Saturday, July 11, 2015


For those who are not quite familiar with Jagannath worship, the Odia word nabakalebara is made up of two words: naba and kalebara, meaning “new” and “body” respectively. In the present context, it means “assuming the new Form”. The Forms, i.e., the murtis of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana, receiving worship are substituted with new murtis. This happens when there are two months of asadha in a year, as in this year, 2015. It is generally believed that nabakalebara takes place every twelve years. I am not sure about the basis of this belief, but it is unsupported by facts. In the twentieth century, it was held in 1912, 31, 50, 69, 77 and 96. This year, the first nabakalebara of the twenty first century is now taking place.

Nabakalebara spans over more than three months and some of its crucial rituals are traditionally performed in secret. But the most secret one is the brahma paribartana (change of the Essence) or ghata paribartana (change of Form). In a small ill lit enclosure, which becomes the sanctum sanctorum for fifteen days every year and for forty five days during the nabakalebara year, on the first amabasya (no moon day) of the two month long asadha, four servitors, three belonging to the sub-community called daita, and the other, to another, namely, pati mahapatra, perform the ritual of transfer. In brief, something is taken out of each of the murtis, offered worship, and then placed in the designated place in the corresponding murtis. This is the essence of brahma paribartana ritual. From then on, the new murtis receive worship and old murtis become patali (roughly, enter into the earth). It obviously represents the very well known Sanatana concept of the immortality of the atma and the temporariness of the body.

Odia newspapers have always disseminated information about nabakalebara. Not just this event, about Jagannath Temple at Puri, the rituals and surrounding matters, measures taken by the administration to facilitate darshan on special occasions, delay in performance of rituals, which often happened for a number of reasons, etc. The Odia almanacs contain the necessary information about the rituals in the Temple. This is not unexpected, considering the place He has in the heart of his devotees. Legends and literature on Him depict Him as the inclusive god. Therefore at the societal level He is a unifying force. For many devotees He is Formless and Form, Eternal and Temporal and Ultimate Perfection and Imperfection. For million others, He is simply Jagannath, their supreme god, their dearest god, and at the same time, almost a member of their family. Ask him for favours (what is god for, otherwise?), you don’t get, then you abuse Him to your heart’s content and ask for something else. No one is ever disappointed with Him. Understandably, nabakalebara is naturally a complex emotional experience for them. It means a loss, until when they see Him in His new Form. The new is the old. The feeling of new and old disappears. 

No surprise, then, that nabakalebara is eminently newsworthy. I know it from 1950, when I was studying in my village minor school. I distinctly recall that one day, one of our teachers forced us to note down things from The Samaj, an Odia newspaper (the oldest and at that time probably the only or one of the two newspapers), about it. Many things we noted down meant nothing to us. Puri was far away. A great deal more was written about this event when it took place in 69, 77 and 96. Each time there were informative articles and discussions on various aspects of the event and the related matters also. But there was nothing about the actual observance of the secret rituals; there were only very general write ups about the same. For years we had heard and read about what is transferred from the existing murtis to the new ones. Some said what lay inside the pata (a kind of silk)- wrapped thing cloth was a tooth of the Buddha, some said it was a salagrama (sacred pebble, representing Bhagawan Vishnu), some said it was tulsi (“tulsi” leaves, considered sacred) – no one knew for certain. Those who did the transfer were not supposed to tell, no one was expected to ask, either. I have heard from a couple of servitors that when someone in his family asked the one who had done brahma paribartana, he refused to answer. I had absolutely no reason to think that it was not true. Let us leave it at that.

This time things have been different. Electronic media has entered the scene. With surely TRP in mind, channels have given wide coverage of the event right from the beginning. There have been live telecast of those parts of the event that are observed outside the Temple. Earlier, people used to read about some of these events, so they would get to know about them well after they were over. Not this time – everything was known before, so thousands of devotees went wherever the rituals were taking place. There were mini Ratha Yatras at all these places. To increase the interest value of the telecast, a channel would telecast interviews of some senior servitors, members of the Temple administration, an odd devotee, experts on the Temple and its traditions and such other matters. Servitors would explain things about the rituals that were taking place and those that would take place on the following day, the story about these rituals and their significance, the steps taken by the administration to help the devotees, etc. There were the politicians as usual and they also came as devotees. So the usual focus was not really on them. No one would have liked it, including them, I should like to think. 

