The Jagannath Temple in Puri has been a cardinal religious spot in Hindu Pilgrimage. The Char Dham (meaning: four abodes) is a set of four hallowed shrines in India associated with Lord Vishnu. Adi Guru Shankaracharya organised the Hindu practitioners under four ‘Mathas’ (or monasteries). The headquarters were at Badrinath Dham in the North, Sringeri Sharada in the South, Dwarka in the West and Puri in the East. Each Dham is associated with a Yug. Jagannath Temple in Puri is associated with Lord Jagannath; as the God of the current, Kali Yug is the principal fulcrum of sacred belief and Hindu ethics in India.
The Legend of Puri Dham
Jagannath Temple in Puri houses the trinity of deities; Mahaprabhu Jagannath (literally translating to Lord of the Universe), His elder brother Balabhadra and sister, Devi Subhadra. The legendary account as found in the Puranas state that Lord Jagannath was originally worshipped as Lord “Neela Madhaba” by a Savar king (tribal chief) named Viswavasu. Having heard about the deity, King Indradyumna (son of King Bharat) sent a Brahmin priest, Vidyapati to locate the deity. Vidyapati managed to marry Viswavasu’s daughter Lalita. He later convinced his father-in-law to lead him to the cave of Lord Neela Madhaba.
As per directions from Vidyapati, King Indradyumna proceeded to Odra-Desh (present day Odisha) on a pilgrimage to find and worship the Deity. But the deity had disappeared. The disappointed king was determined not to return without having a darshan of the deity. He built a magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The deity was then crafted as per instructions received by the king in his sleep. Unlike stone and metal icons found in most Hindu temples, the image of Jagannath is made on a log of a fragrant tree that had come floating to the seashore. The wood is ceremoniously replaced every twelve or nineteen years by an exact replica; during the secretive ritual called Naba-Kalebar (Naba meaning New, Kalebar meaning Body)
About the Temple
The huge Jagannath Temple in Puri covers an area of over 400,000 square feet and it is surrounded by a high fortified wall. With its sculptural richness and distinct Oriya style of temple architecture, Jagannath Temple in Puri is one of the most magnificent monuments of Eastern India. The main temple is a curvilinear temple and crowning the top is the ‘Neel-Chakra’, a disc made of Ashtadhatu (an alloy of eight metals). The temple has four entrances, each named after the sculpture of animal guarding the gates – Haathidwar (Elephant-gate) to the North, Ghodadwar (Horse-gate) to the South, Baaghdwar (Tiger-gate) towards the West and Singhdwar (Lion-gate) facing the East.
A magnificent sixteen-sided monolithic pillar known as the Arun-Stambha stands in front of the main gate. This pillar has an idol of Arun, the charioteer of the Sun God Surya, on its top. The Lion-gate is the main entrance to the temple which opens onto the Grand Road. Puri is famous for its annual Ratha Yatra, or chariot festival. The three principal deities are pulled on huge and elaborately decorated temple cars along this Grand Road. The Jagannath triad travels 3km to the Gundicha Temple while allowing millions of devotees assembled on both sides of the road to have a holy view of the Lord outside His temple. The English term “Juggernaut” derives itself from this event.
Legend linking the four pilgrimage spots is that Lord Vishnu takes his bath at Rameshwaram, meditates at Badrinath, sleeps in Dwarka and visits Puri to have his meals. Food is thus a crucial aspect of the Jagannath Temple in Puri and the kitchen is a pivotal part of the premise. About 1,000 cooks prepare 56 different kinds of offerings — called Chhappan (meaning 56 in Hindi) Bhog — to serve to the Gods, six times a day. Mythology states that villagers of Gokul had taken refuge from the wrath of the rain-god (Indra) under the Govardhan Parvat that Krishna held on his little finger.
After Indra relented and normal life resumed, the villagers decided to feed young Krishna out of their devotion. Since Krishna used to eat eight times a day, the people prepared for him fifty-six dishes to compensate for all the meals that he had missed in the seven preceding days. Hence God is served with 56 food items in the Jagannath Temple in Puri. The kitchen is vast, spread over an acre. It is believed that cooking in the temple kitchens is supervised by the Goddess Mahalakshmi herself. She is the empress of Srimandir and consort of Lord Vishnu. All food is cooked following protocols prescribed by Hindu religious texts. The food is cooked with indigenous vegetables – they are cooked without onions, garlic or tomatoes, potatoes and chillies.
Daily offerings to the Lord include:
- Gopala Vallabha Bhoga – breakfast
- Sakal Dhupa – served around 10 am
- Bhog Mandapa Bhog – served in the Bhog Mandap
- Madhyanha Dhupa – lunch
- Sandhya Dhupa – served at around 8 pm
- Bada Simhara Bhog – served around 11 in the night
Priests at the temple double up as guides and show pilgrims around the mega-kitchen which is known as Rosaghora. When we visited, we saw the junior cooks, who are not allowed to enter the main kitchen, engaged in various tasks in the courtyard around the grand kitchen. We found godown of grocery items being managed like shops. A few staff members were preparing the spices brought from the godowns. Some fetched water from two special wells named Ganga and Yamuna. Others were cleaning and preparing the pots. While the rest of them were busy grating coconuts, chopping piles of vegetables, stuffing them all into the earthen pots and carrying them to the kitchen.
Inside the kitchen, 500 cooks prepare the food in the multiple chambers housing mud-and-brick ovens (called Chulha) lit with charcoal and wood. Cooking is done on earthen pots which are stacked on top of each other in groups of seven. Heat is curiously distributed up to the top of the stack evenly, so that food is prepared simultaneously. With no stirring or mixing of gravy, this is slow-cooking at its best. While no outsider is allowed into the kitchen, we could catch a glimpse of the flames and the stacks of pots inside through air exhaust gaps in the walls.
Offering the food to the deities involves a dance-like routine. The muscular, bare-chested cooks carry a long bamboo pole with two rope baskets at either end. Once the food is cooked, they place two or three pots inside the basket and balance the bamboo pole on their shoulder. They walk from the kitchen to the sanctum sanctorum. The men act like parts of an assembly line – relentless and all in perfect sync. The food after being offered to Jagannath is served to Bimala Devi. The food then becomes Mahaprasad (divine offering) which is made available in an open market. Ananda Bazar is a place where devotees queue up to buy in portions. It is located to the northeast of the Singhadwara inside the Temple complex.
Traditionally, Mahaprasad is laid on banana leaves and devotees are supposed to sit on the ground while having the food. Pilgrims may have the Prasad in the Ananda-Bazar. Otherwise few priests provide the service of delivering packets of Mahaprasad to hotels at the behest of pilgrims. The dishes are fairly standard; a variety of rice dishes – khichdi / ghee-rice / Kanika (sweet rice), different vegetable curries (Dalma, Mahura, etc), Dal made with different local lentils and a number of sweet dishes like Malpua and kheer. The Jagannath temple in Puri is the largest vegetarian, sattvic kitchen in the world; one that miraculously serves any number of pilgrims on all days of the year. The Mahaprasad is holy and the experience of savouring the food is truly gratifying and divine.
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