Tribal Origin of the Cult of the Jagannath

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Author: Abhimanyu Dash
Credit: The Article has been taken from February-March 2014 Issue of Odisha Review


The origin of the cult of Jagannath is mysterious. The deity itself accepts almost all the sects of Hindu Pantheon like Vedic religion, Vaishnavism, Saivism, Tantricism and Brahminism in His abode. In addition to these sects, Jainism and Buddhism acclaim the Jagannath triad belonging to their religions. In spite of this, scholars in the cult of Jagannath believe in the aboriginal tribal (Savara) origin of the Jagannath triad.


The scholars in the field of the cult of Jagannath also differ in holding their own views and theories. But among all the theories propounded regarding the origin of the Jagannath cult, the theory of tribal origin is the most accepted one. Scholars like B.M.Padhi1, A. Eschmann G.C. Tripathy, H. Kulke4 and H.V. Stietencorn have dealt with the tribal origin of the Jagannath cult. Though many arguments and counter arguments have been put forth by the scholars to support their own theories regarding the origin of the cult no one has been able to deny the intimate association of the Savaras or the tribals with the cult of Jagannath from its inception. Even scholars like B. Mohanty, N.K. Sahu, K.C Mishra, S.Mohanty and G.N.Mohapatra have accepted the tribal influence in the cult of Jagannath.

The legends of the Puri and the Purusottam Mahatmya of the Skanda Purana, the Musali Parva, the Vanaparva of Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata, Deula Tola of Sisu Krshna Das and Nilambar Das refer to the Savara or tribal origin Tribal Origin of the Cult of the Jagannath Abhimanyu Dash of the Jagannath. Almost in a similar way they narrate the Indradyumna story and explain how the deity was originally worshipped by the aboriginal Savara chief Visvavasu in the forest and later on how it appeared at Puri.

The story in the Purusottama Mahatmya of Skanda Purana – The story recorded in the Purusottama Mahatmya of Skanda Purana says that the shrine of Nilamadhava was located in the Blue hill (Nila Saila) surrounded by a forest. Indradyumna, the king of Avanti came to know about the sanctity of the place and Lord Nilamadhava. He sent Vidyapati to the place to get information of Nilamadhava. Once Vidyapati told to his wife Lalita about his desire to see the God. At first Visvavasu was unwilling to allow Vidyapati to take him to God Nilamadhava but later on he took him by covering his eyes in order to keep the secrecy of the shrine. But clever Vidyapati on the way secretly dropped mustard seeds, which germinated after a few days and opened the secret path to Nilamadhava. Vidyapati then returned to his master Indradyumna and reported the location of the shrine. The King was overwhelmed and started for Blue hill to have a Darsana (view). But to his misfortune he could not find the image there. In the night the king had a dream in which he saw a noble tree coming from the Svetadvipa where God Visnu appeared in his blue form. In the morning news came to the king that a log impressed with the signs of Visnu had come floating in the sea to the shore. The log was brought to the shore with great rejoicing and carved into four images of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarsana Chakra. Then Indradyumna constructed a temple on the Blue hill and consecrated the images.

The story in Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata – The story gives the account of tribal origin of Jagannath in a different way. When Srikrsna breathed his last, Arjuna and Savara Jara, who had killed Krsna, tried to cremate the corpse. They soon found that the fire was helpless in burning the dead body, since it was the Brahma himself. At the end of the full day, only the palms, legs and the nose were burnt, and then a divine sound was heard saying “O, Arjuna, the fire cannot convert the dead body into ashes please throw it into the Sea.” Arjuna acted accordingly and went to Dvaraka.

After sometime ‘Jara Savara’ saw Krsna in dream, when he woke up, he found beside him an image of Visnu. This was the very image that later Jara Savara worshipped on the Dhauli Hill near Bhubaneswar.

When Galamadhava, a Vaisnava King of Kanchi learnt of Krsna’s death, he set out in quest of Krsna’s corpse, which in fact, had been thrown into the sea. His servant Vasudeva Brahmana, who had proceeded to the south, located the body there on the Dhauli Hill, being worshipped in the form of an image. On receiving the news, Galamadhava moved the image to Nilachala. Jara Savara at that time was away to Konarka on the seashore in quest of Krsna’s dead body. At the same time, Indradyumna, a King in the line of Virata, built a temple at Nilachala with the aforesaid image he consulted the Savara Jara. At this Jara prayed to God and was answered in a divine voice, “I will certainly appear at Nilagiri in the Buddha incarnation. This unburnt dead body will change into Daru (wood)”. After this revelation, both Indradyumna and Jara Savara went to Nilagiri and they saw the wooden form of God in the Rohini Kunda. Vasudeva and King Indradyumna brought the Daru out of the Kunda and Jara Savara undertook the task of carving the image. Visvakarma himself joined Jara in this work. They cut the Daru into three pieces. The image making work supposedly continued in a closed room for fifteen days but no sound was heard outside. When the King, in his anxiety, opened the door, he discovered three images but there was no trace of Jara or Visvakarma in the room.

