In Odisha, every Thursday of the current Margashira month is a festival. Wherever you go, you will find the front door of every household cleaned, decorated and beautifully adorned with ‘Jhoti-Chita’, designs made with rice paste. The designs are of beautiful floral patterns, mostly lotus and include little pair of feet, drawn with rice paste.
The feet symbolise the auspicious feet of Maa Laxmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. And the ‘Jhoti-Chita’ with little feet of Laxmi means the lady of the house, irrespective of her caste and socio-economic status, is humbly inviting Maa Laxmi inside her home to bless her family.
The phrase ‘irrespective of caste and socio-economic status’ is not used here arbitrarily. It is because the festival of Laxmi Puja on ‘Manabasa Gurubara’ (Gurubara means Thursday in Odia) is performed with the same rituals and fervour by all Odia married women, irrespective of their caste and socio-economic status. For Maa Laxmi has told so, and Maa Laxmi has mandated that she will bless every woman who cleans her home and performs the Puja on Thursdays of the Margashira month. And it is Maa Laxmi’s order that in her kingdom, no one will discriminate on the basis of caste. Intrigued? Read the story behind the festival.
The story of Laxmi Purana
Reciting the Laxmi Purana written by 15th century poet Balrama Das is a part of of the festival. The festival is centered around the story narrated in the book that is a part of every Odia household. The legend goes like this:
Maa Laxmi visits the home of Shriya, a woman of the ‘Chandal’ caste
One Thursday in the month of Margashira, Goddess Laxmi, the deity of wealth and prosperity, was out visiting her kingdom. As she roamed around the city in the morning, she observed that most households are unkempt, dirty, with their inhabitants still in bed. Laxmi was dismayed. She noted that even the women in rich, lavish households in the houses of merchants and powerful men were too lazy to clean their family homes. As she ventured further, she entered in the locality of low-caste ‘Chandals’ in the outskirts of the city.
There, to her surprise, Maa Laxmi discovered that a poor Chandal woman named Shriya has cleaned her hut, drawn Jhoti-Chita on her front door and has performed Laxmi Puja in her poor hut with fruits, flowers and humble offerings. Maa Laxmi was so pleased that she entered into the little hut and accepted Prasad that the poor women offered her. The Chandal woman was overwhelmed, seeing the goddess inside her house and worshipped Maa Laxmi with complete devotion.
Pleased with the habits of cleanliness and devotion of the Chandal woman Shriya, Maa Laxmi blessed her with limitless wealth, health and prosperity. She also said to Shriya that after her death, she will be granted a place in Vaikunthapuram, beside Laxmi and Vishnu.
Laxmi is insulted, driven away by Lord Jagannath at the behest of his elder brother
While Maa Laxmi was accepting the prasad offered by Shriya, Lord Balabhadra, the elder brother of Lord Jagannath, Laxmi’s husband, became aware of the incident. When Maa Laxmi returned to the Srimandira (Puri Jagannath Temple), Lord Balabhadra was outraged. He told Lord Jagannath, “Your wife has entered inside the homes of Chandals. She has eaten their food. She has lost her social status. How can she touch Chandal food? She cannot stay in this holy temple anymore. Laxmi has become impure.”
Lord Jagannath was reluctant. He pleaded with his brother. He tried to convince him, saying that may be the daughter of the Ocean god (Laxmi) was unaware of her grave mistake and asked him to forgive her, promising that he will command Laxmi not to visit the houses of persons of lower-caste in future. However, Lord Balabhadra was adamant. Finally, Lord Jagannath was convinced by his brother. He said to Maa Laxmi, “By accepting food and prasad from the hands of a Chandal woman, you have become a Chandal woman yourself. You can no longer reside in this holy temple. You have to go away.”
Maa Laxmi was angry. She protested. But Lord Jagannath was not to be convinced. Laxmi was insulted. She was angry and hurt. Too hurt to plead any further, she removed all her jewellery and left the Temple. Going away, Maa Laxmi said to Lord Jagannath, “In insulting and driving me away, you are setting a dangerous precedent o Lord. No man should ever insult his wife like this. I curse you that you will starve. You will suffer and unless I command so, you cannot eat again.”
Maa Laxmi is furious, she leaves the Temple and builds her own palace
Leaving Lord Jagannath’s Temple, a furious, hurt Laxmi walks away to the beach. There the Goddess of the universe summons Lord Vishwakarma, the divine architect. She orders him to build her a new palace, which Vishwakarma immediately follows. Laxmi then summoned the ‘Ashta-betaalas’, the spirits. She orders them to go to the Jagannath Temple and wreak havoc. Following Laxmi’s orders, the Betaalas went to the temple, ate up all the food, destroyed all the grains in storage and carried away every single piece of treasure, utensil, and furniture.
