By Manoj Patnaik, ODISHA : He is an Oriya icon, a cult figure. He does the greatest road show on earth and has the best set of wheels. In a world of nouveau riche he is old money. And like all stars he has his antique mansion, an exclusive table and the pick of the girls aka the devadasis of Puri.
Jagga or Kalia is the affectionate sobriquet by which most of his fans know him though he is grandly christened Lord of the Universe. A people’s God, Jagannath was originally a tribal deity and was worshipped along with his siblings by the Sabaras.
The story of Lord Jagannath’s journey from the wilderness to civilization is the parable of every man. He is the quintessential Oriya hero who was co-opted to the cause and given an exclusive brand. But what is ironical is that it is the colour of your skin and your name matters when you want to look him up!
Perhaps his heart belongs in the wilds and all the ceremony and pomp of his existence has not kept him in or the people out. He is always sneaking out of his `castle’ and making inappropriate attachments. Jagannath mythology is replete with tales of the Lord’s inclination towards devotees who are barred from entering the temple. Moslems, lower castes, lepers, even prostitutes, love and are loved in return.
Thus the great car festival! For it is when they are on the road that the first family of Orissa truly belongs to the common man. Kings and priests take a back bench. In fact, the king cleans the cars while cleaners get to do the honours. The Daitapatis or non Brahmin servitors of Lord Jagannath claim to be his direct descendants. Ergo they grab the limelight and better still, the offerings during the event of the year.
And the siblings really know how to travel in style! Each of them gets a customized, hand crafted car with its own colours. The towering structures are pulled by deities. They are painstakingly built and dismantled every year. The pieces are then auctioned off to the faithful.
A bizarre side show to the car festival is the role of the Dahukas who let loose the choicest of expletives when the show is flagged off. This earthy custom has now been toned down much to the dismay of the aam admi. Apparently, it was meant to drum up enthusiasm to get the juggernauts rolling on the nine day jaunt.
Before the journey commences Jagannath & Balabhadra are chastened by their maternal grandfather. They are trussed in Bakul wood sent from his orchards in Sakhi Gopal. This is punishment for stealing ripe jackfruit and escaping after smearing gum in his hair!
A little display of spousal bickering has an envious Lakshmi jinx her consort Jagannath’s vehicle at the end of the first leg of the journey. The joy ride does not include her and she is no mood to be ignored. So she reaches the Gundicha Ghar post haste to fetch him back. When she fails to persuade him off she goes in a huff but womanlike she must nick his car. After all every wife worth her salt knows that there is no bigger rival for her affections in a man’s heart than his wheels.
The drama is repeated when the Lord returns home. She harangues him till she is pacified with sweets. Lord Jaganath is a gourmet and has a great palette. The variety and taste of delicacies offered to him are endless. He is also very chic and dresses up for every occasion. The seven days of the Rath yatra see him in a different avatar every day.
A piquant custom during the Bahuda or return car festival is the serving of Adhar Pana, a kind of mocktail, to the divinities. This is served in tall glasses that touch the lips of the deities and after they have had their fill the containers are smashed. The drink is supposed to pacify the ghosts who have accompanied the chariots in hope of salvation but are barred from entering the temple.
The Rath Yatra is all about humanizing & democratizing divinity. Jagannath brushes his teeth, bathes, eats, sleeps, romances, fights, sulks and makes up. He even falls ill. He has a love hate relationship with his spouse, siblings and devotees. The Jagannath cult is an intricate web of customs & rituals that extends to and encompasses mankind. And the festival is a spectacle that brings the Gods down to man.