The Symbolism of ‘Ashwamedha Yajna’ in Nabakalebara

Asit Mohanty & Sibkumar Das

‘Ashwamedha yajna’ was a major ritual of Vedic age that finds mention in the Rigveda. ‘Shatpatha Brahmana’ of Yajurveda contains a detailed description of the phenomenon. It was the most regal among the ritualistic ‘yajnas’ and was appropriately termed a royal ritual.


‘Brahma Vaibarta Purana’ forbids the performance of ‘Ashwamedha yajna’ in the present age or Kaliyuga. But interestingly, many of the rituals during the cutting of selected ‘daru’ trees in Nabakalebara have shades of the rituals of the ‘Ashwamedha yajna’.

In an article on the subject, Gopalkrushna Dash, Professor of Sanskrit department of Utkal University, has claimed that the rituals during the cutting of ‘daru’ trees seem to be the symbolic representation of the ‘Ashwamedha yagna’ performed by King Indradyumna, who, according to mythology, built the Sri Jagannath temple and installed ‘daru’ idols inside it for worship.

The process to cut the selected ‘daru’ tree starts only after completion of the ‘yajna’ performed near the tree. Three axes made of gold, silver and iron are used for the ritualistic cutting of the ‘daru’ tree. These axes are coated with ghee and honey and consecrated with ‘Sudarshan mantra’. The gold and silver axes are miniatures of real axes. Vidyapati, Biswabasu and Biswakarma servitors, who are part of the ‘Banajaga yatra’, use these axes for felling the ‘daru’ tree. Vidyapati uses the gold axe, Biswabasu the silver one and Biswakarma the iron axe.

Similar rituals were being performed during ‘Ashwamedha yajna’. According to Prof Dash, queens of three categories participated in this ritual and were categorised as Mahishi, Babata and Paribruti as per their status and relation with the king. During the sacrifice of the ‘yajnashwa’ or sacrificial horse during ‘Ashwamedha yajna’, they used to play a key role. One after the other, they poked needles into the body of the sacrificial horse. Mahishi queens used a gold needle, Babata a silver needle and Paribruti an iron ore one. The same sequence is repeated, complete with the use of axes of different metals, during the cutting of the ‘daru’ tree. During ‘Ashwamedha yajna’, the sacrificial horse was killed while its head faced east and legs were towards north. Prof Dash points out that it is symbolically replicated as the cut down ‘daru’ tree is made to fall towards east or north.

Nabakalebara rituals replicate some rites of ‘Ashwamedha yajna’ with an aim to keep alive convoluted spiritual thoughts of ancient seers. Although ‘Ashwamedha yajna’ was performed by kings through physical metaphorical representations like sacrifice of a horse, Upanishads do not advocate it. They direct us to opt for ‘Inner Ashvamedha’ rather than performing external rituals. ‘Avadhuta Upanishad’ of Yajurveda says ‘one should perform internal ‘Ashwamedha’ which is the greatest sacrifice and ultimate meditation’. ‘Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’ identifies ‘sun and death’ with ‘Ashwamedha.

Sun is the source of all energy in our world. Like the horse of ‘Ashwamedha,’ it reaches everywhere. Similar is the extensive reach of death. Sacrifice of these two can make us evolve to reach the state where we identify with the ultimate reality that rules the existence of Jagannath (ruler of the universe).

So, during the sacrifice or cutting of the selected ‘daru’ tree for its use to construct new idols, efforts have been made by our ancestors to make us remember spiritual secrets of ‘Ashwamedha yajna’. As per ancient traditions, gold represents purity throughout the world while silver is metaphor for intuition and iron represents hard work. Use of these three can lead to real spiritual sacrifice or ‘internal yajna’. To keep alive this spiritual message axes of these three metals are used to cut down the ‘daru’ tree. When we offer our mortal identity to Almighty through purity, intuition and hard work our body becomes a channel for ‘leela’ of Sri Jagannath like the ‘daru’ tree.


Next: ‘Nyasadaru: ‘One as All’ enigma of Nabakelabara


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