This summer, give regular getaways a miss to witness the grand celebration of Nabakalebara in Puri, Orissa. This occasion, which usually takes place every 19 years (it was last celebrated in 1996), sends the temple town into a flurry of activity with the onset of summer. After all, this is the time that the presiding deities -- Lord Jagannath, Balbhadra, Subhadra and the Sudarshan (a weapon) -- get a fresh lease of life, quite literally.
The deities at the Jagannath temple at Puri, called "Daru Brahma", are made of wooden logs and not stone or metal, making them susceptible to decay. Perhaps that is why the tradition of re-embodiment of the idols was first established in Puri centuries ago. A tradition that is followed with much ado even now.
The ritual is special not only because it gives a new form to the Gods, but also because it happens in the rare year when one lunar month of Ashadha is followed by another. This normally happens once in 19 years (although occasionally it can occur once in 12 or 14 years as well).
The locals believe that even though God is beyond the circle of life and death, to be in sync with humans, he chooses to acquire a new body every few years -- just as we shed our bodies in death and acquire a new one at birth.
"The neem tree, from which Jagannath is carved needs to be long and straight with no bird dwellings or creepers."
The process of Nabakalebara, literally translated as New Body, is long and complicated, much like the other rituals entailing Vishnu: it happens at a specific time of the year, over a specified period of time, and is carried out by a specified group of people.
The rituals begin early summer after seeking the blessings of the King and the local goddess, Mangladevi when a group of sevaks or servitors venture into a specific forest to look for trees from which to cast new idols. The trees, just like the forest, need to be special too. The neem tree, from which Jagannath is carved for example, needs to be long and straight with no bird dwellings or creepers. It has to have an anthill and a snake hole close by, and it should preferably be near a water body. All other deities have to meet such strict requirements too.
The trees are felled using a gold, a silver and an iron axe, and are transported to the temple in a wooden cart, covered by silks. In the temple, over 21 days, the logs are turned into deities by special artisans.
It is one thing to create an idol, it is quite another to give it life. And in Nabakalebara, the transfer of life is the most critical and crucial ritual.
The temple at Puri, if legend is to be believed, is supposed to have relics of God, which are considered to be the life force of the idols. Some claim these are relics of Buddha, some suggest these are the remains of none other than Lord Krishna, while others point at Tantric origins. No one, however, knows what it is. The aura created by the Brahmapadartha, or the life-force, is so strong that nobody is supposed to see it. Even the three senior-most sevaks, who undertake the soul transfer are blindfolded and have pieces of cloth covering their hands while transferring the Brahmapadartha. The town of Puri meanwhile is kept under total darkness on the night the transfer happens in complete secrecy.
The old idols, after the transfer, are considered bereft of life and are buried. The new ones, meanwhile, are prepared for first public viewing. They are treated to an application of seven substances including musk, oil, sandalwood, camphor and resin, The process culminates with Netrotsava, the final life-infusing ritual, where the eyes of the Gods are finally painted. The newborn deities are now ready to face the world. The festival culminates with the annual Rathayatra when millions of devotees from across the world come to Puri to witness the new Gods.