By Padmanabha Mahapatra*
( source : orissa review )

On the high platform Ratnavedi inside the inner sanctum of Srimandir seven images are seated at present. They are Balabhadra, Purusottama Jagannath, Subhadra, Sudarshan, Biswadhatri, Laxmi and Madhab. Their origin and evolution, phase by phase, from pre-Vedic period to-date has been discussed in this article.

Jagannath IdolDaru-upasana during Pre-Vedic period –

The origin of Jagannath worship at Puri is mysterious, but it is a fact that Jagannath is a pre- Aryan and pre-Vedic God. The initial inhabitants of the richly wooded blue mountain, subsequently known as Niladri, were the Austric linguistic Savars. The Austrics were Brikshya-Pujaks because, for them the tree was the source of life. The trees provided them fruits as their food, rinds for their clothing, leaves and flowers for medicines, firewood for cooking. Shadow below them were used as their domestic shelter and parts of trees as furniture as well as arms and ammunitions. Researchers state that such trees worshipped by them were Peepal or Aswastha trees and the then Dharma of the Savars was Aswastha Dharma (cult of ficus tree).

This Brikshya-Puja has been accepted as ‘Nyagrodhambaroaswastham’ in ‘Sri Vishnu Sahasranama’ subsequently. Even as on today, the puja of Tulashi, Banyan, Aanla, Baul and Ashok trees are prominent in Orissa. In course of time, these tribals started worshipping trees and log of woods. (Stambha), which were subsequently otherwise known as Madala Puja and Daru-upasana. In Savar language their deities were known as ‘Kitung’ and ‘Jaganta’.

At a later stage, worship of stone-made images also became popular in the tribal community.

It has not been possible so far, to infer any direct reference to the worship of Jagannath or
any of His previous incarnation in Nilachala from the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Ramayan. In the Vedas we find that the Arya Rishis were worshipping Agni, Bayu, Surya, Chandra, Basu, Rudra, Biswadeba, Brihaspati, Indra and Barun etc, but there was no idol worship. Rigveda (First Mandala 164 Mantra – 46) states – Ekam sadbiprah bahudha badanti’- There is only one God, saints and seers exhibit Him in different
names. That one God is the Highest God Sahasra Shirsha Purushah. (Rigveda – Tenth Mandala – Purush Sukta). In the Swetaswatara Upanishad, 6-11, it is said – Eko debah sarbabhuteshu gudhah, sarbabyapi sarbabhutantaratma –

There is one god, He resides within every one, He is universal, and He is present as the soul in every living thing.

In Ramayan only we find the (a) description of hospitality rendered by Savara-raja Guha to Sri Ramchandra in course of his Banabas (b) worshipping and providing sweet fruits to Sri Ramchandra by one ‘Sabaruni’, which establish the existence of Savars during the time of Ramayan and their good relationship with the Aryans.

Historical background of Antarvedi/ Mahavedi as referred to in the Mahabharat

In Mahabharat, there is mention of a ‘Vedi’ within the ‘Brahma-bana’ near the sea in Kalinga. (Mahabharat – Bana Parba – 114 -16 to 28) In course of Agnyata Banabasa, after crossing the river Baitarani, Yudhisthira along with his four brothers and Panchali were intimated by the sage Lomasha – “This is the divine forest of Brahma, the self-existent one, where magnanimous dwellers are reciting their audible prayers. Here Viswakarma performed religious rites (Yagnya), and on such occasion Brahma made a gift of the entire earth to Kashyapa, by way of gratuity, for ministering as a priest. The earth became so unhappy after being treated as such that she descended into the bottom of the nether world.

Then saint Kashyapa beheld the Goddess Earth, performed a propitiatory act to appease Her wrath, as a result of which Earth was pleased, she uprose from within the waters and showed herself in the form of a sacred alter (Vedi) by the side of Mahodadhi.” Rishi Lomasha explained to Yudhisthira – “This is the very altar, which reaches as far as the sea and rests itself upon its bosom, ascend over it and thou would gain valour and strength. You must recite the following words of truth and ascend the Vedi, This altar (Vedi), uprose from within the waters, is the creation of Agni and Surya. This Vedi is ‘Sri Nivas’, residence of the daughter of the ocean. The Bhumi is created out of Yagnyagni (fire of sacrifice) and Sri Vishnu is the Yagnya- Purush. The Vedi is the place of union of Sri with Vishnu, here Sri has been recognized as the consort of Sri Vishnu.1

“Keeping this truth in mind, do necessary japa and tapa and take bath in Mahodadhi”. As per instructions, Yudhisthira, his four brothers alongwith Draupadi performed all that the saint had directed, bathed in the ocean and then started towards the south.

Jagannath TrinityResearchers have identified that Vedi as the present ‘Antarvedi’ or ‘Mahavedi’,2 and ‘Madhab’ as the ‘Adya Vishnu’of Srikhetra. The Bhumi (Earth) that came out of water where fire sacrifice was performed was ‘Bhudevi’ (Biswadhatri). The Yagnya Sharirdhari-Purush was ‘Madhab’ (the ‘Dhab, ‘husband of ‘Ma Laxmi’- Madhab), the descent flame in the left side of Yagnya Purush was Laxmi. (Sri – consort of Vishnu and the daughter of the Ocean) The Yagnya-sthala (Brahma-bana) was the place of union of Vishnu and Laxmi as husband and wife.

