by SAMYA MUKHERJEE
Lord Jagannath, His brother Lord Balabhadra and sister Devi Subhadra have an elaborate ritual bath on ‘Snana Purnima’. The day is also celebrated as the birthday of Lord Jagannath. It is believed that watching the ‘Snana Purnima’ rituals cleanses devotees of all sins. After the ceremonial bath, the sibling deities are kept in isolation for two weeks in a special sick room at the temple. The Raj Vaidya and his assistants treat the deities with Ayurvedic medicines and care for them through this period, known as ‘Anasara’. ‘Jagannath Sanskruti’ has a collection of yatras – the major and the most famous Ratha Yatra. ‘Snana’ in Sanskrit means bathing and ‘Purnima’ means Full-moon.
The Hindu month Jyestha is a busy one for Lord Jagannath. It is packed with festivals and special rituals which culminate with the grand Ratha Yatra. On the eleventh day of the waxing moon in the month of Jyestha, ‘Rukmini Harana Ekadashi’ is celebrated. It is Lord Jagannath’s marriage to Devi Lakshmi. The Lord is in His happiest mood. It is the most auspicious time for the devotees to seek the Lord’s blessings. The full moon comes just a few days later – this day is ‘Snana Purnima’ or ‘Deba-Snana Purnima’. According to ‘Skanda Purana’, King Indradyumna arranged for a grand ritual bath for the deities after installing them in the newly built temple. Since that day long, long ago Lord Jagannath, His brother Lord Balabhadra and sister Devi Subhadra have an elaborate ritual bath on ‘Snana Purnima’. For the first time in the year, the gods come out in a procession from the sanctum or garbagriha of the temple. Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra, Sudarshan and Sri Madanmohan are placed on the Snana Bedi platform near the temples eastern boundary wall. They stand out in the open. Having a bath is not a simple matter for gods. The bathing rituals take the entire day. Priests chant long mantras as they pour 108 pots of sanctified water over the wooden deities. In the evening, Lord Jagannath is dressed as a black elephant while Lord Balabhadra wears the mask of white elephant – this beautiful costume is known as ‘Gajanana Besha’; which is linked with the Hindu practice of beginning every religious ritual with an invocation to Lord Ganesha. This unique costume is connected with a scholar from South India named Ganapati Bhatt, who visited Puri hundred years ago. The king of Puri invited him to view Lord Jagannath’s Snana Yatra but Ganapati Bhatt refused because he worshipped only Lord Ganesha. The king insisted - so in order to please the king, Ganapati Bhatt reluctantly went to have darshan. He expected to see Lord Krishna but was surprised to see Lord Ganesha as a black and white elephant. Ganapati Bhatt realised that the gods showed their divine love and compassion by appearing to him in the form he worshipped.
Lord Jagannath, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu and Lord Balabhadra, an aspect of Lord Shiva graciously showed Ganapati Bhatt how all gods are reflections of the Supreme Divine; since then the tradition of Gajanana Besha has continued. Devotees can see the bathing rituals of the deities from the ‘Bada Danda’ or ‘Grand Road’. It is believed that watching the Snana Purnima rituals cleanse the devotees of all sins. Washing away of all the sins of devotees requires an enormous amount of spiritual energy from the deities. Out of endless love for devotees, they stand outside all day so that everyone can view them. Monsoon rains often drench them along with the cold water that is poured upon them (in the form of bliss). Patachitra paintings are displayed at the premises of the temple. Many visit the Alarnath temple in nearby Brahmagiri. Lord Jagannath is believed to manifest Himself there during the ‘Anasara’ period.
