Puri, a major Hindu pilgrimage town, is the abode of residence of Jagganath, “lord of the universe”, one of the aspects of the god Vishnu or his avatar, Lord Krishna. The town is entirely dedicated to him.
Puri is one of the Char Dham, India’s four main pilgrimage centres. Devotion here reaches its peak at the Ratha Yatra (chariot festival), when the statues of Jagannatha, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra are paraded through the streets in chariots (see below).
The three rather crude statues with big smile and eyes are carved from neem wood, which is sacred in India.
The worship procedures of Jagannath do not conform with those of classical Hinduism. the statues are made of wood, which is an exception to common Hindu iconographic deities of metal or stone.
The origin of Jagannath worship, as well as iconography, is unclear and has been subject to intense debates.
According to the legend, the statue of Jagannatha is a reliquary containing the bones of Lord Krishna, recovered after his cremation. Every twelfth year the statues of Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra are replaced with identical new ones, carved in a secret ceremony called Navakalevara (“new incarnation”).
The Jagganath temple is very strict; entry is forbidden not only to non-Hindus but also to anyone without Indian ancestors. There have been some conflicts over this. But a general view of the temple can be got from the Raghunanda library opposite. This old building is undergoing renovation and, for access to the view, the manager will ask you for a “small donation” and a word in the guestbook.
Before you leave, it’s worth nipping down to Puri beach just for the seaside atmosphere, Indian style.
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