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‘We are not scholars. We love him like our brother’

Jagannath Swain Mohapatra, 61, is the chief servitor of Lord Jagannath and holds centre stage during the car festival. Fondly known as Jaguni bhai, he will be transferring Bramha (the soul) of Lord Jagannath during Nabakalebar next year

In 1977, I was part of the process of locating the sacred daru (neem tree) for carving new idols of Lord Jagannath and his siblings for Nabakalebar when the old deities are put to rest. The ceremony, during which the transfer of Brahma (the life force) from the old to new idols takes place at a gap which could vary between eight and 19 years depending on the lunar calendar.

My first Nabakalebar experience was in 1977. Locating the right neem tree for wood is an elaborate exercise. Two months before the rath yatra that year, my father led a group of servitors (of which I was part of) to the temple of Maa Mangala at Kakatpur, around 50km from Puri.

Without taking food or water, we slept on the temple premises. Around midnight, Maa Mangala appeared in our dreams and gave us the direction in which to proceed to locate the tree for making of idols. We finally got the right tree. In 1996, I was once again part of several Nabakalebar related rituals except the change of Brahma.

To me, the most painful moment is when we take the old idols to Kaoili Baikuntha, the Jagannath temple crematorium, for burial. The feeling of separation from the idols is hard to express in words. It is something like what King Dasarath of Ayodhya must have felt when his elder son Ram left for the forests. We feel the same kind of agony.

Rath spirit engulfs all

I have the honour of transferring the Brahma during the Nabakalebara next year but pain of separation from the idols I have seen, known and worshipped for 19 years, gives me mixed feelings. It is difficult to imagine that only eight months are left for the big event when I will be bidding goodbye to my elder brother, the Lord, who is head of my family.

During Nabakalebar, we observe all rituals that we do when one of our family members die. We tonsure our heads and observe an 11th day ritual. On the 12th day, we organise a feast for people like we do following a death in our families.

I still remember the words of my father when he came out of the sanctum sanctorum after changing the Brahma during the Nabakalebara in 1977. Puri was enveloped in darkness and there was a persistent drizzle in the town. I waited with my friends near the Mukti Mandap of the temple for my father to come out of the sanctum sanctorum. He emerged after nearly two hours. The first thing he did was hug me. We clung to each other and wept. Not only the two of us but all the sevayats present were weeping. Shaking like a leaf, my father whispered in my ears: "Brahma Hi Satya (soul is eternal)." The words have stayed with me.

It has been so many years, but it still seems like yesterday. I remember asking my father what the experience was like, but he kept mum. Later he said, if I had the good fortune of undertaking the task someday, I would know what it felt like.

I skipped the responsibility of changing the Brahma in 1996 when my uncle carried out the task because my mind was steeped a bit too much in worldly affairs. A father of two young sons, I was not mentally prepared for it.

But now my moment has come. My two sons are settled. I am past 60 and if I miss the opportunity this time, it may never come again in my life. The Lord has given me so much. For the likes of you, he and his siblings may be God, but for us he is the head of our family, our elder brother.

He is jianta thakura, the living deity who answers our every call. But the thought of getting separated from the old idols continues to cause pain. But I think it is part of life and I will have to bear the pain.

Now there is a controversy over touching the deities. When your god is your family member and someone argues that you cannot touch Him, its hurts. We are not scholars. We love Him like our brother and are proud of taking our fellow brethren onto the chariots during the rath yatra to hug him.

Is it a crime that if my elder brother touches others? One should understand that our God is a living deity, who can be experienced only through love and dedication and not through scholarship.