made to the deities; and Nata Mandir (Audience Hall).

The temple opens every day at 5am with a Mangal Aarati (early morning prayer) after which more than 20 different rituals are performed till midnight. These rituals reflect the daily routine of bathing, brushing teeth, getting dressed and eating. When rituals are going on, devotees have to take a glimpse of the deities from the Mukhsala. Unlike at other renowned temples, devotees are allowed to go right up to the deities and circumambulate them. This happens for free, during Sahana Mela or public darshan which starts after the end of Abakasha Pooja which is held between 7am-8am. But during Parimanik Darshan or special darshan, they have to pay 50 rupees. Parimanik Darshan is after the Dhup Pooja at around 10am, 1pm and 8pm. At all other times, devotees can view the deities at a distance from the Mukhsala for free.

There are many Mandaps (or pillared halls on raised platforms) within the temple precincts for religious congregations.  The prominent ones are: Mukti Mandap, the seat for the most learned scholars of the state who meet here to take important decisions related to rituals of the temple; Dol Mandap, which houses a beautifully carved stone arch used for constructing a swing for the annual Dol Yatra festival; and Snana Bedi, a rectangular stone platform where the annual bathing ritual of the wooden deities takes place.

There are two water tanks within the temple enclosure: Rohini Kunda, whose water is strewn on devotees for purification; and Jalakrida Mandapa, where all ceremonial bathing of the deities is conducted.

A unique temple is the Kuttam Chandi temple which is strongly influenced by the Shakti cult (Goddess is the Supreme Being). The goddess here has a human head and the body of a dog.

For devotees interested in learning more about Jagannath, there is a small museum called Niladri Vihar.

Being an important pilgrimage place, tight security is maintained at the temple. Cameras and mobiles are not allowed inside. A safekeeping facility is provided near the main entrance to deposit these along with leather items and other belongings.


Entering the temple from the main gate, to the left is the temple’s sprawling kitchen complex of around 44,000 square feet.  This is where Jagannath’s Mahaprasad (temple food offering) is prepared and offered to the Lord six times a day, the most awaited being at around 1pm. The Mahaprasad is a very elaborate affair with 56 varieties of dishes made in the course of the day. These consist of rice, dal (pulses), vegetables and sweets. The food is pure vegetarian without onions and garlic. It is cooked in accordance with prescribed procedures and is offered first to Jagannath and then to Devi Vimala after which it becomes Mahaprasad.

It is said of Char Dham that Lord Vishnu bathes as Rameswaram, gets dressed and anointed at Dwarka, meditates at Badrinath and dines at Puri. Hence a great deal of importance is given to the Mahaprasad here. It is treated as Anna Brahma (Anna means food and Brahma means the all-pervading soul, the universal life force, the God of gods.) By permitting his devotees to partake his Mahaprasad of 56 items offered to him, the Lord redeems them and blesses them with spiritual advancement.

Thousands of devotees gather for the Mahaprasad on auspicious occasions. The temple’s kitchen is said to be the largest in the world. As per tradition, it is supervised by Mahalakshmi, the divine consort of Vishnu. It has a daily capacity of cooking for 100,000 devotees within 2-3 hours. The process of preparation is hygienic. Food is cooked only in earthen pots and on firewood only. The earthen pots are kept on each other and cooked on firewood. In this process the contents in the top pot get cooked first and then the bottom one. Furthermore, the pots provide amazing heat retention and food stored in them stays piping hot for 4-5 hours.

Around 700 temple cooks are employed in preparing the Mahaprasad. All members of the kitchen staff begin their training at the age of 12, and serve for life or till they become old to continue their duties. Fruits, vegetables and even spices are used following a set standard which has remained constant over the past centuries. Only locally grown spices are used. Around 40-50 quintals of rice and 20 quintals of dal are used daily. On an average, food is prepared for 20,000 people but on special occasions the number crosses 50,000.

Mahaprasad is offered every day except during the 21 days preceding the annual Rath Yatra festival. After visiting the main temple, devotees proceed to Ananda Bazar, the market area where Mahaprasad and other offerings made to the deities are available for sale. It is located to the right within the kitchen enclosure.

