The unfinished Jagannath idol at Puri


Among the most exalted of all Vishnu temples is the one at Puri, in Orissa, where the deity is called Jagannath – the Lord of the Universe. Jagannath is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself and he is worshipped throughout India. Since time immemorial, millions and millions of people have offered worship to Lord Vishnu in Puri. Even the Brahma Purana (one of the 18 major Puranas, the ancient sacred texts that were composed prior to 1500 BCE) mentions Puri as a pilgrimage center for Vishnu devotees. The temple itself is built with typical Orissa style architecture and it has been rebuilt quite a few times in the past, and historians date the current temple back to about 1100 CE. Here, Jagannath is the principal deity; his brother Balarama and sister Subhadra are the ancillary ones. And, the most interesting thing about these deities is that they are made of wood, instead of the traditional stone and they have been unfinished for centuries. There is a story behind why they are always left unfinished even though they are re-carved from time to time.

Around 1100 CE, the Orissa region was ruled by Indradyumna, who was a great devotee of Lord Krishna (same as Lord Vishnu). At the pinnacle of his reign’s prosperity, it occurred to him one day that he should build a grand temple in honor of the great Lord, who is the protector of the entire universe. He wanted to name the deity of the temple, Jagannath (Jagannath comes from two Sanksrit words – Jagat and Naath meaning the Lord of the Universe). He also desired that the idol should be the most resplendent one in the entire country. He prayed to Jagannath to help him find an idol somewhere. One night, buried deep in thought about Jagannath, Indradyumna fell asleep. Krishna appeared in his dream in the most beautiful form he had ever seen. When the king got up, he was ecstatic that the form of the idol was revealed to him. Even though he was not sure where he would find the idol, he decided to send his soldiers all over the country to go and look for that particular idol and bring it home so that it can be installed as the chief deity of the temple.

Fig 1: A painting of the Jagannath idol

The soldiers spread out in various directions to look for the Jagannath idol. After several weeks of intensive searching, a group of soldiers found an old devotee worshipping a small Krishna idol inside a cave. After the devotee retired for the night, the soldiers sneaked up closer to the idol, and lo! They found that this idol was the same one that Indradyumna had ordered them to bring back. The soldiers stole the statue and began their march back. In the morning, when the devotee found that his beloved Krishna had disappeared, his sorrow knew no bounds. He weeped and wailed and frantically looked everywhere for his Krishna but the idol was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, amid the soldiers’ returning party, a strange phenomenon happened. The statue flew from the soldiers’ hands back into that cave. The soldiers retraced their path back to the cave and here they saw that the old devotee was rejoicing the return of his Krishna. The soldiers’ realized that their action of stealing the idol was very disgraceful and they sought his pardon. The old man blessed the soldiers and told them to convey his blessings to the King.

The soldiers went back to the king and explained the strange phenomenon to him. The king was trying to find someone who could make an idol from the description that he had in his mind. But there was no one who was capable of such a thing. The king was worried that his desire to build the temple was not being fulfilled due to the lack of an idol. On another night, Jagannath in the same form he had assumed earlier, appeared again in Indradyumna’s dream and said “Son, if you go to the banks of the Vaitarani river, you will find a log of wood (of the fig tree variety) floating on the waters. Bring that log of wood home. A carpenter will come to you. Let him carve the idol.” Thus abruptly, the dream ended and Indradyumna sat up completely awake. The next day, a party set out to find that log of wood on the banks of Vaitarani. It was found just like Jagannath had promised. Meanwhile in the king’s court, an old man came to Indradyumna and claimed that he was a carpenter and he was sent to carve Jagannath out of a log of wood, but he had a few conditions. The king was to give him 21 days to complete the task and within that period, no one was allowed to come into the room where the carpenter worked and no one was allowed to ask him any questions. If the carpenter’ work was undisturbed, he vowed that he would carve him the exact same resplendent image that Jagannath assumed in Indradyumna’s dream. The king agreed to give him a room to work in and ordered the entire city to stay away from the carpenter for 21 days.

Even though the king was able to keep most people out of the carpenter’s way, he could no nothing to thwart the queen’s curiosity. Every day the queen pestered the king to let her peep into the room and see what progress was made on the idol. After 14 days of resisting the queen’s persuasion, the king finally gave in. Both of them tiptoed towards the room where the carpenter was working. They could hear the noises made from the carpenter’s tools. Not wanting to disturb him, but still take a quick peek through the window, the king told the queen to stand by and guard the place to make sure no one was watching them. The king put his head through a small crack in the window. The king looked at the idol and was very satisfied. The eyes and the face were carved out and the idol looked very beautiful overall. Even the unfinished idol seemed to be glowing, as if the hands that were carving it were actually a divine pair of hands, and not those of any ordinary mortal man. The arms and legs were not finished yet.

Fig 2: Krishna (the black idol) with his brother Balarama (far left) and sister Subhadra

At that very moment, the carpenter turned back and found out that overcome by impatience, Indradyumna had broken his promise. He immediately packed up his tools and got ready to leave. The carpenter did not just get up and walk out, but instead he transformed into a ray of light that merged with the unfinished idol and the idol remained unfinished forever. The king was stunned by this vision. Everything became clear to him now. Oh Alas! How much he repented for being impatient. The carpenter was no ordinary mortal. He was in fact the architect of the Devaloka (the kingdom of the devas or gods) – Vishwakarma himself! Krishna decided to help Indradyumna build the most effulgent idol in the country, because his heart was pure and devoted, and his desire was dedicated to a dharmic cause. Krishna was going to fulfill Indradyumna’s dream of having the most magnificent idol on earth, if he had not let his impatience take the better of him. [In some other versions of the story, it is believed that the carpenter was Krishna himself. Neither of that affects the essence of the story.]

The temple that was built by Indradyumna is standing even today and millions of people visit it every year, especially during the annual ratha yatra (temple car festival) celebrations when the temple ancillary idols are taken out on rounds throughout the city. The ratha yatra is undertaken in many temples across India every year, with a view to spreading positive vibrations from these powerful idols throughout the city. Also, this festival maybe viewed as god himself going out in search of his devotees, when the devotees have no means of going to the temple to see him (especially the old devotees, and/or the crippled devotees that can only stay home and listen to their family members describe the beauty of the temple idols). If God is taken for a walk every now and then, everyone in the city is able to appreciate his beauty and get his darshan. The idols are carved out of fresh fig tree barks periodically. The carpenters who are allowed to carve the idol are handpicked by the Sankaracharya of Puri. The idol that is in the temple today, was carved in 1977.

The author would like to close this post with the note every person should remember. The Lord of the universe, Jagannath , certainly helps his devotees attain the fruition of their desires if the desires are directed towards a dharmic result, and if the devotee sincerely asks for help.

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  1. #1 by rajanigandhaa on March 5, 2009 - 2:01 pm

    matangi here..

    was a gr8 read… didnt know the story.. very new!
    interesting!

  2. #2 by Sreeram Kolluru on July 17, 2013 - 9:07 am

    superb..thank you ..

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