The Rath Yatra of Jagannath is among the grandest sacred spectacle of India and till only recently, which is before the Bengalis discovered the Durga Puja, it was the grandest fair of them all. The rath, or the car festival seems to be a throw from ancient Egyptian car festival and goes to prove the connections between Egypt and Orissa, both major maritime powers in their time. Lord Jagannath is a site of multiple myths and meanings; he straddles between the forest and the city, the mountain and the ocean, the tantric rites and tribalism and has distinct similarities with Tibetan Gods and their representations. The face of Jagannath and Balaram, more so of the latter than the former has bird like features, in costumes akin to the kathakali or the chhou dance, resembling both deities from Tibet and from Sri Lanka and Bali. Indeed, one of the more important festivals of Odisha is the Bali yatra, signifying the seting off of ships on the ocean for trade to Bali, once again hinting at the connection between the two above mentioned cultures. One could then draw a lateral line from Egypt to Odisha and a vertical line from Sri Lanka, through Kerala, Bastar, Odisha and Jharkhand right inside the western provinces of China; zhou and chhou being phonetically similar and perhaps mean the same thing. Jagannath’s geography then draws from the oceans on the three sides of the Indian peninsular and unites China and Tibet in the north and Kerala in the south. One particular myth of Jagannath claims that he is the unburnt body of Lord Krishna which had come floating in the sea. Given the fact that Krishna died in the western coast of India and Puri, the abode of Jagannath is on the east coast, the cult has already united the two coasts of the peninsula. If Jagannath is the corpse of Krisha which is eventually discovered in a secret zone of the forest, then we have the tantric rites of using corpses for gaining access to the occult. The “soul transfer” which takes place at the dead of the night of the nobokolebor is supposed to be sensational, resulting in the death of the senior most priest who does the honours.
In an Internet post http://forum.davidicke.com on the 4th march 2011 by Bibhu Dey Misra tells us of the Opet Festival of ancient Egypt that used to be celebrated in Karnak during the monsoon season of the flood of the Nile. Here three deities, namely Amun, Mut and Khonsu were carried in decorative barques. Amun is a God with blue colours dnning peacock feathers. Karnak and Konarak are similar sounding and both are places of Sun worship. Somewhere icons coincide.
Jagannath is the Lord of the forest. He resides in the dense foliage of the plateau with his older brother and younger sister. In the folk tales of Bengal, the trio, Arun Barun and Kironmala who appear similar to the Jagannath, Balaram and Shubhadra are little children from princely families who are lost in the forests, die and emerge from trees. The trinity is also made out of wood of neem trees, the trees having the necessary properties which are taken as being revelations of the Gods being hidden in those. Jagannath and his siblings have large pupils and podgy faces, their hands and feet are in stubs hinting that perhaps they are children, a possible reason why none among them is married. As children they need to be fed at regular intervals, bathed, tucked away to bed at night and entertained. For seven days in the monsoon month of Sraban or Ashadh, they also go on a vacation to their maternal aunt’s home. The vacationing out is the rath yatra.
Specifically, maternal aunt in case of Jagannath is the mother’s sister. In view of Jagannath’s origin as a tribal and his kidnap and instatement within the patriarchal milieu of the Ganga kings, kinship is problematic. This is largely due to the fact that tribals are often matriarchal and relatives bear different levels of significance in different systems of kinship. But the mother’s sister in either case is a neutral person, in whose home the Lord’s visitation is without any loading of meaning. Also, the mother’s sister has the least possibility of developing any kind of long term legal bonds with her sister’s son and hence the possible retaining of Jagannath into her home may well be ruled out.
While there are diverse myths around the Jagannath, varying from the pantheon being babes in the woods to them being the unburnt carcass of Krishna and his siblings, they are united in one thing and which is that Jagannath and his siblings visit the maashi, or the mother’s sister. Politics may revolve around the myths but kinship structures must remain above board, there must never be any contestation around the structure of the family. This is perhaps the sole reason why Jagannath, despite the unity of the tribal and the mainstream, the Dravidian and the Aryan styles, the Tibetan touch and the oceanic imprints, Lord Jagannath has never tolerated the “non Hindu” which includes the Jains and the Buddhists. Jagannath’s intolerance of the religions derives from the fact that kinship cannot be moderated and to my mind, this is the deepest secret of the myth.