Appearing before the TV camera for being interviewed can be a heady experience, even more so, probably, for those who do not ordinarily get this opportunity. Many believe that this is the surest way to acquire fame. In such a situation one sometimes gets carried away and says things he would not have otherwise said. Which interviewer would not not relish this! 

Things went on more or less merrily till the brahma paribartana ritual. A day after the ritual, newspapers devoted columns to the terrible mess that had taken place during the ritual and the disgust and the anger of the people throughout the state, directed against daitas, the Temple administration and the state government. Even many servitors strongly condemned what had happened. Thousands of miles away from Odisha I could access only some e-papers for information. 

The brahma parivartana did not take place that night. It took place in the afternoon of the following day. One reason was that there was altercation among some daita servitors about how many would witness that secret of the secret rituals. Why only those four who were to perform the transfer ritual? The quarrel was a sad demonstration of ego and power. Instead of solemn quietness there was angry noise. Reportedly many daitas rushed into the small enclosure, the sanctum sanctorum; many had mobiles and took pictures of the Substance that undergoes transfer. A tradition, one doesn’t know of how many centuries, collapsed in minutes. Incidentally, ordinary devotees are not allowed to take their mobiles into the Temple. The servitors are privileged, so they do not consider themselves bound by the restrictions that hold for the devotees. But if my understanding is correct, tradition gives no support to such a hierarchy among the devotees and the servitors.

As was reported, the Temple administration came up with an explanation. It was “strange”, to say the least. No tradition had been broken, they said, because in nabakalebara 96 too, the same thing had happened. Brahma paribartana had taken place during day time on the day following amabasya. People didn’t know, the secret had been successfully kept for nineteen years. One wonders what the Temple authorities wanted us to note: did they want us to appreciate the fact that the tradition allegedly created in 96 had been duly followed this time? 

In a press conference, some senior daitas said that a few daita servitors had indeed taken their mobiles inside but nobody had taken photos of the Substance and the transfer had been properly performed and the sanctity of it all had not been violated in any way. Soon a picture of the Substance appeared in the Internet, I am told. But the Temple administration have declared it to be fake. In the environment vitiated by so many lies, half-truths and contradictory claims, no one would know what to believe and what not to. 

Questions linger. Why did some daitas want to be present during the ritual of transfer, when they had no role in it? Did they think that those entrusted with that responsibility could not be trusted? Why did some daitas take their mobile phones into the sacred enclosure? Did they think it was unsafe to leave them outside, even with nobody except them in the Temple at that time? Was each of those who carried the phone in eagerly waiting for some news of grave import? Did they not know that what they were doing was against the centuries old tradition? Or did they think it was merely a rusty, meaningless tradition and it was their moral duty to do away with it?     
(7 July 2015)

This morning there is a news report that says that according to the Temple administration no mobile phones were taken inside the sacred enclosure. It didn’t say how they arrived at this conclusion. 

(8 July 2015) 


Nishi said...

Why people want to destroy everything without realizing that they are destroying only themselves.

The Gardener said...

I watched the live coverage of all that was going on outside the temple in the night of scheduled Nabakalebar on the 15th June. I stayed up late and again started watching the live coverage from 2 AM onwards. Traditionally, all the lights inside the temple are switched off during the process. Lights around the temple were switched off at 3.26 AM. The view showed a large number of devotees - men, women and children - sitting on the Bada Danda adjacent to the temple, with lighted earthen lamps, chanting bhajan. This went on till morning when I switched off my TV. I presumed that the holy and secret ritual of Bramha Paribartan was going on inside the temple.

It became known on the 16th was that what was going on during the sacred time of the night of June 15-16 was not Bramha Paribartan but verbal duels and even fist-fights among the warring daitapatis! What a betrayal of the bhajan-chanting devotees sitting up all night on the Bada Danda and millions of believers of the Jagannath culture!

Mina Dan said...

It is too sad that power and betrayal coexist in every sphere of life without any shame!