Nabakalebara: Bridging the gap between humans and God

Asit Mohanty & Sib Kumar Das

Seer Nigamananda has defined life as ‘nothing but a preparation for a better death’. Nabakelabara, which involves the death and rebirth of Sri Jagannath is meant to create a parallel between mortal humans and immortal divinity. This is the first step in the journey towards realization of the omnipresent and eternal existence of Almighty or Sri Jagannath. Many of the rituals of Sri Jagannath temple are taken straight out of the day-to-day life of any human being. The imprint of Odia lifestyle is writ large on these rituals. Since generations Odias have accepted Sri Jagannath as an integral element in their life, He has remained the mark of unity and identity for Odias.

lord jagannath


Gajapati Maharaja or King of Puri was never considered a ruler. He was depicted as the principal servitor of Sri Jagannath. Introduction to traditional Odia almanacs as well as astrological horoscopes prepared during the birth of a child starts with the mention of the name of the Gajapati Maharaja and his ‘anka’ or year of rule. ‘Anka’ of Gajapati Maharaja starts from shukla dwadashi day of the Indian month of Bhadrapad. Earlier, this day, known as ‘sunia,’ was also considered the Odia New Year. All Odias were thus linked with Sri Jagannath from birth through the Gajapati Maharaja. But Gajapati Maharaja was never allowed to proclaim himself more gifted than commoners. He was termed a servitor of Sri Jagannath, who had to serve rather than rule the ‘jagat’ or world as a representative of ‘Jagat-nath (Lord of the Universe). For Odias, the original ruler of their life has always been Sri Jagannath.

In Odia households, all auspicious ceremonies start with the proclamation ‘sarva mangala Jagannath (with Jagannath, everything is auspicious). It provides succour to the sub-conscious that anything that happens is nothing but the wish of the Almighty for some superior cause. It was a subtle message to accept the omniscience of divinity. Before festive ceremonies like marriages and vratopanayan, Odia families still send their first invitation to Sri Jagananth. The rituals for inauguration of a new dwelling place still start with ‘pratistha karma’ where Sri Jagannath and Sri Durga are worshiped as ‘Sri Durgamadhav’.

A unique ritual of Odia marriage ceremony is related to the Nabakalebara rituals and its ‘nyasadaru’ ( During traditional Odia marriages, sacred threads with a bunch of durba grass knotted to it are tied to the wrists of the groom and the bride. This thread remains tied to their wrists throughout the marriage rituals lasting seven days. In Sanskrit, this sacred thread is named ‘kautuka sutra’ or thread of enjoyment. In several scriptures, marriage has been termed ‘kautuka’ meaning fun or enjoyment. It is also known as ‘abyudha sutra’ in Sanskrit. ‘Abyudha’ means unmarried. It seems Odia word ‘abhiadi’, meaning unmarried, has come from this word.

Another interesting colloquial Odia term for this ‘kautuka sutra’ is ‘ashadhua suta’ that means thread for the month of Ashadha. But as per tradition, no marriage ceremonies are held in the month of Ashadha. But Ashadha happens to be a monsoon month when rain god unites with mother earth. So, this can be equated with the unity of ‘prakriti’ and ‘purusha’ of Samkhya philosophy.

This ‘kautuka sutra’ also finds place in Nabakalebara rituals. Before the start of  the consecration of ‘nyasadaru’ and ritualistic invocation of divinity in it, a portion of ‘nyasadaru’ is thought to be the right hand of the deities and a ‘kautua sutra’ is tied to it. It may be noted that all invocations to divinity or ‘nyasakarma’ is done on this small piece of ‘nyasadaru’. Later, it is divided into four parts to become ‘Brahma kapata’ or doors of chambers of core material or ‘Brahma padartha’ in the four idols. It may be noted that Nabakalebara rituals happen during the month of Ashadha as per Indian calendar when this month contains extra days or ‘adhi masa’ to make the lunar calendar match with solar calendar. It seems the holy thread bound to the ‘nyasadaru’ has got the name ‘ashadhua suta’ for this reason. It seems to pass on the message that the bride and groom should enter the realms of family life with an invocation of divinity in all aspects of their life in the same way ‘nyasadaru’ becomes part of divine idols of Sri Jagannath temple.

Odias do not forget their unity with Sri Jagannath even during their death. Rituals of Nabakalebara depicting the metaphorical death of ‘daru’ idols find place in the funeral rituals of these idols. Although the funeral rites of burial of these idols are a closely guarded secret, some information from some ‘daitapati’ and ‘kothasunasia’ servitors directly involved in this process hint that the idols are dismantled into the same number of pieces they are originally built out of. German scholar Roland Hardenberg, in his research document, has mentioned that the idol of Sri Jagannath is made up of six pieces of ‘daru’ or wood. Several other experts of Jagannath culture have similar views. After transfer of core material or ‘Brahma padartha’ to the new idols, each old idol is dismantled into six pieces before its transportation to ‘koili baikuntha’ for burial.

A similar ritual is followed during the funeral procession of Odias. Bodies are carried on special stretcher like carriages made up of bamboo called ‘kokei’. These ‘kokeis’ are always made up six bamboo pieces. It seems this tradition of ‘kokei’ of six bamboo pieces has its roots in the Nabakalebara rituals.

An analysis of the rituals of ‘Nabakalebara’ through this series indicates that although worshipped as four or ‘chaturdhamurti’, the ‘daru’ idols are really depiction of a single entity. The deities worshipped on the ‘ratnasimhasana’ altar of Sri Jagannath temple are not ‘daru bigraha’, they are metaphorical symbols of ‘Parambrahma’ or omnipresent eternal energy.

We all are nothing but manifestation of the same omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent Sri Jagannath. If we consider ourselves to be living, how can we consider Sri Jagannath to be different from us? If Sri Jagannath is the basis of our life, our life force cannot be less than Him.  So, these deities are not inanimate idols. Nabakalebara rituals depict the cycle of life through life and death of Sri Jagannath. It puts us on the same pedestal as the deities and eternal divinity depicted by them.  It provides us a scope to accept the greatest truth of life, death. Through these rituals, we observe that when manifested in this mortal world, even deities have to go through this cycle of life and death. Nabakalebara of Sri Jagannath tempts us to transcend death to reach the realms of eternal omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence, which is real Jagannath state.

Editor’s Note: The series on Nabakalebara that has been appearing on comes to an end with this episode. It has been a pleasure bringing this 22-part series to our discerning visitors. We hope it has helped them expand and enrich their knowledge and understanding of the elaborate and intricate rituals that are part of the unique religious festival called ‘Nabakalebara’. OST expresses its deep sense of gratitude to the authors – Asit Mohanty, an acknowledged authority on the Jagannath cult and senior Berhampur based journalist Sibkumar Das – for giving us this series.     






Also Read

Comments are closed.