Laxmi Devi was not done yet. She summoned Nidra Devi, the goddess of sleep and orders her to compel Lord Jagannath and Lord Balabhadra to sleep for the entire next day. Then Laxmi summoned Goddess Saraswati. She requested her, “O Saraswati. You know what has happened. Let my husband and his brother suffer for the sin they have committed. If they go unpunished, no man on this earth will ever respect his wife. Women will be seen as helpless victims who can be tormented. This should never happen.” Saraswati smiled and nodded.
Lord Jagannath and Balabhadra go hungry, suffer poverty
On the next day, when Lord Jagannath and Lord Balabhadra woke up, they were astounded. Not even a speck of grain or a single broom was to be found in the once lavish, rich Temple. There was no food, no wealth and even no expensive clothes on their bodies. Transfixed, the brothers ventured out in hunger. They begged on the streets, but seeing their condition, the people of the city drove them away, Goddess Saraswati was speaking in the voices of people. “Laxmi-drohi” has no place in the city,” everyone told. They begged from a Sadhu, who was kind enough to offer them water, but Laxmi’s anger worked and the water vanished. They begged from a Brahmin woman, but whatever food the kind woman tried to give, it all vanished. “Laxmi-drohi, Laxmi-drohi” was all they heard.
Finally, the destitute brothers, suffering from days of hunger and thirst, arrived at the very same palace that Laxmi had built. The maids at the palace gate first drove them away. But the brothers assumed the look of two brahmins and started chanting Vedas. Devi Laxmi, sitting in her room, asked the maids to invite the brahmins and offer them food. Laxmi, however, knew. She asked them, “ask the Bhrahmins whether they will accept food from a Chandal woman’s house.”
The brothers, unable to tolerate the hunger anymore, said desperately, “Yes, we will. Give us the grains and wood with some utensils. We will cook our food.” The maids gave the items to them. But Maa Laxmi was not done yet. “Hey Agni Dev, if the Lord and his brother get to eat now, no man will respect his wife on this earth. If humans were to be taught to respect their women and practise equality, these brothers must be taught a lesson” she said.
Agni Devta, the Lord of fire, nodded. And as a result, despite repeated efforts, the brothers could not light a fire. Weakened and utterly dejected from the pangs of hunger and insult, Lord Balabhadra pleaded to his younger brother, “Brother Jagannath. We will surely die now. Let’s go and plead the Chandal woman who owns this palace for some food. Let’s forget caste and differences. We need to survive.”
Lord Jagannath and Lord Balabhadra realise their mistake
Utterly dejected, the starving brothers begged to the maids to give them food. Maa Laxmi was smiling now. She ordered the maids to invite the brothers in and offer them a meal. The maids invited the brothers inside the palace and asked them to sit. Maa Laxmi then entered into the kitchen herself and cooked the dishes that Lord Jagannath loved. She kept sending the dishes as the maids served the brothers. In the end, Lord Jagannath realised that the food tasted like Laxmi’s cooking. The brothers eventually realised that they have walked into Laxmi’s palace. Lord Balabradra then told his brother, “We committed a grave sin by hurting Laxmi. Please go, hold the hands of your wife and plead her for forgiveness.”
Lord Jagannath did as told. Maa Laxmi then told, “You drove me away calling me a Chandal woman. Now you ate the food offered by a Chandal woman, at the Chandal woman’s house.” Lord Jagannath could not bear it anymore. He held Laxmi’s hands and begged her to forgive him. Lord Jagannath and Lord Balabhadra pleaded with Laxmi to come back to the Temple and forgive them.
Maa Laxmi had made the Lords realise their mistake. She asked them to promise that in their kingdom, there will no caste discrimination. “Promise me, Lord, that there will be no discrimination among our devotees on the basis of caste. I will reside only in the place where people love each other. Where Brahmins and scavengers will happily feed each other and where Chandals, Brahmins, merchants and scavengers will sit together to eat. In our Temple, no devotee will be turned away for his or her caste.” Lord Jagannath said, “So it will be”.
A festival of the masses, a message for humanity
This story of a woman’s will, her power and self-respect, the tale of equality and social harmony has been recited in every Odia household for centuries. Reciting the Laxmi Purana is a compulsory part of the ‘Manabasa Gurubara’ and the story has been depicted in movies, TV serials and devotional videos countless times. The Puri Jagannath Temple does not discriminate on the basis of caste and this legend has been teaching Odia people not just social harmony, but lessons of cleanliness, devotion, love and respect for generations.
This is a popular video where the Laxmi Purana is sung in by the famous Odia singers Namita Agarwal and Gita Dash.