The God is dead; long live the God
Would you believe me, if I tell you that after every 15 to 19 years, a deity dies along with his kin, only to be reborn? This ritual has been going on for the past at least 400 years.
Every year, when there is an extra month (adhik maas) in the Ashaad period of the Hindu calendar, Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Puri in Odisha dies, along with his sister, Subhadra, his elder brother Balbhadra, and his weapon, the Sudarshana.The exhaustive ritual, Nabakalebara, lasts over three months, and is nothing short of a Hollywood suspense mega movie. It starts with searching for neem trees- the daru-brahma– with some essential marks, like presence of an ant-hill, snake and symbols of Vishnu, and absence of any nests. All the trees found are then cut and transported to Puri, where they are secretly carved in the shape of the deities, according to prescribed rituals. The new images of the deity so formed, are then placed next to the old ones, at the height of summer. After a few days, in the midst of the dark night, the head priest enters the temple, along with his special deputies. All the priests are blindfolded, with their hands wrapped in cloth. Their job is to transfer the soul element- the Brahma-padaartha– from the older deities to the new ones.
Once the transfer is complete, it’s said that the new bodies are claimed and the old ones can be discarded. The old images are then buried in a sacred burial ground, called Koili-Vaikuntha next to the temple. It is only during the great Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra, the chariot festival, during the pre-monsoon that the new body is revealed to the general public. Just like all the older ones, however, the new deity will also be limbless with eyes like cartwheels. Beauty in physically deformity?
Till date, no one knows what this secret soul element is. Some say it’s Shaligrama, a rare fossil, while others are of the opinion that it’s the relic of Lord Krishna. People even go to the extent of believing it to be some extra-terrestrial material, or a black magic substance, a Tantrik Yantra.