It was over four decades ago when I first decided to visit Odisha, which had always fascinated me as a student of Sanskrit and history. In 1969, with a few years of academic research behind me in the field of Jagannath cult, I was all set to be there - in the land of Jagannath.
The strong following of Jagannath in Odisha and the unique structure of worship of the deities in the temple captivated me as a historian and a researcher. But there was also a personal attachment I felt towards Jagannath that pulled me towards Him. I do not know when I turned into an admirer of the liberal concepts of worship associated with Him.
It seemed my wish to see Jagannath was blessed by Him. Though many German researchers and Indologists had attempted and even done substantial work of documentation on Jagannath cult, when I applied for a project of research on Odisha, the German Research Council had initially almost rejected it.
“Why go through such tough resistance of the devotees and servitors for this research when you are not even allowed to be inside the Puri temple? Why not choose some other subject?” they asked.
But along with strong reasoning from my associate researchers and the blessings of Jagannath, I could convince the council that my project, the first Odisha Research Project, would not even need me to enter the temple and hence would not lead to any issue. Soon, the project was funded and within a few months I was in Puri.
Being there and feeling the sense of ownership of the devotee over the Lord, my faith in this great regional tradition of India was only reaffirmed. How the Odia identity is so strongly associated with Jagannath and His cult, intrigued me. I felt a strong wish to see and meet Jagannath. But I respected the traditions of the temple and though at times I felt the necessity for a researcher to at least enter the outer porch of the temple, I knew I was a foreigner, or ‘yavana’ or even ‘mlechha’ as they say. I had to wait and be patient until Jagannath, the ‘patitapabana’ or soul purifier, wanted to meet me.
It was first on Snana Yatra (Debasnana Purnima) that I got a chance to see the Lord of the world, Jagannath, taking a royal bath on the Snana Bedi. I felt extremely thrilled at finally having seen him and at the same time there was a sense of peace and joy within me.
Rath yatra, however, gave me a chance to view Jagannath from even closer. It is wonderful that the Lord comes out to all his people, including ‘yavanas’ during this unique festival. For those who are not to step into the temple for the rest of the year, the feeling of seeing the Lord coming outside the temple mainly for them, makes it a special experience, an ecstatic one that is worth waiting for until the next year.
I have been coming back to Odisha time and again. When in 2010 I was awarded with the Padma Shri, there was an incident that to me is a miracle by Jagannath. I was almost about to leave my residence in Delhi for Odisha when my landline rang. I had no idea about the delightful news that was coming my way. We were only discussing about Jagannath while almost boarding the car when I had to rush in to pick up the phone and the Embassy officials informed me that I had been chosen for this prestigious award. In a minute or two, I would have missed the call. But before coming to Odisha, He showered appreciation on me for my work on Jagannath cult.
Jagannath has been a strong influence in my family. During my research, my family had even lived in India for a year and hence, understand the philosophy of Jagannath culture very well. My wife, children and even granddaughter have a strong attachment with Jagannath. Not only do we have pictures of Him at our home in Germany, my granddaughter draws pictures of Jagannath very well, something she loves to do quite often. The attachment to Jagannath makes us feel completely at home in Odisha every time we visit.