Jagannath Puri as Tirtha Kshetra


Snan Yatra, Celebrating Batha of Lord Jagannath
Hand-colored Engraving by B. Solvyn, c. 1799

Sep 29, JAGANNATH PURI, ORISSA (SUN) — Pilgrimage, Rituals and Worship - A Study on Puri as Tirtha Kshetra.

Travellers from within the land and abroad visit a tirtha (place of pilgrimage) to discover the soul of our ancient land. Tirthas are seldom anonymous places. They all have their unique character and ambience. Places of pilgrimage are distributed throughout India and are called tirthasthanas or Kshetras. These ancient cities are like living symbols of history.

The concept of tirtha in Indian context originates from the time when the Puranas began to be composed, around 4th century A.D. The gargantuan size of the tirthas in some of the Puranas was clearly the result of their unprecedented proliferation and continual addition to the Puranic list.

According to the Brahma Purana, their number is so large that they cannot be enumerated. A rough statistical estimate prepared by P.V Kane fixes the number of Puranic verses devoted entirely to the subject of tirthas at about 1,200 in Matsya Purana, 3,182 in Varaha Purana, 4000 in Padma Purana, and 6,700 in Brahma Purana. Some exclusive studies on the subject based on a single Purana, especially Skanda Purana, would further bear testimony to such overgrowth. A statement in Skanda Purana claims as many as half crore tirthas in the country.

A place of pilgrimage is a tirtha or tirthasthana. A pilgrimage is a tirthayatra and a pilgrim is a tirthayatri. The meaning of a tirtha is a sacred place charged with the power of God or the gods and goddesses, and it is resonant with purity. A tirtha possesses three elements that make it so sacred: it is suchi, pure; it brings punya, merit and goodness; and it is shubha, auspicious. This makes a tirtha a place where you can gain nirvana, enlightenment, and achieve moksha, or liberation. Pilgrims aspire to attain salvation by visiting holy shrines to prepare for release from the temporal world. Moksha cannot be attained before fulfilling one's duty towards family and society.

Pilgrimage came to be consciously promoted by traditions that have grown up around a shrine and its locale. They are used to explain and sustain the shrine's claim to sanctity. Thus arose a large corpus of literature called Sthalapuranas (ancient stories of a sacred site) or Mahatmya (greatness of a shrine or site). A sacred geography is created by the process of bringing together cult centers of a particular tradition through legendary pastimes and symbols. In India this has happened at various levels i.e. local, regional and pan-Indian.

Cults created their own religious topography through links with other regional centers by means of legends evolving around a specific cult. Many such cultic geographies emerged in India, particularly in South India, between the 7th and 17th centuries. The cult of Balajee, as the famous Venkateswara at Tirupati (a Vishnu temple) is known, acquired a pan-Indian status being elevated to it after the Vijayanagar rulers made Venkateswar their tutelary Deity. So also the cult of Jagannath acquired a pan-Indian status after the Gangas and Gajapatis made Lord Jagannath their state Deity. In fact, pilgrim networks expanded in the Ganga and post-Ganga periods, when significant reorganization, elaboration and changes in the temple ritual and festivals, incorporating manifold Vedic and Agamic practices, took place.

The tirthamahatmyas speak aloud about a particular place (tirtha), especially with regard to their cultic and functional importance and magical potency. The Skanda Purana (v.2) itself is brimming with such sections as Sulvaramahatmya varnana, Simhesvara-mahatmya, Ekanamesa Mahatmya, Avantikshetra-Mahatmya, Purusottama Kshetra Mahatmya, etc. However, Matsya Purana, which is considered one of the oldest of the Puranas, mentions Purusottama Kshetra in two places. It mentions only the Deity Vimala in Purusottama Kshetra. Among the later Puranas, namely Visnu, Agni, Padma, Narada, Brahma and Skanda, we get references to Jagannath, the Deity, and to the place of His installation.

