The Rebirth in Puri

Puri is getting ready to host over five million devotees and also a huge number of tourists during Nabakalebara, the life-force-infusing ritual in the Jagannath cult, in July.

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

This millennium’s first Nabakalebara  will culminate with the annual Rath Yatra Puri scheduled to be held on July 18 . Above, the  three chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra during last year's festival.

This millennium’s first Nabakalebara will culminate with the annual Rath Yatra Puri scheduled to be held on July 18 . Above, the three chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra during last year's festival.

ODISHA is gearing up to celebrate this millennium’s first Nabakalebara festival of Lord Jagannath in the pilgrim town Puri, which will culminate with the annual rath yatra on July 18.

Nabakalebara is a 65-day-long rare and elaborate ritual of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra and Sudarshana relinquishing their old bodies (idols) and assuming new ones. The previous Nabakalebara was held in 1996.

Over five million devotees are expected to converge on Puri this year to witness the event, which is envisaged to be one of the largest congregations of people, in not just India but the world.

Nabakalebara is the most significant ritual in the Jagannath cult since it infuses life force. “Naba” means new and “kalebara” means body or cover in Sanskrit.

The deities are known as “Daru Brahma”, meaning Brahma (divine life force) in the form of wood. Hence, they are prone to decay and require a changeover to new bodies. Nabakalebara is the ritual of bringing about this metamorphosis. It signifies the Hindu belief that when the body gets old, the soul (Brahma) relinquishes it to accept a new one.

Nabakalebara takes place only during the Adhikamasa (intercalary month) of Ashadha, when two lunar months of Ashadha fall in one year, as per the Hindu almanac. Such a rare occasion usually occurs once in 12 years, but the gap may range from eight to 19 years. In the 20th century, Nabakalebara was celebrated in 1912, 1931, 1950, 1969, 1977 and 1996.

Banayagnya Yatra

Nabakalebara is preceded by the Banayagnya Yatra, which begins on Chaitra Shukla Dashami (March 29 this year), with 50 temple servitors beginning their journey in search of four suitable trees from which the deities will be carved. After seeking permission from the King of Puri, they go to Goddess Mangala’s temple at Kakatpur, a village 50 kilometres away, to seek Her blessings, whereafter She reveals the exact locations of the suitable trees.

No ordinary tree can be felled for this purpose. The daru (wood) for Jagannath has to be obtained from a neem tree that must be 7-12 cubit high and dark-coloured and has marks of a shankha (conch), chakra (disc), gada (mace) and padma (lotus). It must have a straight trunk and four clear branches. It should have neither creepers nor bird nests on it; it should not have been hit by lightning. It should be surrounded by trees like varuna, sahada and bilva. There should be an anthill and snake-holes at the foot of the tree. It must have grown near a river or pond or a crossing of three pathways. It is ideal if it is surrounded by mountains on three sides. It is good if there is a cremation ground or a temple of Siva or a hermitage nearby.

Different requisites have to be strictly followed for the demarcation of trees for carving the other three deities as well. The trees are spotted, worshipped and then felled and pulled by wooden carts to the Jagannath Temple. They are bathed on Snana Poornima simultaneously with the old deities, following which the temple is closed to the public.

Fifty maharanas (carpenters) carve the darus within 21 days, after which the new idols are perambulated around the temple. Then, the new and the old idols are placed facing each other, and the Brahmapadartha is transferred from the chests of the old idols to that of the new ones. This is done secretly in the dead of night by three of the oldest servitors with blindfolded eyes and tied hands, since no one is allowed to see or touch the Brahmapadartha. It is believed that anyone who touches or sees it is bound to die; so a blackout is ordered in the entire Puri town that night.

Considered dead, the old deities along with all peripheral deities used in the chariots during rath yatra are taken to Koilibaikuntha and buried. The Daitapati servitors who treat Lord Jagannath as the head of their families then observe all the funeral obsequies for 10 days and then bathe and offer a feast on the 12th day.

