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By Guest Column - Dinanath Pathy The author is an eminent artist and art historian
  • Published 21.06.12

If you have watched the debate rise on the controversial placement of the sculpture of Jagannath as the ninth incarnation on the lion entrance to the Puri temple, you would admire the acumen of Odia elite to dwell upon an issue, which simply never existed till the other day. When the stucco relief of Jagannath on the structure was removed recently for repair, only then a controversy was allowed to break. Several questions ranging from textual to iconographical, from antiquarian viewpoints to Odia identity came up and subsequent discussions filled the pages of local newspapers and were telecast as primetime news flash.

The last great 12th century Sanskrit poet Jayadev in his famous poem, the Gita Govinda included a structured version of incarnation as prayer addressed to Jagadisha - the Lord of the world. There in he mentioned 10 incarnations of Vishnu from the fish to Kalki and placed Buddha as the ninth incarnation. This was an obvious attempt to accept Buddha in the Hindu fold and absorb all the virtues of Buddhism. Undoubtedly it was a synthetic approach.

Soon after this incident or may be even before, there were serious attempts all over India for the revival of Brahmanism and as a historical evidence of this upsurge we find a mural painting on the wall of the Jagamohana of Lakshmi temple within the Puri temple compound.

This is indeed a 'bloody painting' in which Buddhist monks are being killed by Brahmins sending a message that Buddhists are no longer required to thrive and Puri as a pilgrim town and the temple as one of the four seats of religion is made clear of up-starts. The controversy that is raging today may be seemingly between the two divine figures of Buddha and Jagannath to occupy the ninth position in the structured '10 incarnation panel' but its deep rooted psyche points at the historical movement to accomplish an act of benevolence or an act of intolerance. In the present circumstances of temple activities where Brahminical ritualism overpowers all kinds of catholicity, it is not believable that the controversy aims at retribution of our past evil deeds of killing Buddhist monks.

Rather the controversy intends to re-justify a theological position that Jagannath being the Lord of the world is the supreme self (Parambrahma) who incarnated Buddha and therefore cannot be equated with an incarnated figure. Well, all these canonical postulations are a created ritualistic (Brahmanical) structure, which does not tolerate alien ingredients within its holy mix. But all along Jagannath culture had absorbed essential virtues various systems have thrown open in the socio-religious system. This might appear as a contradiction, but the cultural thesis of Jagannath is to accept disagreements as contexts of a long-drawn system of this unique country India. But roughly 500 years ago a solution was put in position and despite the canonical injunctions, the traditional painter-sculptors of Puri made a bold experiment to place the image of Jagannath replacing Buddha as the ninth incarnation.

Stucco images were created as additional decorations on the arches of the lion-gate and within the temple on the wall behind the Garuda pillar. The one inside the temple still exists, of course, with art-formular changes and the one on the lion-gate has been demolished. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) with all their technical sanguinity has created a Jagannath image in stone for re-fixation.

Objections should be raised not with the theme but with the material they have chosen which if drilled into the stone beam of the lion-gate will eventually weaken the structure. The only course open to ASI is to resort to a figure of Jagannath in stucco.

In this on-going debate, what the scholars have missed is the wisdom of the pilgrim paintings (yatripati) the temple is selling to pilgrim-tourists who visit Puri and wish to carry home souvenirs to remind them the rest of their lives the proximity of the Lord of the world.

These paintings collected by important museums world over are virtually the oldest visual evidences of Jagannath culture. These are roughly three to 400 years old. Pilgrim paintings exist in a large variety of themes and styles. The basic theme however, is the painted wooden images of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra and the temple of Puri.

Among the largest ones, the Sankhanabhi painting depicts the sacred town of Puri and all the temple paraphernalia. In these paintings when the painters depict the temple, they show the lion-gate at the bottom and the "10 incarnations" panel at the top.

As a matter of contention the image of Jagannath is invariably painted as the ninth incarnation. The traditional painters of Puri are the servants of the temple and they, since generations, thrive on the land grants the king of Puri had once given to them. Unless there was the approval of the king and sanction by the priestly class such a painterly practice could not have been allowed to thrive. Even today the painters confidently resort to the replacement with little or no regard to theological supremacy.

The solution to this vexed problem has already been achieved 500 years ago and the Odia painters have arrived at an amiable settlement by upholding the most visible and assertive Odia identity that is the Jagannath.

Now the issue does not vacillate between theology and ritual but between sculptural and pictorial representations-the sculptural representation of Buddha on the temple facade and the pictorical representation of Jagannath (including stucco) inside the temple, including the one in the Lakshmi temple.

If one aims at Odia identity, one cannot think of anything else than Jagannath as the ninth incarnation.