What is Nabakalebara?
It is a key festival in the Odia Hindu calendar, marking the demise and re-birth of Lord Jagannath of Puri. Naba is New; Kalebara is Body. Nabakalebara becomes necessary as the neem wood from which the deities — Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are made — decays over time. Nabakalebara happens when there are two Ashadhs in a year. The process begins with a few chosen servitors of the Lord going out in search of neem trees for the idols. The logs are ferried to the temple on bullock carts in an elaborate procession. After the deities are sculpted inside the temple, four servitors — Badagrahis or bodyguards — transfer the Brahmapadartha (soul) from the old idols to the new ones in the dead of night. The old deities are simultaneously buried inside the temple. The new idols make a public appearance a day before the Rath Yatra. The whole process takes around 2 months. The last Nabakalebara happened in 1996. This year, the Nabakalebara process began on March 29.
- Jagannath Rath Yatra begins amid tight security in Ahmedabad, Puri; PM Modi extends greetings
- Odisha: Servitors meet CM Naveen Pattnaik, discuss proposed entry of non-Hindus to Puri Temple
- Daan, dakshina: Why an SC order has triggered disquiet in the Lord’s home
- Kendrapara’s Jagannath temple management deliberates to remove barricade for darshan
- Naveen Patnaik pulls up DGP Sanjeev Marik for touching servitor’s feet
- Deities at Jagannath temple in Puri replaced after 19 years in elaborate ceremony
So, what is the problem?
Servitors and politicians have turned the holy event into a spectacle of grandstanding and oneupmanship. One of them debunked the legend of a “dream” guiding the search for the neem trees on a local TV channel, and some of them placed their personal hundis near the trees and by the roadside to solicit money. When the logs were being carted to the temple, Animal Husbandry Minister Pradip Maharathy got on to the bullock carts, and Law Minister Arun Sahu flaunted his proximity to the servitors by eating with them. The sacred soul-transfer was carried out in the daytime, even as 100-odd servitors fought among themselves. While only four Badagrahis were supposed to be present in the closed room during the soul-transfer, nine were actually present, including a father-son duo. Subsequently, it emerged that most servants of the Lord had taken mobile phones inside, and a fight had broken out over touching the mysterious Brahma. Pictures of Brahma and the deities being buried appeared in social media, hurting the sentiments of lakhs of devotees. The government has now barred the father-son servitor duo from temple rituals, ordered a probe into the appearance of Brahma photos in social media, and appointed a senior IPS officer to oversee the Nabakalebara process until the Rath Yatra of July 18.
Why is Lord Jagannath so important to Odisha and its people?
The Lord is part and parcel of the social, religious and cultural ethos of the people of the state — the “First Odia”, so to speak. Politicians starting out on election campaigns seek His blessings first, and ordinary households invite Him to weddings in the family before anyone else. Of the 98 lakh visitors to Odisha last year, more than 70 per cent went to Puri to visit the Jagannath temple. He is seen as the God who, just like ordinary mortals, takes birth and dies. He is also quintessentially Odia — starting the day with an elaborate breakfast, followed by a heavy lunch and a siesta. He then has snacks, followed by dinner, after which he retires for the day. Anyone disagreeing with the ways of the Lord risks popular opprobrium.
What has been the fallout of the Nabakalebara scandal?
The Congress, seeing an opportunity to attack Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, last week organised a near total Odisha bandh. Since Tuesday, the BJP has begun a week-long rathyatra to campaign against the government’s mismanagement of the event. But Naveen is unlikely to be affected politically.
So, can Naveen actually turn the issue to his advantage?
The last Nabakalebara happened 19 years ago, and the scandal has possibly cost the government the opportunity to turn it into a Kumbh Mela-type spectacle — building infrastructure and publicity, drawing in visitors, and showcasing Puri. Preparations are late, but Naveen can still clean up the temple management, which is currently full of servitors with criminal antecedents. The scandal is a great clean-up opportunity — and a chance to turn the twelfth century temple into a better managed institution.