Ananda Bazaar is popularly called the biggest open-air eatery in the world, where every day thousands of devotees purchase (at a cheap rate) and eat together irrespective of their caste, creed and status. Most of the residents in and around Puri depend upon this Mahaprasad to entertain their guests during social functions such as threading and weddings. It is considered very auspicious to have Mahaprasad in the temple. Still, it can also be packed. And there are numerous sweet stalls selling dry Mahaprasad which is popular with tourists to carry home as it can last for some days.

Since non-Hindus are forbidden to enter the temple, they can partake in the Mahaprasad through the priest associated with their hotels. Every hotel in Puri has one or more associate priest called ‘panda’. Non-Hindus can also view the temple from the terrace of the nearby Raghunandan Library. It is said that the reason behind forbidding their entry is that the temple is the holy seat of Jagannath and of immense significance. It is a place of worship where devotees spend some time with the god they believe in and not a sightseeing attraction. However, Buddhist and Jain groups of Indian origin are allowed inside the temple compound. Past attacks on the temple by Muslims are also cited as one of the reasons. The temple, considered the richest in eastern India, was plundered more than 15 times between the 14th and 18th centuries, forcing the priests to shift the deity.

The ban on their entry did not stop British archaeologist and historians from pursuing their interest in the temple and its rituals. The annual Rath Yatra festival gave them the opportunity to view the deities as they were brought out from the temple premises and were carried in richly-decorated wooden chariots to be pulled through the streets of Puri in a massive ceremonial procession.

Rath Yatra

Rath yatra

Image Courtesy: https://www.iskconbangalore.org

One of the most popular and significant festivals of the Jagannatha Temple of Puri is its annual Rath Yatra, the country’s only Hindu festival in which the images of the deities are taken out of the temple.

The Rath Yatra is a ten-day chariot festival commemorating the annual visit of Jagannath to his birthplace, Gundicha Temple, and to his maternal aunt’s place, Mausi Maa temple, along with his elder brother Balabhadra and younger sister Subhadra. On his journey, he is also accompanied by the celestial wheel, Sudarshan Chakra.

Every year, during the Hindu month of Aashaadha, the images are carried in towering temple-design raths (chariots) around the city’s main street Bada Danda in what is Odisha’s biggest and most iconic festival. They travel 3km to the Gundicha Temple and remain there for seven days before returning via the Mausi Ma temple in the same manner. The grand raths are specially made each year for the deities and are pulled by devotees for the entire distance. These huge chariots are approximately 45 feet high and it takes about two months to construct them.

Construction of the raths always commences on the auspicious day of Akshaya Tritiya  (in April or May). This year it was on 9th of May. The temple’s Chandan Yatra (Sandalwood Journey), a 42-day festival begins on this day too.

The logs of wood (of specified trees) for the chariots are provided free of cost by the state government. Over 4000 pieces of wood are required to make the chariots. These are delivered to the temple on the day of the Hindu spring festival, Vasant Panchami  (in January or February), also the birthday of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. This year it fell on 12th of February. The cutting of the logs to the required sizes starts on Ram Navami (in March or April), the birthday of Lord Rama. This year it fell on 15th of April.

Hundreds of artisans are involved in the detailed work of the chariots, which follows a strict deadline. It’s a labour of love for all of them: carpenters, artists, painters, tailors, helpers, etc. A specialist team of carpenters have hereditary rights and privileges for its construction. The craftsmen don’t follow any written instructions. Instead, all the knowledge is handed down from generation to generation. A great deal of care and attention goes into decorating and painting the chariots as per the unique scheme prescribed and followed for centuries. The canopies of the chariots are covered in approximately 1,250 metres of intricately embroidered yellow, red, blue and black cloth. Tailors are involved in the dressing of the chariot including cushions for the deities to rest on. Pattachitras and applique work are used in a big way. Once complete, pulling the giant chariots is not an easy task.  Several test runs are carried out before the grand day.