But it is only in Agni, Padma, Brahma and Skanda Purana that passages occur about the sanctity of the place, construction of the temple and the part played by Indradyumna. J. Padhi writes that Kurumaurana mentions that Purusottama tirtha belongs to Narayana, although it is named after Purusottama. The supreme Purusa Narayana resides here with all glory. A pilgrim after taking holy bath in this sacred tirtha and worshipping supreme Visnu (Narayana) and feeding the Brahmanas secures the abode of Visnu.

A set of uniform popular form of ritualism were prescribed for a tirtha. Some of these are snana, dana, puja vrata, pinda dana, katha recital etc. According to one Puranic dictum the performance of rituals at tirthas is infinitely more effective than performed in one's home (Matsya Purana). Infact, tirthas came to be recommended in the Puranas as cure for most ills, an infallible means of spiritual quest, an ultimate source of moral redemption.

The greatest tirthas are often a combination of a number of sacred elements. The supreme tirtha Kasi offers the combination of a river, a temple and Ganga, the Kasi Vishwanath Temple and the presence of Shiva. Puri has the Lord Jagannath Temple, the Mighty ocean Mahodadhi and the grand festival, famous Ratha Yatra, and the presence of Vishnu.

Puri is known in the ancient scriptures as Shri Dham, Purusottama Kshetra, Jagannath Dham, etc. It was recognized as a Dham or a tirtha particularly after the 9th century A.D. Although, the Epic Mahabharat in the tirthayatra section has a reference about Swayambhu Lokeswara and the Vedi, a famous spot in Puri itself.

Scholars try to trace the antiquity of Puri from the time of Mahabharat, however, no concrete evidence is available so far. But from our recent exploration in the old city of Puri, we have traced some of the mounds, particularly Balisahi, Markandeswara Sahi and behind Gundicha Temple to Indradyumna tank. From surface exploration, it is found that a number of red, black and slipped pot-shreds are available in plenty. We can safely draw a conclusion that there might be an earlier city buried, which could be dated earlier to Somavamsis. Some sporadic findings such as sculptural pieces, brick bates, parts and architectural pieces are also reported from different places in recent times.

To get the clear stratigraphic position of the early historical period of Puri, intensive study with excavation is highly necessary. However, the cult of Sri Jagannath has its deep root as pre -Aryan, or un-Aryan or tribal features. It may be that he was worshipped in the form of a wooden Deity by aboriginal Savaras in Eastern India. Orissa has continued to be a tribally dominated area for a long period, at least up to the Early Mediaeval period.

We have references in Emperor Asoka's Edict (3rd C. BC) as well as in various literatures. We believe that there must be somewhere in ancient Orissa, wood or tree worship (Daru) was in vogue at least up to 3rd century A.D (Daru Devata, Beni Madhav Padhi, 1964). Scholars like BM Padhi, S.N Rajguru (1996) have focused Jagannath's origin, again, in relation to the Sabara tribes of South Orissa. K.C Mishra (1971), A Eschman (1978), came forward with the discovery of several peculiar relations between Jagannath cult and religious practice of the Konds in Dhenkanal/ Talcher region of Orissa.

Puri emerges as a tirtha having pan-Indian character since the early part of the 12th century A.D., with the increasing process of ritual royalization of the Deity Lord Jagannath. Among the prominent gods extensively portrayed the Puranas as being instrumental in tirtha formation were Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti/Devi. It may be pointed out that Vishnu in His milder and more popular aspects portrayed through His numerous incarnations, particularly those having tribal or pastoral affiliations, such as Narasimha, Krishna, Balarama, Dattatreya, Purusottama, Venkatesvara etc., naturally bore closer affinity to those native groups that originally subscribed to those cults. Thus, we find that Krishna had special affiliations with pastoral tribes like the Yadavas.