The new deities are then covered with Saptavarana, that is, seven substances—sandalwood paste, musk, resin, silk, etc.,—and painted by the chitrakaras (painters) using indigenous colours.

However, they do not paint the pupils of the deities. That is finally done by Brahmins during Netrotsava, the final life-infusing ritual, which is followed by Nabayauvana Darshan to the pilgrims. The next day, the deities are taken out for the famous rath yatra. Though the Nabakalebara rituals are yet to start, the process for the construction of the three chariots for the forthcoming rath yatra has already commenced with the rituals performed on the eve of Basanta Panchami on January 24.

Apart from taking steps to complete the painting of the main temple and the temples of the other deities in the temple complex, the Shri Jagannath Temple Administration has started the process for the procurement of the rare, expensive items required for the Nabakalebara rituals. About 1.1 kilograms of kasturi (musk), 10 quintals of sandalwood, 14 quintals each of jhuna (frankincense resin) and basunga silk cloth, huge quantities of timber, brass containers, earthen pots, sesame oil, ghee, coir and hundreds of other items have to be procured.

Administrative measures

As Nabakalebara is expected to attract millions of devotees from different corners of the world, the Odisha government is trying its best to make the mammoth event a grand success. According to preliminary estimates, it will spend around Rs.1,000 crore for infrastructure development in Puri and adjoining areas.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has directed the government departments concerned to complete pending projects in Puri before Nabakalebara. He has also been persuading various Central government departments to complete the pending projects in the region before the festival.

The district administration has been asked to improve the sewerage system in Puri and earmark places where makeshift toilets can be constructed. Improvement of both rail and road connectivity between Bhubaneswar and Puri is given high priority. The Chief Minister has sought the intervention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the augmentation of railway infrastructure.

The infrastructure development committee set up for the festival, which is headed by former Minister and Puri legislator Maheswar Mohanty, has been conducting regular meetings to review the progress of the work. Stress is also laid on expediting the four-laning of the Puri-Bhubaneswar National Highway ahead of the festival. The construction of roads connecting the railway station and the bus stand has been speeded up. The district administration has been asked to sort out all issues relating to the acquisition of land for infrastructure development.

The authorities are planning to upgrade the Puri district headquarters hospital and other health centres in and around the town before Nabakalebara. A few electric substations are being set up to ensure uninterrupted power supply to the town during the festival.

Officials in charge of promoting tourism in the State are hopeful that this year’s Nabakalebara will give a big boost to the sector. They are leaving no stone unturned to woo tourists by showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Odisha. The State government’s Departments of Tourism and Culture are prioritising Nabakalebara not just in Odisha but also at various national and international fora. The festival was highlighted by a high-level delegation from Odisha Tourism at The New York Times Travel Show held in New York recently.

The renowned sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik, who has been made the brand ambassador of Odisha Tourism, created an impressive sand sculpture of Lord Jagannath and some heritage monuments at the travel show in which the Odisha pavilion drew an enthusiastic crowd.

The Departments of Tourism and Culture and other agencies involved are also busy developing the tourism sector by taking all possible measures for the timely completion of various projects at many other tourist destinations across Odisha to attract more tourists in the Nabakalebara year. Almost all the tourist destinations in and around the temple city of Bhubaneswar are being given a facelift as are other locations such as the Buddhist heritage sites at Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri, which form the Diamond Triangle of Odisha. Impressive improvement in road, rail and air connectivity in recent years has helped Odisha augment its tourism potential.

The Tourism Department has prepared a blueprint to draw the attention of people across the globe. A Nabakalebara Cell has been set up at the newly constructed office of the Tourism Department in Puri. A documentary on Nabakalebara is also being made.

All hotel rooms in Puri have been booked for the festival period and the government is trying its best to make adequate alternative arrangements to cater to the requirements of devotees and tourists. If people coming to witness Nabakalebara return happy, it will give a huge impetus to tourism in Odisha.

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