Saturday, August 8, 2015


Ratha Yatra of 2015, the year of nabakalebara, was held (or if you like, started, Ratha Yatra is often described as a nine-day festival but one can also think of it as a twelve day festival, ending with the return of the Deities to the garva griha or the sanctum sanctorum of the Temple) on July 18. The rituals were performed on time. The rathas did not reach Gundicha Ghara, their destination, that day, but neither the servitors nor the temple administration could be held responsible. With so many people on the Bada danda (Grand Road) to pull the rathas, it cannot be regarded as unexpected. In any case, it is not the first time that this happened. However, an Odia newspaper mentioned that the rathas had reached Gundicha Ghara on time in 1996, when the last nabakalebara was held. Whatever purpose such a comparison might serve, on this particular matter, an earlier experience cannot amount to much. Once the pulling of the rathas start, over all administrative efficiency cannot guarantee that the rathas would reach their destination on time. This year, only Sri Balabhadra’s ratha reached Gundicha Ghara on the day of Ratha Yatra. Devi Subhadra’s and Sri Jagannath’s reached there on the following day. The love and devotion of lakhs of devotees – some said, fifteen lakhs this year, some, twenty; one estimate put the figure still higher, another, much lower - made the unholy mess that had taken place on the brahmaparibartan day a thing of a long-forgotten past. Once the devotee’s eyes meet Jagannath’s eyes, that’s the ultimate fulfillment for him. Everything else fades into insignificance. One wonders if Jagannath isn’t the very manifestation of this boundless love and devotion and even attachment of not only millions who are alive but hundreds of millions who lived in the bygone centuries as well. Isn’t it people’s love because of which some perceived Him as Vishnu, some as Siva, some as  Nrusingha, Vamana, Rama and Krishna, and some as Ganesha, etc? Isn’t this then the Formless Essence of Him – Brahma that continues to exist as generations die and new generations are born? 

This piece is about mainly about sparsha darshana (touching the Deities). Last year, sparsha darshana  was not allowed to devotees, implementing the view of the Sankaracharya of Puri that touching the Deities is sinful, which was supported by the Gajapati maharaja of Puri, in his capacity as the first in the hierarchy of the servitors of the Temple. This was followed this year, reportedly even more strictly. This time there was a decision of the Odisha High Court in this regard.

Ignoring details, the context is roughly this: the Temple administration had decided that on the day before Ratha Yatra, known as the day of nabajoubana (literally naba is new and joubana is youth), only the servitors (daitas and non-daitas), their families, the VVIPs, the VIPs and the members of the Temple administration would be allowed to have darshan of the Deities. This special favour to the politicians and the bureaucrats invited people’s disgust and anger and there was protest. A citizen of the city of Cuttack approached the Odisha High Court. Before the Court decided the case, the Temple administration modified its decision and announced that only the servitors and their families, and those members of the Temple administration who would be on duty in the Temple on that day would be allowed to have darshan. A day before nabajoubana, the Hon’able High Court decided that only those who would be needed in connection with the performance of the rituals on that day would be allowed into the garva griha inside the Temple and non else. It directed the administration to ensure that the order be strictly followed. It was. Reportedly the Court decision was observed in spirit on the rathas too. 

Devotees have been happy that they have had clear darshan of the Deities from the ground. Since they cannot climb the rathas for sparsa darshan, servitors are not there on the rathas either, except those involved in the rituals. There are no unseemly jostling and fighting and shouting right in front of the Deities, no quarreling and no manhandling of any devotee by some servitor and no crowd in front of the Deity. Last year there was some opposition to denial of sparsa darshan to the devotees. But that was before the Ratha Yatra started; once it was implemented during the Yatra, the vast majority of people were happy. They had praised the government for introducing that system. (For some details, see Ratha Yatra – 2014 in this blog.)  

A little about darshan on the day of nabajoubana, which is called nabajoubana darshana. After fifteen (forty five in the nabakalebara year) days after Snana Yatra (called the anasara period), one can have the darshan of the Deities on this day. Some believe it to be very auspicious, bestowing great religious merit on those who have darshana. Punya (religious merit)or no punya, some simply wish to see their most beloved Deities after missing Them for so many days. Some believe that if one watched the bathing of the Deities on Snana Yatra, one must have a darshan of Them on this day. Incidentally, it is said that during the fifteen days referred to above, Sri Chaitanya used to walk to a place some forty kilometers from Puri to have darshan of Bhagawan Alarnath (Narayana). Following Sri Chaitanya, some still go to Brahmagiri for Alarnath darshan at least once during the fifteen anasara days. 

