There are hundreds of festivals and rituals associated with the Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri, the annual car festival, which falls on 25th June this year, being the most prominent one.
There is one ritual that is unique to this temple. The presiding deities of the temple – Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra and Lord Sudarshan take new bodies after a gap of some years. It happens when there is a repetition of the month of Ashadha according to the Hindu calendar followed in Odisha. This ritual, known as Nabakalebara, happened last time in 2015.
The year round rituals associated with the Jagannath Temple are a mixture of vedic, tantric and folk traditions. What make the idols lovable are the rituals taken from folk traditions where the idols are treated as living human beings. So they are subjected to the daily routines beginning from brushing of teeth , bathing, eating and sleeping. Like it happens with a human beings, the bodies are subject to death and decay. Following our philosophy of transmigration, the souls in the idols discard old bodies and get new ones.
The elaborate rituals associated with Nabakalebara starts with Banajaga Yatra – the journey to the forest to select the four neem trees that would be used to make the idols. The trees must fulfill certain criteria like particular marks on its trunk among other things. It is believed that the chief priest of the temple gets directions in his dreams about the location of the trees. When a tree is identified, elaborate pujas are made in honour of the trees before cutting. While the usable parts are carried to Puri in a grand procession, the unusable parts are buried with respect. Even a temple is built at the place where the tree stood. People consider each part of the tree and its surroundings to be divine and people throng the place to celebrate with religious fervor.
After the idols are ready, the life force of each idol known as brahma or pinda inside each idol is transferred by the chief priest to the new ones. This is a closely guarded secret. Nobody knows what that pinda contains. People say the original flowers and other material put inside the idols during the earlier Nabakalebar are still found fresh.
The idols are made ready before the car festival or the Rath Yatra. The old ones are buried inside the temple at a place known as Koili Baikuntha with respect and rituals associated with the death of a near and dear one. The celebrations with the new idols are accompanied side by side by a kind of an unofficial state mourning where the people of Odisha follow all the rituals associated with the death of a family member like not celebrating any auspicious ceremony at home for a period of one year.