More-ever the Yagnya-Jupa has been considered as Sri Sudarshan subsequently. The thirty twopetalled- lotus drawn on the Vedi, the’ Chakrabja Mandal,’ on which the Yagnya was performed has been later designated as Yagnya-Narasimha and His basic upasana was made under ‘Mantraraja’ mantra.3

Hence Sridevi, Bhudevi (Biswadhatri) and Madhab are the three initial deities of Srikhetra, at present seen in small figures, on the Ratnavedi /Antarvedi / Mahavedi within Srimandir.

Development of Worship of Madhab, Narasimha and Nilamadhab in Srikhetra –

Mahabharat puts forth -‘Maunadhyanascha yogascha biddhi bharat Madhabh’ (5-10-4). On account of His silence (mouna), prayer (dhyna) and yoga, He is the epithet of Madhab. Out of main 24 Avatars of Vishnu – Keshab, Narayan and Madhab sprang from Para-Vasudev, the supreme Brahman, who has neither beginning nor end. Chaturbhuja Madhab is Chakra-Sankha- Padma-Gada-Dhari.

In Orissa, the following Mangalastak of Madhab is chanted in all auspicious occasions and before initiation of any good work
‘Madhabo Madhabo Vishnuh
Madhabo Madhabo Harih /
Smaranti Sadhabo Nityam
Sarbakaryeshu Madhabam’ //

Madhab is Laxmikanta, Sarba-Subha-Phal-Pradayak, so His name is uttered five times before taking up any work. Maa is Laxmi, Sarba-Subha-Phal-Pradayini; She is Khirabdhi-tanaya, Lokamata and Ramaa, Agra-pujya in all spheres. In course of time the idol worship of the primitive Sabars entered into the Vedic Culture and the worship of Madhab was initiated in a joint venture.

The shrine of Nilamadhab at Puri appears to have its origin during the rule of the Sailodbhaba kings of Kalinga, the then Kangoda.

The copper plate grant of Madhabaraja of Sailodbhaba dynasty is the first reference of Madhab worship in Kalinga – Prabratta-Chakra-Chakradhar eba Bhagaban, Madhab Raja Kushali. The Madhabaraja and Madhaba Barman designated Sailodbhaba kings, as it appeared from their names, were tribals, they lived on the ‘Saila’ or mountains, their ancestors were Sabars or their synonyms. During their reign, the Sabar chieftain Biswabasu must have been entrusted with the Sevapuja of Nilamadhab. Vidyapati, the messenger of Maharaja Indradyumna, after his arrival at Nilasaila, has seen this Nilamadhab as described in Skanda Puran.

In Skanda Puran, after his return from Nilasaila, Vidyapati narrates to Indradyumna –
“On the top of Nilagiri there is a perennial Bata Brikhya, towards its west there is Rohini Kunda and there is a Sphatik-manimaya Vedi around it. Gada-Padma-Sankha-Chakradhari, sapphire colored, Indra-nila-manimaya, Nilamadhab, is seated on a golden lotus, on this Vedi, under the cooling shade of the Banyan tree, His lotus-like hands embrace Laxmi, who is seating on His left thigh and playing flute, Ananta Nag in backside covers Him in shape of an umbrella. Sudarshan is seen in front of Him and Garuda is seated with folded hands just in the front side.”

This image of Nilamadhab and the Rohini Kunda are stated to have vanished (buried under the sands) due to a severe cyclone, in between the periods when Vidyapati saw Nilamadhab and Indradyumna arrived the holy place. However, Sri Narasimha, enshrined on the Nilasaila under an ‘Aguru’ tree, was all along present before and after the disappearance of Nilamadhab.

Initiation of Purusottam Upasana

At this juncture Acharya Sankar arrived at Srikhetra; his mission was to revive the Vedic system of worship of all the Indian Gods and Goddesses and to eliminate the Buddhist influence on Hindu rituals. Acharya Sankar, the founder Acharya of Purusottam Tatwa, during 9th century, in his Gita Vasya justified that the Nilamadhab worshipped in Sri Khetra was Gita’s Purusottam.- ‘Atoasmi loke Bede cha prathitah Purusottamah’. In this process, he revived the cult of Purusottam in the holy land of Srikhetra, consequent upon construction of a new temple and consecration of blue-stone-made Parameswar therein, during the reign of Jajati Keshari. However there was no basic difference in the iconographic features between Nilamadhab, vanished earlier and Purusottam worshipped later on.