‘Deva Snana Purnima’ marks the birth of Lord Jagannath. ‘Skanda Purana’ mentions that king Indradyumna arranged the bathing ceremony for the first time when the idols of the deities were installed at Srimandira. When the temple of the Lord of the Universe was to be inaugurated Brahma was invited from heaven. Brahma, Bidyapati, Biswa Basu, Indradyumna and Devi Gudicha stood by the door of the temple. Brahma and Bidyapati represented the Brahmanas, Biswabasu represented the Shabaras, Indradyumna stood as a royal king and Gundicha stood as representative to the ‘Female fraternity’. Brahma called for permission to open the door in order to meet Lord Jagannath, who allowed Brahma an entry and asked him his wish. Brahma asked, “Oh Lord of the Universe, when can I visit you to get your audience?” Lord Jagannath replied, “You can visit me twelve times in a year. Visit me once in a month”. Lord Jagannath also asked Brahma to start his visits with the bathing ritual in the month of Jyestha, then during the Ratha Yatra in the month of Ashada, then during ‘Uttarayana’ and ‘Dakshinayana’, ‘Parsu-parivartana sayana’, ‘Pushya Abhishek’, ‘Dolo Yatra’ and ‘Akshaya Tritiya’. On hearing such a long list, Brahma informed Jagannath about His incapability to visit twelve times in a year as he had other engagements to attend. He requested Lord Jagannath to shorten the list of visits to three times in a year, thus Prabhu Jagannath agreed to Brahma’s request and said that He could visit on three most auspicious days – ‘Dolo Purnima’, ‘Snana Purnima’ and ‘Shree Gundicha’ or ‘Ratha Yatra’. Lord Brahma again requested Prabhu Jagannath if he could visit twice a year and pleaded that Prabhu Jagannath allots Him two most important days. Prabhu Jagannath agreed and assigned Brahma to visit Him on ‘Snana Purnima’ and ‘Shree Gundicha’. Prabhu Jagannath said, “On these two days I will be my living and breathing self and give audience to all my devotees”. Brahma was satisfied and started moving away but again He had doubts and asked, “Oh! Lord, if for some reason I am unable to come on one these two days and can only come on one of these days then which day should I opt for?” Lord Jagannath replied, “Come on the day of Snana Yatra, the most auspicious among all other religious days”. Thus ‘Snana Yatra’ is considered by Lord Jagannath Himself as the most propitious days.
The entire processing is as though the gods show their infinite love and compassion by empathizing with human illness. This is particularly relevant during the pandemic of covid virus, with so many people being sick and dying. Two weeks quarantine is an important requirement for the human beings. The gods have felt the pain of devotees since time immemorial. Interesting parallels of every human traits in the deities can be found in Pushtimarg sect in the 16th century. Pushtimarg is based on Bhagwan Purana scriptures. Vallabhacharya came from Andhra Pradesh to Puri, where he meditated, interacted with local saints and absorbed the culture of Prabhu Jagannath. He later went to distant Rajasthan and founded Pushtimarg sect. His philosophy was based on the premise that the Supreme Divine is too vast for ordinary humans to understand through intellectual analysis. We can only hope for salvation by appealing to divine lover or Pushti. This divine love appears to us through endearing human traits of the deities. Pushtimarga does not stress on asceticism, and holds that the way to spiritual salvation is through a celebration of earthly life. Srinathji of Nathdwara in Rajasthan is the chief deity of this sect. Lord Srinathji, a form of Lord Krishna and Prabhu Vishnu – same as that of Lord Jagannath. Lord Srinathji is worshipped as a seven-year old boy. To devotees, the idol of Srinathji is not a stone-image. It is a living, vivacious divine child; who is regularly fed, bathed, dressed, sent out to play and gives darshan to the devotees eight times a day. Some beautiful pichwai paintings of Nathdwara present Srinathji as a little boy being bathed by priests. Tears flow from his eyes because he does not like the cold water at all. Lord Jagannath is an adult but the cold water makes Him to fall sick. Such connections show that the vast land of India was always linked spiritually.
Even just at a glance of Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the universe, during Dol Yatra, Chandan Yatra and Ratha Yatra is enough in order to attain ‘Moksha’ i.e. salvation from the cycle of birth and death. But when Brahma Dev asked Shree Vishnu, what if a devotee was unable to have ‘Darshana’ of the Lord on all the three occasions? Lord Jagannath promised that on the day of Ratha Yatra, no one with true devotion shall be left bereft of His grace; and such is the glory and sanctity of the festival, that each man of certain submission leaves the day only after being graced by the Lord’s Darshana, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. What makes the ‘Snan Yatra’ makes the festival even more loved is that the ceremony begins long before the actual celebration – from the initiation of the Ratha’s construction on Akshaya Tritiya till the day of Bahuda Yatra when the Rathas carry the siblings back to the temple, the entire path of the celebration is resplendent rituals and one of the most crucial of these rituals is ‘Snana Yatra’ and its subsequent developments.