Similarly a special relationship seemingly existed between Jagannatha and the Savaras, Venkateswara of Tirupati and Kurubas and Narasimha in Andhra Pradesh and the Chenchus. Moreover, among the numerous incarnations of Vishnu listed in the Puranas, the ones like Kuruma, Matsya and Varaha very definitely had totemic affiliations, suggesting their close links with tribal cultic beliefs. In fact, we have a temple dedicated to Marjara-Kesari, the feline incarnations of Lord Vishnu at Narasimhanath, in Western Orissa.

Another example that could be given here is what impact the tirthas had on the tribes of Chhotnagapur. According to a popular legend connected with the construction of a Jagannatha Temple situated about 10 kms from Ranchi by Thakur Ainisahi in 1691, A.D, both Thakur and his Oran servant had visited Jagannatha Temple of Puri, and after their return, it is said Lord Jagannath appeared in a dream and asked them to build a temple for Him in Chhotnagpur. According to Karma Oran, the annual Ratha Yatra at Jagannathapur is the biggest religious and social event connected with any religious creed in Ranchi district. It is exercising a very strong influence in Hinduizing the tribes, who are known to freely join the festival in pulling the ropes of the chariot.

It was during the 12th century A.D that the temple town Puri might have assumed the greatest prominence under the rule of Imperial Gangas (1078-1435. A.D). The present magnificent temple of Purusottama Jagannath was constructed during this period. It is mentioned in an inscription in the temple Garttesvara (Siva) at Alagum, about 15 km from Sakhigopal, that Chodoganga seems to have invited some selected Brahman pandits or Vaisnavas from Kanchi, who settled near Puri for propagation of Dvaitya philosophy.

Sri Jagannath temple was more organized during the rule of Anangabhima III (1211-1238). It was this king who regarded Purusottama as the real Emperor, himself being his representative. He used the title Paramabhattaraka, Purusottamaputra and Durgaputra (Drakasaram Ins, SII, IV, No-1329, p-469). Madalapanji also states that this king introduced 36 types of duties for Sevakas, known as the Chatisanijoga, and the Panda system as tirtha Gurus.

The other Ganga kings like Bhanudeva-I, Narasimhadeva-II, Bhanudeva-II had made all efforts to make Puri a chief religious centre. During the rule of Suryavamsi or Gajapatis (1435-1540 A.D.) under the able kings like Kapilendradeva, Purosottamadeva and Prataparudradeva Puri was protected from Muslim invaders and much patronage was given for propagation of the Jagannath cult by Sarala Das and Chaitanya.

The mention of anecdotes concerning the images being made of Daru (wood) found floating on the sea by Sarala Das (1435-1466 A D) in Oriya Mahabharat and in Skanda Purana show the eager views of the authors of these texts to establish a connection of the worship of Lord Jagannath with Vedic tradition concerning the Daru as given by Sayana. Scholars like Stietencorn have dealt elaborately with Jagannath's relation to the Narasimha cult. Again, the Jagannath cult was renewed and reached its climax particularly with Vaisnavism and the Bhakti Movement of Sri Chaitanya (A.K Muzumdar 1969). Jagannath cult on the principle of Prema Bhakti or devotion by love was made the only path to attain Mukti, and become the cult of the masses, spreading over Orissa, Bengal and Assam (A.L Basham, 1975).

From the first part of the 16th century the pilgrim movement to Puri has grown and it became the epi-centre of the Vaishnava cult in the whole of eastern India. The rituals like Nagar Kirtan brought the medium for popularization of the Jagannath cult and rested deep in the heart and mind of the common people. All along with this movement, again in the 16th century, the works of Pancha Sakhas like Balaram Das, Ananta Das, Achyutananda Das, Jagannath Das and Jossabanta Das promoted the gospel of devotion based on knowledge and yoga in preference to the doctrine of emotional love and faith as professed by Gaudiya Vaisnavas.

