There are innumerable shrines, big and small, dedicated to the Hindu God, Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The Puri Jagannath Temple is the most revered of them all without a speck of argument. In the Hindu religion, Char Dham (char-four, dham-abode) signifies four hallowed pilgrimage sites visiting, which enables a Hindu to attain Moksha or salvation. These sites are Badrinath in Uttarakhand, Dwaraka in Gujarat, Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu, and Puri in Orissa owing to none other than the sacred Jagannath Temple. Every day, 20,000 to 200,000 people throng the Jagannath Temple to be absolved of their sins. The colossal temple complex covers an area of 400,000 square feet near the Swargadwar Beach in Puri. The temple is ensconced in a web of intriguing history, splendid architecture, ancient customs, elaborate rituals and the unwavering faith of millions of devotees. It is a must-visit whenever you are in the eastern part of India.
It was sometime in the 12th century that King Anantavarman Chodaganga Dev started the construction of the temple, which was ultimately completed by his son, King Anangabhima Deva. The temple is an architectural marvel that casts no shadow at any given hour of the day. The dome of the main temple is 165-feet high, and its pinnacle has a Sudarshan Chakra (a circular weapon used by Lord Vishnu) and a flag tied to it. You will be fascinated to know that a man climbs 165 feet every day, without any support, to change the flag at sunset. This ritual is as old as the temple itself. The temple complex has four main gates facing the four directions, and visitors are allowed through the eastern Lion Gate flanked by two stone lions. A few meters away from the gate lies the unmistakable Aruna Stambha, an 11-meter tall monolithic tower representing Lord Surya’s charioteer. The tower was relocated from the Konark Sun Temple in the 18th century. To reach the main courtyard, you will have to climb 22 steep steps, called the Baisi Pahacha.
Apart from the main temple, the courtyard has 30 smaller temples out of which you must visit the Ganesh Temple, the Vimala Temple and the Lakshmi Temple. The garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) of the main temple houses the three main deities - Lord Jagannath, his elder brother, Lord Balaram, and their younger sister, Goddess Subhadra. These idols are made of neem wood and are replaced by new idols every 8th, 12th or 19th year in a ritual called Nabakalebar. The last Nabakalebar was in 2015. The visitors are made to enter the main temple through the nat mandir (dancing hall) which is adorned with stunning paintings of different happenings in the ancient Hindu scriptures. The dim light of the thousands of oil lamps, the moist floor from the lamps dripping oil, the bewitching art and the chanting of the mantras, make for an enigmatic ambiance. However, you must remember that the nat mandir gets extremely crowded, and you will have to encounter some commotion to reach the garbha griha. So, be patient and on your toes.
The kitchen of the Puri Jagannath Temple feeds 100,000 people every day and is the largest open-air kitchen in the world. I have never missed taking a tour of the kitchen in the countless number of times that I have been there and neither should you. Your mind will be blown to see the scale of the operations here. Every task has a few men designated to it. Some men draw water from the well, some are in charge of cutting vegetables, some are in charge of cutting wood and some are in charge of cooking. The food is prepared using only clay pots; 15,000 clay pots are used every day and none of those is reused ever again. The food is prepared employing a unique technique. Seven clay pots are arranged one over another, secured with jute ropes, and the whole setup is then placed on the firewood. Every time, the items in the uppermost pot get cooked first and the order remains the same till the lowermost pot.
Every day, 56 items are cooked and offered to Lord Jagannath as Prasad (devotional food offering) after which it becomes the Mahaprasad (the blessed food). Then, at around 2-3 PM, the visitors and devotees get to buy the Mahaprasad at a place called Ananda Bazaar inside the complex. The Mahaprasad is scrumptious and not a morsel of it gets wasted on any given day.
You can visit the temple at any time of the year. However, do avoid the peak summer months from April to June as Puri becomes unbearably hot and uncomfortably humid during this period. The temple remains open from 5 AM till midnight. I will suggest you visit the temple around 9-10 AM to see everything in full swing. Every year, towards the end of June or in July, the iconic Ratha Yatra Festival sees the three main deities travelling to the Mausi Maa Temple and the Gundicha Temple on gigantic, embellished chariots called Ratha. Around 800,000 to 12,000,000 people gather at Puri on this auspicious occasion. So, if you want to witness the madness of the Ratha Yatra Festival, you better plan ahead as tickets and accommodations become scarce during this time. However, it truly is an experience of a lifetime.
The nearest airport from the city of Puri is the Biju Patnaik International Airport, which is located 60 kilometers away in Bhuvaneswar, the capital of Orissa. The Puri Railway Station is located about a kilometer north of the city and is connected to stations in all major Indian states and cities. Autorickshaws are readily available outside the station and will take you to your destination. The temple is about 2.5 kilometers away from the Swargadwar Beach in Puri.
Only Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs are allowed inside the Puri Jagannath Temple. Visitors are not allowed to carry any personal belonging inside the temple. You will have to leave things like your shoes, socks, mobile phone, camera, any leather good etc. at a designated space outside the main entrance. Outside the temple, several Hindu priests called Pandas will try to manipulate you into paying an exorbitant sum for a tour of the temple complex. So, beware of that as well.
Many people believe that there can be nothing above Lord Jagannath himself. In a literal manifestation of this belief, the air space above the hallowed temple has been made a no-flying zone! Even birds don’t fly above the temple to protect themselves from the serrated edges of the Sudarshan Chakra on the top of the temple. The Puri Jagannath Temple commands unfaltering adoration and unshakeable faith. You should definitely visit this temple in Puri, Orissa once in your lifetime.
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