The story in Deula Tola of Nilambara Das – In the 15th century Nilambara Das wrote a work, entitled Deula Tola11 (the making of the temple). His story in relation to aboriginality of Jagannath is as follows. When Indradyumna came to know of Nilamadhava in Nilachala (situated in the eastern shore) he sent his messenger, Vidyapati to find the truth. Vidyapati went there, saw the God and accordingly reported the facts to the King. Indradyumna, with his army marched to Puri and at a place called Charchika, Visvavasu surrendered himself to the King. The author then describes the episode of the disappearance of the God. Indradyumna observed fast for twenty one days. He was told in his dream that the Daru was floating on the sea. He found the Daru and Visvakarma got down to the making of images in a closed room. The King prompted by Gundicha, his queen, opened the door and found three images, all incomplete and unfinished. Like Nilambara Das, Sisu Krsna Das has also written a book named ‘Deula Tola’. Likewise some more Deula Tola books were written in the later period among which Krsna Das’s work enjoys greater popularity in Odisha.

The story in Deula Tola of Sisu Krsna Das – The Deula Tola of Sisu Krsna Das is more important and acceptable so far as tribal origin of Jagannath is concerned. Vidyapati, under the orders of Indradyumna arrived at a Savara village in quest of the God. Lalita, the daughter of the Savara Chief Visvavasu fell in love with him. The Brahmin Vidyapati was consequently forced by Visvavasu to marry Lalita.

Vidyapati with the help of Lalita and Visvavasu traced the God in Nilagiri. In fact, the clue came to him from a crow that became four armed when it fell from the ‘Kalpa Vrksa’ into the ‘Rohini Kunda’. Vidyapati thus reported this to Indradyumna and the king started for the place with his army. In course of his journey to Nilagiri he came across the river Chitrotpala, Chatakeswara, Ekamra (Bhubaneswar), Lingaraj, Kapotesvara (near Chandanpur), Kalindi or the river Yamuna (near Sakhigopal – Bir Narasinghpur) and so on.

Reaching Nilachala, the King arrested the Savara and got hold of the God’s image. But soon under command that he heard from the heaven, he set Savara free. The king constructed a temple of 120 cubits height and went to Brahma Loka to invite Brahma to preside over its inaugural ceremony. In the meantime, a fierce sand storm buried the temple and King Gala discovered it. When Indradyumna came back from Brahma Loka there arose a dispute between both the Kings as each supported his claim for the ownership of the temple. Finally, Brahma brought about a compromise between them and settled the matter amicably.

King Indradyumna then learnt in a dream that a Daru was floating on the sea. He recovered the Daru from there with the help of Vidyapati and Vasu Savara. But the King found no carpenter able to carve out the image of the god. Finally, an old carpenter, Ananta Maharana of Dvaraka appeared there. He worked there in a closed room for twenty one days, made the very images of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra. But before the stipulated period was over the king in haste and anxiety opened the door and found the three incomplete images. And Ananta Maharana was not to be seen anywhere.

The King was so disturbed that he decided to commit suicide. But just then, he heard, “O King, I shall hold the incarnation of Buddha in the Kali Yuga”. The sons of Vasu Savara will be called as Daita and they will serve me. The sons of Lalita will be known as Suara and they will cook for me. The sons of Vidyapati will be my Panda and they will worship me. Indradyumna, in return prayed to God that he should not have progeny to claim the temple in future. Here concludes Deula Tola of Krsna Das. In addition to this, scholars like W.W. Hunter on the basis of Indradyumna legend has remarked “The very origin of Jagannath proclaims him not less the God of the Brahmanas than the low caste aboriginal races13. He further states, “The aboriginal people were worshipping a blue stone, in the dense forest. But the deity has grown tired of the jungle offering of the primitive people and longs for the cooked food of the more civilized Aryan race. When the Aryan element at length comes on the scene, the rude blue stone disappears and gives place to a carved image. Another Europeon scholar W.J. Wilkins tracing the origin of Jagannath to tribal worship has stated (Jagananth) was the local divinity of some, now unknown tribe, whose worship was engrafted into Hinduism and the God when admitted into the pantheon was regarded as another manifestation of Visnu.

