I have been a distant and dispassionate observer of local, national, and international events. Unless there is some aspect that grossly affects lives of people, I refrain from commenting or posting about these events on open media platforms. However, my experience of the Nabakalebara of Shree Jagannath is different. Shree Jagannath is an inseparable part of our cultural identity as Odias. The common people, or the bureaucrats,or the who’s who of the state, or the diplomats who visit Odisha are all deeply connected to the Jagannath temple at Puri and to the deities. For the common Odia people, their lives, their time, and their work revolve around Shree Jagannath temple’s rituals. The Panji (almanac) and the Mukti Mandap of Shree Jagannath define the movement of the life of the people of Odisha. There is something strongly native and deeply folkloric about the festivals of Shree Jagannath temple; the folkloric character being so strong that not many outside Odisha understand the nature of these rituals. The Nabakalebara is one such event. This year I got to witness in the span of my own life the Nabakalebara of Shree Jagannath for the second time. Instead of using my office and my official identity or seeking favour from the high and mighty in Odisha, I chose to explore and observe the event myself and look at it from the perspective of the common people of Odisha.
The aspect that I am writing about today does not come directly under my academic purview. I consider the observation that I am sharing in this post, as a part of my ethical and moral responsibility towards my identity as an Odia.
The significance of Shree Jagannath’s Nabakalebara has been immense in any Odia’s life. In a universal sense too, the “death” rituals of the gods reflect a deep philosophical engagement with life and death, and fertility tales. It takes a lot of serious Darshanika understanding to appreciate this age old tradition of the birth-death-rebirth of the gods. The core ideas in the ritual is that it is meant to be “Gupta” (secret), and that there is a change in the life-force of the deities from one idol to another. I will not get into the historical, mythological, or religious significance of the event (this is the matter for another article). My concern in this article is the experience of Nabakalebara 2015.
The Nabakalebara happens once somewhere between 12-19 years. In the 20th century there were six Nabakalebaras (first one of the century being 1912 and the last being 1996). The sandhi-vela of Monday and Tuesday (15th June 2015) after midnight was chosen as the first Nabakalebara of the 21st century. Tradition has it that the rituals of “Ghata-parivaratana” roughly translated as transmigration of the souls from the old deities to the new ones is a highly secret and dense ritual shrouded under clouds of mystery and faith. Describing those rituals in language is a futile exercise because of the limitations of the written word and also because the occasion is a part of the rich oral tradition of Odisha. Language can only diminish the density of the experience. However, it may suffice to say that the number of people who know and witness Ghata-parivartana is very few. A handful of a special category of Shree Jagannath’s sevakas called Daitapatis are the only blind-folded (they are said to be literally blind-folded) witnesses of the event.
When I look back at 1996 and Nabakalebara of that year, I remember the event from the perspective of a high-school student. That was the first Nabakalebara of my life and it was a day of reflection, spiritualism, and stories and legends that grandparents told us; some of those legends meant willing suspension of disbelief. There was an apprehension about the magnitude of events that were scheduled to happen during the course of that one night. During those days we had no other source of information about the progress of the rituals other than the news in Doordarshan Odia channel and journals like Nirmalaya or newspapers like Samaj and Sambad. The mystery that surrounded this event was dense, bordering on fear and superstitions. It was only through the newspapers that we came to know that Nabakalebara had safely been accomplished and that no major problem arose during and after the Ghataparivartana. The event was reported post-facto and there were no major publicity campaigns or tourist attraction announcements to draw people to Puri. The event passed like any other major ritual of Shree Jagannath in Odisha sans the fan-fare associated with it.
This year it was different. The government had taken a lot of steps to market the event as an international tourist attraction. There were constant advertisements under “Incredible Odisha” campaigns under the Ministry of Tourism and Culture about the Nabakalebara. The moment you got into an Air India flight, you were welcomed with magazines having pictures of the mega idols blinking at you from within colourful glossy pages. After coming to Odisha, I watched my parents and relatives glued to the television screen 24×7 listening to the gory updates of the rituals by the priests and Daitapatis. Each time I enquired, “was it not supposed to be Gupta-neeti (secret rituals)?” The answer was “it is all gods’ will”. I joined the fray of frenzied devotees of Shree Jagannath spending days and hours adding the Arghaya of TRP to the mega yajna of Odia channels.
Finally, the day of Nabakalebara 2015 approached and my curiosity took over my better judgment. The announcement made by various agencies was that the secret rituals would start by midnight and the temple and its periphery would get into darkness after midnight. I pleaded my uncle (he is a police officer himself) to drive us to Puri so that we could witness the spectacle of the end of an era and the beginning of the new era in and around Shree Jagannath temple. He very kindly obliged and drove me and my mother to Puri. We reached around 10.30 pm and the atmosphere was indeed somber. The temple was about to close and we were the last devotees to visit the Lakshmi temple within the temple complex. This being the Anasara (fever of Shree Jagannath) time, we can only get the darshan of the deities in the form of Pattachitras (called Pattidians in Odia). The temple was under a pall of gloom, the usual animated conversations about the gods was absent, and people were mourning the last few hours before the deities could be laid to rest forever in Koilibaikuntha (the burial grounds of the temple deities) after nineteen years of their existence. I was taken aback by the extent of human tendencies that are attributed to the gods. Outside the temple, media houses fought tooth and nail to get news-bites about the goings-on within the premises.
We left the temple around 11.40pm and there was no sign of any ritual beginning anywhere close to the vicinity of the temple. The media groups stationed outside were discussing that it will get very late to start the event and that the construction of the deities was still not complete. After spending an hour or so in the Grand Road talking to people and gathering information about the event, we decided to leave for Bhubaneswar. There were hundreds of people waiting outside the temple for the “lights off” moment (this is a very unique moment, since there is never complete darkness in and around the temple complex at Puri) with deeyas in hand, fasting and waiting for the Ghataparivartan moment. We reached Bhubaneswar at around 1.45 am. My mother lighted an Akhanda Deeya in our pooja room as a mark of respect to the significant moment. She was already cooking special food since morning to pay her respect to the deities. However, when I switched on the television set, there was no information about the events and all that was being discussed was the inordinate delay. The worst fear of people had come true, age old tradition of Ghata parivartana had been broken and instead of a nocturnal ritual, news agencies announced that the ritual was held in broad daylight between 1pm and 3pm the following day, in the presence of hundreds of sebayats. This is not the first instance of trouble during Nabakalebara; history states that the Nabakalebara of 1977 was a disaster too . The discipline of the temple and its adherence to tradition is once again under question. Time is an important thing and it seems that time is the major disruption in the temple.
I am wondering had this break in tradition happened in Tirupati temple, what would be the reaction in international and national circles? Why is Shree Jagannath hidden under clouds of mystery, deliberate isolation, and mismanagement? In Odisha we have a tendency to give the praise and blame directly to the Lord; “sabu se Jagannathanka iccha” (“it’s all the will of Jagannath”). Some devotees have been telling on camera: “may be the gods wanted to spend more time with us”. Really? The entire creation runs along a sense of discipline and time; sun rises and sets along fixed time, and if we take the same logic into consideration, then a sense of commitment and discipline specified for the smooth functioning of a major turn in the history of the gods is equally important.
Was this event and its mismanagement an important symptom of the beginning to an end of a great cultural icon? I hope not.