Sri Narasimha Upasana by king lndradyumna, Construction of Daru-Devatas

Maharaja Indradyumna along with Narada reached Srikhetra but could not get the darshan of Sri Nilamadhab and became very much worried. In absence of Nilamadhab, he could get the darshan of Sri Narasimha under the ‘Aguru tree, as per advice of Narada worshipped Him and obtained His blessings, conducted Ashwamedha Yagnya, found the Aporusheya Daru in the nearby sea-shore and three images of Narayana, Laxmi and Ananta within it, arranged their construction in Adapa Mandap (present Gundicha Temple). But there was a prolonged delay in their consecration and in shifting them to present Srimandir.

End of worship of one God and the initiation of the Hindu Triad

The Brahmin culture in the then Kalinga accepted the worship of ‘Jugal-murti’ and ‘many images’ in their temples, based on the Buddhist influences. The upasana of Laxmi-Narasimha, Durga-Madhab and Siva-Parbati were its specific examples. Acharya Sankar was worshipping Purusottam as ‘Siva’ during 9th century, but Acharya Ramanuj started describing Subhadra and Jagannath as Laxmi-Narayan during 12th century.


The present Srimandir has been constructed in between the period of both the Acharyas. Sri Purusottam (combination of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath) in course of time has been separated into three icons, such as Sri Balabhadra, Sri Subhadra and Sri Jagannath and they are being worshipped under different mantras.

Based on Buddhist influence Sri Jagannath and Sri Subhadra are considered as brother and sister. God has created the world; He sustains it; destroys it and then regenerates it again. This basic interpretation generated the synthesis of the Triad- Brahma; Vishnu and Maheswar – the creator; the preserver and the destroyer. Brahma is the prime member of the Hindu Triad; He was born from the lotus that appeared on Vishnu’s navel. He is known as Prajapati; master of the populace. His four heads represent the four Vedas. Swan is his vehicle. Vishnu is the most popular God of the Hindu Triad. He has got one thousand names; ten incarnations. Garud; the king of the birds, is His Vahana. Most powerful, Maheswar is the destroyer so also the reproducer; He is Sivalinga; He has hundreds of names; His mode of transport is a bull -Nandi.

In Hinduism the wives of the Triad are also revered more. Saraswati is the Goddess of Learning; we always seek Her blessings; She is ‘Buddhiprada Sarada’. Just like Brahma; swan is Her vehicle. Laxmi is the Goddess of good fortune; wealth and prosperity. She sits on a lotus and owl is Her vahana. Parvati is sometimes benevolent and at times destructive. She provides good lifepartners and ensures happy married life. She is ‘Durgatinashini’. Her two sons are Kartikeya and Ganesh. She is Bhairabi and She moves on a lion.

Under the above analogy researchers come to the conclusion that Sri Subhadra, Jagannath and Balabhadra, the principal Daru-Devatas represent to Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar respectively. In Kaliyuga Brahma is not to be worshipped, hence His Sakti Subhadra has replaced Him. In synthesizing the Philosophy of Triad the great Sanskrit poet Kalidas mentions –

“In those, Three persons the one God was shown- Each first in place, each last – not one alone; Of Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, each may be First, Second, Third among the Blessed Three.” Sri Sudarshan is referred to as a thousand-spoked Sahasrara. He represents the violent aspect of Vishnu and many elements of Sri Narasimha. Garud, the most liked vahana, got his place on the Garud Stambha.

As regards, the presence of Daru Madhab, metallic images of Bhudevi and Sridevi, placed by the sides of Sri Jagannath on Ratnasimhasan, we have discussed their backgrounds in earlier paragraphs.

The word Jagannath is neither a Sanskrit nor a Pali word; presumably it is the Sanskritised form of the Austric word ‘Jaganta’ used long back by the Pre-Vedic Sabars.4 Sri Jagannath is made of Daru i.e. Wood. Within His wooden body Brahman has been placed, so He is Darubrahman. Brahman is omnipresent. As a man shedding worn-out garments, takes other new one,

Brahman, likewise the embodied soul, casting off worn-out bodies, enters into others, which are new. (Bhagavat Gita-2-22). Based on above Hindu interpretations, we have got so many Gods and Goddesses on the Ratnasimhasan of Srimandir. Jagannath in some other name or shape is there in Orissa since the pre-Vedic period, many preachers have come here and gone back, left their ideologies in Purusottam Khetra. All of them claim that Jagannath is their God but the Khetra has remained unaffected by such preaching. Sri Jagannath has maintained His independent identity, He has accepted something from many cults and established a religious harmony of all the cults found all over India.

Suggested Readings –

1. Pandit Sri Harihar Mahapatra, Srimandir Purohit
– ‘Srikhetrare Madhab Sanskrutir Aitihya’,
Srimandir’magazine -‘Rath Yatra Vishesanka’, 2005
(P -5).
2. Man Mohan Ganguly – ‘Orissa and Her
Remains’- (P-399).
3. As at Sl. No.1 -(P-7).
4. Dr. Benimadhab Padhi ‘Daru Devata’ – (P 52-54).


*Padmanabha Mahapatra, a well known scholar and expert on Jagannath Culture  lives at Pratihari Lane, Matimandap Sahi, Puri in Odisha.

( The article had appeared  in the July, 2008 issue of Orissa Review, published by the Govt of Odisha )

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