B.M. Padhi has also traced the origin of Jagannath to the Daru (wood) worship of the Savaras from the pre-historic times. He has based his arguments on the basis of the cult of tree worship which was prevalent among the proto- Australoids. They at first worshipped ficus tree and later on the concept of tree worship entered to other religions. Further, he states that the Savaras or the Sauras of Ganjam and Koraput districts worship tree as their Kitung (God). They believe that their Kitung lives on a tree, so they never cut a tree which is called Jagant, another name of Kitung. They also believe that Kitung had ten incarnations similar to the concept of ten incarnations of Visnu. In his opinion the word Jagannath is neither a Sanskrit word nor a Pali word but a sanskritised form of austric word Jagannath.

According to G.N. Mahapatra, “ancient name of Jagannatha, as currently in vogue in the Savara villages of Odisha is Jaganaelo (made of wood). The name of the deity in the Savara languages is ‘Sonam’ and the images are known as ‘Kitungs’. Of all the ‘Kitungs’ Jaganaelo is the greatest, and Savaras call him the Lord of the Universe (The Land of Visnu)”.

The tribal origin of the Jagannath cult is further elaborated by the German Orissa Research Project (1970-76). A host of scholars like A. Eschmann, H. Kulke, G.C. Tripathy, H.V. Stietencorn through interdisciplinary approach, field study and anthropological investigations have shown that Jagannath primarily is a tribal deity. A.Eschmann is of the opinion that Jagannath is primarily a tribal God and in the process of Hinduization it became a Brahmini God. Further, she has connected the Narasimha cult with the tribal worship of wooden posts and later on in her opinion, Narasimha was accepted in the Visnu worship. On the basis of the prevalent legends she identified Goddess Khambesvari or Stambhesvari with Subhadra. She has remarked, “Narasimha and Jagananth are intimately linked and were identified at an early stage. Even today a Jagannath figure is found to be worshipped as Narasimha. From the important role which Narasimha plays within Hinduization in Eastern India and his special relationship to tribal deities represented by wooden posts, it could be concluded that the Jagannath figure was the result of a process of Hinduization where a tribal deity represented by a wooden post was identified with Narasimha. The original symbol was changed accordingly by being combined with the popular iconography of Narasimha : a head with arms. This accounts for the iconographic particulars of the Jagannath figure, the head is an attempt to represent a lion head, the round eyes are typical features of Narsimha’s fury.

The tribal element has also not been completely lost in the cult of Jagannath. Among the temple servitors, an important section are the Daitas or descendants of the autochthonous religious leader Jara. They have many important functions in the ritualistic services. Though the worship is conducted by the Pujapandas, who are Brahmins in name only, from the Bathing Festival till the conclusion of the Car Festival, Jagannath is worshipped exclusively by the Daitas.

This is an important festival of Jagannath and is attended by pilgrims from far and near. To the devoted people at large, this pouring of 108 pots of water on each of the idols, is explained as the Gods indulgence in water to ward off excessive summer heat. But in a symbolical way this bathing also washed away the non-autochthonous traits which Jagannath had acquired in course of ages. Soon after the Bathing Festival the Jagannath triad with Sudarsana return to Anasara Tati, a thatched construction erected in an impromptu manner, for the occasion, inside the temple, for the sojourn of the images till the Car Festival. Anasara is an archaic Odia word, which means close relations and Tati means a hut. Thus Anasara – Tati means the hut of the close relations, which resembles the hutments of the tribal people.

This strange practice is an annual enactment of the drama of the return of Jagannatha to his Kinsmen, in as much as during the Anasara period, the Brahmin priests are not allowed to enter the Tati much less to worship. The rituals conducted by the Daitas, inside the Anasara Tati is kept a closely guarded secret, as no one can enter the Tati or the hut, except the Daitas. During this Anasara period which lasts for about a fortnight, Jagannath is offered only such fruits and berries as are available in jungles. During the Anasara period Mahaprasad or the cooked rice offering is discontinued. Thus the tribal strands of the Jagannatha cult is also existing in practice, though not in rituals, along with the sophisticated Brahmanical elements.

Partaking of Mahaprasad or cooked rice is an important sacrament of the cult. It seems to be tribal in character. Jara Savara’s cooked rice offering seems to have originated from this tradition. It may be noted in this context, that communal eating of food offered to Lord Jagannath by the devotees of the Hindu communities, irrespective of caste, is even today prevalent in Odisha. Since the first Mahaprasad offering was cooked in the Temple kitchen, it has recognized no caste or creed in partaking it, even the high caste Brahmin, could eat Mahaprasad, from the same potsherd used by an untouchable.

At present people take their food from the earthern cooking pot or potsherd, even thrown or left by some persons after they have taken their food. They take their food together from the same pot or potsherd without any caste prejudice nor restriction and without any hesitation they take leftover food or offal.