Gradually there developed a common, all India pilgrimage network consisting of Siva, Vaisnava, Sakta and Subramanya temples. Holy centres from the ancient days, located on the mountains, confluences of rivers and river crossings, and centres with epic associations became a part of this network. Ayodhya, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Amarnath, Kasi (Varanasi), Puri, Dvaraka, Rameswaram, Kanchipuram, Tirupati, Tiruvannamalai and Srirangam are some of the important places in this pilgrimage network. The list often swells with the addition of new cults which have originated in India from time to time up to the present day, such as the cult of Vaisnodevi near Jammu.

All these centres have developed elaborate systems of ritual worship. They start with waking of the Deity with chants and music, followed by the first of five or six main pujas of the day. Twice a day, the Deity is given a sacred bath and decorated with beautiful garments and ornaments. The offering of food (naivedya or bhoga) completes the morning Upachara (an offer or homage to the divine sovereign). After the dawn puja, various objects such as a mirror, parasol, fan, flag, embalm, flywhisk, incense, lamps and camphor are offered to the sound of bells and temple music, accompanied or followed by chants of invocation, dedication and praise. Distribution of Prasada is then carried out.

Then follows the noon puja, sandhya (twilight) puja and ardhajama (midnight) puja and putting the Deity to sleep. These are part of the shodasa maha upachara, or the 16 kinds of great offerings to the Deity, a ritual which was also at one time, ceremonially performed for the king at his palace.

However, thIS system is an all India phenomenon varies slightly at the regional level. Besides, special occasions are also being observed with elaborate puja ceremony. Festivals again evolved around the particular pastimes and aspects of the Deity enshrined in the temple. They grew in number and importance depending upon the temple's locale, the founder-patron, and their significance for the community. Birth asterisms of the royal family and of Bhakti saints and spiritual leaders were important occasions for institutions. Festivals, particularly for religious leaders, continue to this day.

Other festivals to celebrate the God's victory over evil forces or demons, which have been basic to the Puranic religion, are still observed in all temples. Festivals associated with Siva, Visnu, Kali (Durga), and Subramanya are celebrated in their respective temples. Durga killing Mahisasura is amongst the major pastimes celebrated in these temples. Processions of the Deities, regally attired and ornamented, on their decorated vahanas (vehicles) or in their chariots are still major events in scared centres on all such occasions. These processions have their counterparts in royal processions, about which poetic compositions are known from the 11th century. On such occasions, the interface between the sacred and secular is highly visible.

Festivals in general display a cyclic concept of time. Here at Puri, like other sacred places, Dvadasa-Yatras of Lord Jagannath is being celebrated round the year. Niladri-Mahodayam, the Sthala Purana of the 14th century, gives detailS about the festivals. Like Brhamotsav, Navaratri, Vasantotsav, Dipavali, the festivals of Lord Jagannath such as Chandana Yatra, Snana Utsav, Sayana Utsav, Dola Yatra, Ramanavami, Damanaka Yatra and Ratha Yatra and many others are being celebrated. Ratha Yatra or Car Festival of Lord Jagannath is very important and retains the age-old tradition. The car festival of Puri in Orissa and Tiruvarur in Tamil Nadu also have a close association with royalty, such as the mediaeval Eastern Gangas and Gajapatis of Orissa and Cholas of the Tamil region. Processional images thus became part of the temple's iconography and ritual.


K. C. Mishra, The Cult of Jagannath, Culcutta,1971.
S.M. Bhardwaj, Hindu Places of Pilgrimage, California, 1973.
V. Nath, Puranas and Acculturation, Delhi, 2001.
P.V. Kane, History of Dhramasastras, Vol. IV, Poona, 1953.
A.B.L. Awasthi, Studies in Skanda Purana,Vol. II1, New Delhi, 1992.
E. Alan Morinis, Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition, Delhi, 1984.
S. A. Dange, Encyclopaedia of Puranic Beliefs and Practices, New Delhi, 1987.
B. Saraswati, The Spectrum of the Sacred, New Delhi, 1984.
J. Padhi, Purusottam as Tirtha, Occasional Paper, 2008.
B.M. Padhi, Daru Devata, Oriya
Source: Orissa Review


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