Following the conclusion of ‘Chandan Yatra’, this ceremonial ‘Snana’ or bath of the deities is held on the day of Purnima or Full Moon day of the month of Jyestha. The ‘Skanda Purana’ says that Snana Yatra was first arranged by Raja Indradyumna when the deities were initially installed by him; which is why many consider the day to be the birthday of Mahaprabhu Jagannath, making the event, Mahaprabhu Balabhadra, Maa Subhadra and Chakraraj Sudarshana being escorted out of the Garba-griha onto the Snana Mandapa in a stunning ritualistic procession called ‘Pahandi’. Further 108 pots of holy water drawn from the Subarna Kupa are bought to the Bhoga Mandapa where they are worshipped and purified with turmeric, basil and sandal among others. Interestingly, the Suaras and Mahasuaras who are entrusted with the responsibility of these pots keep themselves masked, lest their breath contaminate the holy water. This is followed by the eagerly awaited ‘Abhisheka’ of the Diyans. The Chaturdhamurtis, who are given a ‘Bimba Snana’ or a symbolic bath for the entire year are showered with Subarna Jala and history is witnessed that even the skies rain down for the divine ceremony, every year as heavens open up to have the Darshana of the divine siblings. Later on, the deities adorn the Gajanana Vesha or the elephant form and assumed by the Lord specially for the sake of Ganapati Bhatt, a devout worshipper of Shree Ganesha, this legendary form is yet another indelible mark of the Lord’s words that no one with true Bhakti in his heart shall be left dissatisfied by Him.
But curiously, right after the ‘Snana’, the Diyans enter into a fortnight of special quarantine called ‘Anabasara’, when they are believed to be in fever and hence are taken away from their usual pedestal to an ‘Anabasara Bedi’. During these fifteen days, the deities are only offered ‘Dasamula Modaka’ prepared by the Raj Vaidya to cure them of their ailment and all kinds of public rites remain suspended. Does that mean the Lord denies his children’s devotion for an entire fortnight? - When famed devotee of the Lord, Sree Chaitanya Mahaprabhu overwhelmed with love for his Lord was unable to bear this long separation and threatened to let his body perish if he could not have his beloved Prabhu in his eyes, Sree Jagannath bestowed upon him the direction to find His manifestation in a shrine amidst the Brahmagiri hills.
Lesser yet known immensely significant, the Alarnath Dham was established by the Alvars of Rajasthan in Brahmagiri - about 25 km from Shree Kshetra, where Brahma Dev is said to have worshipped the Lord ages back. Installed in the form of Chaturbhuja Vishnu accompanied by His Vahana, Shri Garuda, the deities here are not Daru Diyans but rather are made of black stone and the enigma of Sree Alarnath is such that He has descended time and again to prove His love for His children.
Besides the belief that Prabhu Jagannath incarnates as Alarnath during the Anabasara, there are numerous other interesting anecdotes associated with the Dham as well. Gracing his devotees, Sree Alarnath is said to have willed the temple to house a Murti of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. It is said that when Sree Chaitanya, on the first sight of the Lord, overcome with ecstacy lay down in front of him in full respect, the stone slab below him melted with the bliss of his touch; this slab can also be found in the premises of the temple. The kheera Bhoga offered in the shrine exclusively during this period is also said to have been first offered to Sree Alarnath by a beloved devotee. The legend goes that when offered Bhoga by Madhusudana, the small child of priest Shriketan, the Lord touched by his innocence had excitedly dipped His hand into the scalding Kheer thereby burning two of his fingers can easily be observed with some help from the priests.
Finally, Anabasara concludes on the 16th day and Sree Jagannath blesses the world by returning from his quarantine in a rejuvenated Nabajoubana Vesha. As the Netroseva in Shree Kshetra literally brings a celebration for the waiting devotees’ eyes, Sree Alarnath receds into buried corners of memories for yet another year; but the temple atop the Brahmagiri has stood tall, through perils known and unknown, as a mark of the Patita Pabana’s promise that he belongs to those who love Him; and shall keep standing till the end of time and space. He kept his words when his devotees were barred of His Darshana by emerging as ‘Daru Diyan’ in the sacred land of Puri. He kept His words when His devotee wanted to witness a particular form of Him by taking Gajanana Vesha. He kept His words when His devotees suffered from His separation by manifesting into the shrine amid the hills. Then He will surely fulfill His promise in these testing times when the entire world is reeling under an unseen enemy.