Thus inspite of deeply entrenched Brahmanic influence the autochthonic strands still persists in the Jagannath cult in a transmuted form. This syncretism of opposing religious creeds and philosophies make Jagannath Universal and unique. His name still draws faithful belonging to all denominations in millions to the holy sands of Puri.

Sheorinarayan : The original place of Jagannath – There are contradictory views regarding the original place of Lord Jagannath. Sarala Dasa in the Vana Parva and Musali Parva of Mahabharat has given the traditional account of how King Galamadhava brought the Lord Savarinarayana to Puri. According to him Narayana or Savarinarayana was being worshipped by the Savaras in the forest. King Galamadhava being informed proceeded to the Savara village to take possession of the deity. On the basis of this story K.C. Mishra has stated that Jagannath was brought to Puri from Savarinarayana. On the other hand, G.N. Mohapatra states that Savarinarayana was worshipped by the Savaras on a hill called Dhauli near Bhubaneswar.

S.N. Rajaguru on the basis of the Telugu version of Madala Panji preserved at the Govt. Oriental Manuscript Library at Madras states that Jara, the Savara Chief was residing on the top of the Mahendra mountain. He was the worshipper of Parasamani. Further, he has associated the legendary King Indradyumna with King Indravarman of the Svetaka branch of the Gangas. The German Scholars like H.V. Stietencorn, H.Kulke, A.Eschmann believe that the cult of Jagannath came from Western Orissa to Coastal Orissa during the time of Yayati-I of the Somavamsi dynasty30. Their opinion is based on the accounts of Madala Panji in which it is mentioned that King Yayati had brought the image of Jagannath from Sonepur of Western Orissa. Sheorinarayana or Savarinarayana, the original place of Jagannath has been identified by scholars like R.V.Russe, Hirala and most recently J.P. Singhdeo with the modern villag eof the same name situated about 40 Kms. South –East of Bilaspur in Madhya Pradesh. This place is a tribal dominated area inhabited mostly by the Savaras, Gaudas and other aboriginal tribes.

There are a number of legends prevalent among the tribals centering Sheorinarayana connecting it with the cult of Jagannath. The tribal legends of the Savaras say that local tradition traces their origin to Savari of Ramayana who offered fruits to Lord Rama during his exile. He was supposed to have stayed near Sheorinarayana on his way to Lanka. Another legend states that the Savaras were created for carrying stones for the construction of the great temple at Puri and for dragging the car of Lord Jagannath at the time of car festival. Regarding the name of the place Sheorinarayana, the tradition says that once this place was a forest in which lived an old Savara who was worshipping Jagannath. Later on, the deity was removed to the temple at Puri by a Brahmana. In order to remind the people, Jagannath wished that the place should contain the names of both worshipper and the worshipped. Hence the place was named as Savarinarayan or Sheorinarayana.

According to another legend, Savari Narayana was originally worshipped at Seori Narayana in Madhya Pradesh. The King of Puri (Odisha) brought the idol of the deity to Puri and had it installed here. But Seorinarayana, in fact, referring to the name of the original place, remained unchanged.

Whatever may be the original place of Lord Jagannath, there is no doubt that the Lord was first worshipped by the Savaras either in Western Orissa or in the adjacent Bilaspur region of Madhya Pradesh and later on appeared at Puri.

References :
1. B.M. Padhi, ‘Daru Devata’ (Odia), Cuttack, 1964, PP. 15-36.
2. A.Eschmann, et.al.eds. ‘The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa’, New Delhi, 1978, PP. 79-99.
3. B.Mohanty, ‘Odisara Adivasi Sanskriti’ (Odia), Bhubaneswar, 1954, PP.118-151.
4. N.K. Sahu, ‘Odisare Boudhha Dharma’ (Odia), Bhubaneswar, 1959, PP. 49-50.
5. K.C. Mishra, ‘The Cult of Jagannath’, Calcutta, 1971, P.181.
6. S. Mohanty, ‘Lord Jagannath’, Bhubaneswar, 1982, PP. 12, 23-25.
7. G. N. Mohapatra, ‘The Land of Visnu’, Delhi, 1979, PP. 26-29.
8. Nilambara Das, ‘Srikshetra Mahatmya ba Deula Tola’ (Odia), Kantei, 1916.
9. Sisu Krsna Das, ‘Deula Tola (Odia) Cuttack, 1968.
10. W.W. Hunter, ‘Orissa, Vol.I, London, 1872, PP. 88- 89.
11. Quoted by S.K.Panda, ‘Evolution of Jagannath Cult’ in “Comprehensive History and Culture of Orissa”, Vol.I, New Delhi, P.549


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