'Nabakalebara': Why the Jagannath Rath Yatra is special this year

I am not a religious person but some tales are so mysterious that they fascinate me and I am urged to share them.

Puri in Eastern Odisha houses one of the char dhaams of Hinduism (4 of the most sacred places that every Hindu ought to visit in his/her lifetime), the others being Badrinath (North), Dwarika (West) and Rameshwaram (South). Each of the dhaams has a deity, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, that has resided in a temple complex for centuries. While the stories of how the other 3 dhaams came into existence are very known due to their repeated telecasts in some form or the other in mythological tv serials, the story of Jagannath Puri is hardly known to non-Odia people.

The Jagannath Temple, Puri, viewed from across the 'Bada Danda'
This being said, I can very safely assume that even less number of people are aware of ‘Navakalebara’.

I know the story because my grandmother narrated it to me while I was very young. And there hasn’t been a dearth of news stories appearing all over the internet for the past year.

So what is special about the Rath Yatra this year? Once every 12-19 years (when the extra month of Aashadha falls in the Hindu calendar), the idols of the presiding deities (Lord Jagannath, Balabdhadra and Subhadra alongwith the Sudarshan Chakra) at the Jagannath Temple are changed. This is called the Navakalebara or the ‘transformation ceremony of Lord Jagannath’. It is not just a simple construction of a new idol while discarding the old one; it is in fact a very elaborate process spread over several weeks. And this is what makes the story so mysterious and fascinating.

“Many weeks prior to the Rath Yatra, the oldest priest of the Jagannath temple has a dream of the exact area where the new ‘brahma daaru’ (wood) would be found for the deities,” my grand mother would tell me. The brahma daaru is a special kind of Neem wood that is used for the construction of the new idols. A full force search operation starts in and around Puri and specific signs are looked for in the tree trunks for each deity (Like a natural impression of a wheel or conch). Once each of the daarus are found, which can take a lot of time and effort, havans are done and the trees are cut (with golden, silver and iron axe) and carried to the main temple in Puri.

Once the logs arrive, in absolute secrecy, the carving and construction of the new idols of the 4 deities starts inside the temple by 9 carpenters and is to be completed within 21 days (Even the head priest is not allowed access to the carving area). The transfer of the Brahma Padartha from the old idols to the new idols is done in the dead of midnight in complete silence. This ‘Brahma Padartha’ is considered a supernatural thing and the source of power for the idols. No one has ever seen or felt this Brahma Padartha. When the transfer is to be made, the entire city of Puri is blacked out for the night and just three people are responsible for the physical transfer of the ‘life force’. They are blindfolded and heavy layers of cloth are tied around their hands while they remove the Brahma Padartha from the old idols and transfer them into the new ones.

The mysterious part is that no one till date has any clue what the Brahma Padartha is. I quote one of the three people here: “It is very difficult to express what Brahman is. It cannot be seen or touched. Our eyes are blindfolded and our hands are covered with cloth when we carry it. Yet a powerful feeling is very much present, like a rabbit jumping in our hands. This is our experience. Beyond this, exactly what this Brahman is that is so powerfully felt, nobody is able to say.”

The Rath Yatra which happens in the days following this transformation is the first time when the new deities are moved out of the temple for the chariot festival. To catch a glimpse of this ‘new face’ of the deities, the Rath Yatra in the Navakalebara year becomes the hugest crowd pulling religious event in the country. It is estimated that over 5 million people are expected to visit Puri for the Rath Yatra on 18th July this year.

I have visited the Puri Jagannath Temple numerous times since I was born, the last visit being on a superbly crowded Diwali morning, with my grandparents, in October last year. That was when I heard my grand mother mention the Nabakalebara and that it is happening after 19 years. This fuelled my interest in the event and my internet research started. Apparently, the Government of Odisha and the Tourism department, with help from the Centre, are trying to make this an event of global tourism importance with loads of infrastructure and development work being fast tracked in time to prepare for the Rath yatra this year. 

Having lived in Delhi for the last 7 years, I have known the general attitude of people regarding 'Odisha'- they don't consider it of any importance on the tourism map. The sad fact is that the government of the state hasn't been taking any steps to change this attitude. No wonder, I was surprised and happy when I saw an Odisha Tourism advertisement being aired on TV finally. But still, a lot remains to be done. This blog post is just a small effort.

Read more about the Navakalebara festival at these links:

History | Entire process | The 2015 festival schedule | Facebook page for latest updates | Rath Yatra Website

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  1. Very interesting.Thanks for sharing this.BTW are you planning for the trip to this yatra?

    1. I have seen it on TV for all the years that I can remember. Surely do want to visit it, not this year though.

  2. That is interesting, the whole process. In this modern age there is so much mystery which are yet to be explained.

  3. Thanks for writing and sharing knowledge. Thanks a lot. This year I might visit.

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