The reign of the Ganga kings was the Golden Age of Odisha during which Indradyumna was supposed to have, through trickery and cheating, stolen Jagannath from the forest and instated him inside the temple.
The forest and temple conflict becomes evident and it is possible that the Ganga kings ravished the dense vegetation to build their boats, cut their paths and establish their suzerainty. Indeed, many a time tribes from the Sambalpur region have come and burnt down the Jagannath deity inside the temple. The grand fair that takes place around the rath yatra is focused on the sale of saplings hinting that the rath is also the time of planting the tree, hinting at the predominance of the forest.
However, built in the 12th and 13th century, Jagannath becomes the first deity among the Hindus to be placed inside a temple for the purposes of worship; before this only the Buddhists worshipped deities and Hindus, though animistic did not worship the human form. The grand processions of Jagannath perhaps is very Buddhist as well because nowhere in the Hindu worship deities are taken out in a rally. There are raths of the various gurus but they are propaganda rather than be the core of a religious ceremony. Jagannath gets the final stamp of authority when Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu settles down in Puri and worships the pantheon as Krishna, Balaram and Shubhadra, part of the Puranas and integral to the cult of the Krishna worship of the Vaishnavas.
On the occasion of the rath, my kind and enthusiastic friends on the facebook have posted some poetry around the rath. There are two poems from the early twentieth century, one somewhere in the 1960’s and one written only recently. The first one addresses the incredulity of idol worship by cynically regarding the devotees as they prostrate on the streets in obeisance of the Lord. The poet says that as the devotees prostrate themselves on the path of the rath, the path thinks herself to be God, the rath thinks herself as the Divine and the idols tend to regard themselves as celestial. But, the real God smiles at such mistaken identities, knowing fully well that He is the real one. The poem demolishes the holiness surrounding the entire episode of the rath yatra by taking away its Divinity and rendering the phenomenon as an empty shell. For this poet, the spectacle of the rath is a lie.
The next poem to be posted is the one by Tagore in which he observes that the poor and the down trodden especially the ones from the untouchable castes are not allowed to participate in the festival. Drawing upon the loneliness of one such woman Tagore raises the rath into a metaphor saying that it is the vehicle of Divine manifestation, which for the woman in question happens in the form of two freshly bloomed flowers. The flowers in bloom for this social outcast is the rath of the Divine, for it is through such manifestations that God arrives at her doorstep. The latter is a second layer of meaning which says that if the devotee cannot go to the rath, the Lord appears at her precinct in His vehicle.
The third is a poem of the 1960’s, the time of socialistic sensibilities in Bengal. The poet observes the great enthusiasm around the fair where children are busy gorging on the goodies while the child of the poor parents look on unable to access any of the toys, especially the flute which he so wanted for himself. The flute is an essential accessory of Lord Krishna, whose avatar Jagannath is supposed to be and the poet observes the paradox of the festival in which the image of Krishna is worshipped while excluding the Krishna in real life.
The fourth composition is the recent one by Srijata in which the poet observes the children draw their own decorated replica of the Jagannath rath on the moss lain slippery floors of their terrace and yet two Muslim children are kept out of the laughter and the gaiety of the celebrations because of their religion. Srijato extols the children to play together, saying that let the rath touch the skies to catch the moon of Id, let the semolina of Id be served on the same platter as the papad of the rath. Let the celebrations be a unity of the diversity of religions, let the festivity wipe off differences between communities.
If the above poems are any indications of poetry in general, then one may conclude that the function of poetry is to puncture spectacle. Poetry is reflective and in such reflection sabotages the visual. The spectacle is the visual that belies the event. The spectacle of Jagannath conceals the conflicts around the deity, holds up the pantheon as if the conflicts have already been resolved; spectacles need to be unchallenged by contradictions. Poetry is the enemy of media; if you wish to demolish the myths of the media, then poetry is the weapon. The novel, the cinema, the painting, the sculpture and even music, in short all of those which puts together the diverse parts into a unity cannot challenge the spectacle as well as poetry does. Spectacle can be analyzed and disaggregated but its essence can only be obtained from its unity and this is why, despite the hair splitting semiotics, spectacles must be analyzed in terms of its unity, its coherence.
Media is the modern day spectacle; it uses the principles of the spectacle to conceal the conflictual events that lie within. The ravish, the demolition, the conquest are subsumed inside the spectacle. The media becomes the mainstream, the poet remains the marginal.