Snana Yatra is one of the most important rituals before the Rath Yatra. It takes place on Purnima (Full Moon Day) of Jyeshta month. This year it falls on 20th June.

snana yatra

Image Courtesy: https://www.iskconbangalore.org

The three deities are brought out of the inner sanctum to the stone platform, Snana Bedi, where they are given a ceremonial bath. After this ritual, the three deities are taken to a secret altar in the temple where they remain for the next 15 days, away from public view. They are looked after by the Daitapatis, who are tribal descendants and play a major role in all the temple rituals. No food offerings are made to the deities during this period. The visiting devotees pay obeisance to the images of the deities on cloth painting called Pattachitra especially made for this purpose and placed on the Ratnavedi. The first glimpse of the deities can be had when they are placed on the Ratnavedi on Amavasya (New Moon Day) of Jyestha month. This year it falls on 4th July, and the Rath Yatra on 6th of July.

The deities are carried to their respective chariots to the accompaniment of devotional songs with drums, tambourines, trumpets etc. Household articles and personal effects (including toothbrush) of the deities accompany them in their chariots.

After the deities are settled in their respective chariots, the Gajapati King of Puri arrives in an elaborately decorated palanquin and climbs the chariots one by one for ceremonial sweeping of their floors with a gold-handled broom. This ritual is called Chhera Pahara. He sweeps the road before the chariots and sprinkles it with sandalwood water. As per this centuries-old tradition, although the Gajapati King has been considered the most exalted person in the Kalinga kingdom, he still renders the menial service to Jagannath. There is no distinction between a powerful King and the most humble devotee. All are of equal status in front of the Lord and are his humble servants. This ritual is held on two days, on the first day of the Ratha Yatra, and again, on the last day of the festival, when the deities are ceremoniously brought back to the Jagannath temple.

Puri Ratha Yatra

Image Courtesy: https://www.iskconbangalore.org

After elaborate rituals, the grand chariots (or cars) begin their grand journey to the Gundicha temple amidst a vast sea of humanity and to the accompaniment of devotional music. Along with priests, thousands of devotees take turns in pulling the ropes that carry the chariots ahead. There is no discrimination of caste, colour, sex or religion and everyone is allowed to pull the chariots of the deities. It is believed that the chariots, the rope, the wheels all become one with Jagannath, and by touching them during the procession, one achieves salvation. Because of this, devotees risk their lives while trying to pull the grand wheels of the chariots in the immense crowd. The chariots are heavy and take an enormous effort to pull. They start and stop. But sometimes they become difficult to stop.

Extreme enthusiasm and excitement fills the city atmosphere with religious spirit that can only be felt but not described. Thousand so devotees line the street to get a glimpse of the gods in their chariots which is considered very auspicious. It’s a world-famous event that draws lakhs of devotees from all over the country and across the world too. After a week-long stay at Gundicha temple, the deities board their chariots on the 9th day for the return journey home. The return journey is called Bahuda Yatra. On the way back, the deities stop at the Mausi Maa temple for Poda Pitha, a traditional Odiya rice pancake, said to be the favourite sweet of Jagannath. This year the Bahuda Yatra falls on 14th of July. After their return, the deities are covered in gold and offered a nourishing drink before being placed back on their throne. This year, the deities reoccupy their throne on 18h of July. Thus ends the Rath Yatra, the grand festival of the Chariots. After performing some rituals, the chariots are dismantled and used as firewood in the temple kitchen.

The Rath Yatra is the only occasion when non-Hindu devotees, who aren’t allowed inside the temple, can get their glimpse of the deities. The first European description of this festival appeared early in the 14th century. Much later, when the British colonists came to Puri early in the 19th century and saw the Ratha Yatra for the first time, they were amazed at the size of both the chariots and the procession. They introduced the word “Jagannath” to refer to anything that was massive in scale as the Lord’s chariot. This is how the word “Juggernaut” appeared in English language.

Every year, Indian tour operators organize the Puri Rath Yatra Festival Tour which attracts a large number of tourists from India and abroad. The festival is also broadcast live on many television channels and websites. Around a million pilgrims flock to this colourful annual event.


The Jagannath temple of Puri is not just an architectural marvel, but the embodiment of faith of millions of devotees. The city of Puri thrives upon this faith. That is why it has a lively and festive atmosphere throughout the year.


The nearby hamlets are heritage villages, home to numerous artisans and craftsmen producing a large variety of exquisite handicrafts which are not only souvenir items but are also used in the worship of Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe.

Read: The Heritage Crafts Village of Raghurajpur in Odisha

For more on the Jagannath Temple of Puri and its festivals, visit the official website of Shree Jagannath Temple of Puri: http://jagannath.nic.in