Sometimes two days after and sometimes just one day after the day of nabajoubana darshana,  Ratha Yatra is held. In the latter case often people, except the servitors and their families and the VIPs and the VVIPs, are not allowed to have the darshan of the Deities. In 1969, the Temple administration decided that only those among the ordinary devotees who would pay a certain amount of money (five rupees, if I remember correctly) as parimanika (roughly, fee for special darshan) would be allowed to enter the Temple to have darshan. Incidentally, parimanika system was not an innovation of that year. It had been, ignoring details, part of the daily routine in the Temple for years. Likewise the free darshan, called sahana mela. During sahana mela and parimanika darshan, one could enter the garva griha. Otherwise one could have darshan from the hall called jagamohana. It is believed that Sri Chaitanya never entered the garva griha. He chose to have darshan from jagamohana. Some local people still choose not to enter the sanctum sanctorum. But their reasons are not exactly the same as Sri Chaitanya’s. Anyway, the point to note is that no one can be asked to pay money to have darshan, if darshan is possible (for instance, Temple is open and a ritual is in progress during which the door of the sanctum sanctorum is not closed). This is the tradition.

The decision of the Temple authorities violated this tradition in 1969 because, as mentioned above; only parimanika darshan was allowed. At that time I was teaching in SCS College in Puri. I recall that a senior colleague of mine, Satyabadi Mishra, an inhabitant of the town, went to Court against this decision. He won, but I am not sure whether the free nabajoubana darshana was implemented that year. If it wasn’t, it was surely due to the Court order reaching the authorities too late for that. I do not recall which year, but once paramanika darshan was allowed for only an hour or so, but free darshan was allowed too, for may be, just half an hour. I clearly recall a poor, old woman, bent with age and with wrinkles on her face, walking with a stick, entering the Temple all alone for free darshan. When she came out, I felt a sense of fulfillment exuding from her. 

Just as there is provision for free darshan, there is provision for sparsha darshana too. On certain days (Dola purnima, the day before Holi, the day following padma vesha and a few others)during parimanik and sadharana darshana (public darshan, i.e, free darshan) devotees can, during the free darshan period, touch the Deities in the sanctum sanctorum. That is, in the Jagannath Temple tradition, touching the Deities is not a sin, contrary to what Sri Shankaracharya of Puri maintains, or a great sin, as Gajapati maharaja of Puri said last year, agreeing with him. Sparsha darshan has been allowed for a limited period during nabajoubana darshana and during Ratha Yatra. This surely has the support of age-old tradition or a convention over many years. The authentic pictures of the earliest Ratha Yatra I have seen are of those of the 1932 Ratha Yatra and sparsha darshana on the rathas was very much there.  I have no reason to assume that it had originated that year. 

I can say it with confidence that the feeling of papa (sin) or adharma would be in no one’s mind when one touches the Deities (i.e., has  sparsha darshana). This year as well as last year, whoever was in a situation where touching the Deities was possible (like one had a cordon pass), did. It is possible that after a few decades of the denial of sparsha darshana on the Rathas, which started last year, people might have come to believe that touching the Deities is sinful. 

Talking about 1932 Ratha Yatra, much has changed. That year 12000 devotees were in Puri for the Yatra. This Nabakalebara year so many lakhs were there. In an ordinary year, from the nineteen eighties to 2013 or 14, not less than some three to five lakhs, by a very conservative estimate, would attend this annual Yatra. There is the problem of managing so many people and there is the additional and serious problem of safety. These apart, the kind of insensitivity, indiscipline, swindling and violence that has been reported in the more recent years on the floor of the rathas have deeply hurt the feelings of lakhs of devotees. In such a situation, people have found great merit in the denial of sparsha darshana on the rathas. It is seen as something which has enabled everyone, not just a few, to have a clear darshan of the Deities. Privileging in darshan is entirely unjustified and obnoxious.

All the same, I must say I have felt something is missing. When this restriction was not there, the Deities were surrounded by people. They touched Them, caressed Them, embraced Them, especially Jagannath, the way they would someone, they deeply cared for, loved or profoundly attached to.  Theirs was an act as much of bhakti as of prema and sraddha – reminiscent of the way the gopis of Vrindaban treated Krishna as celebrated in Vaishnavite literature. It is a beautiful sight to see Bhagawan Jagannath surrounded by bhaktas, jostling with one another to go near Him to feel Him. Last year there were no devotees on the Rathas. As mentioned earlier, people standing on the ground had clear darshan and said that they were very happy with this arrangement. However, I liked to think that the Deities on the rathas looked as though They were missing the people, and I certainly missed so very much the beautiful sight of Bhagawan in the midst of His bhaktas.

(Bahuda Yatra, Nabakalebara – 2015)