The grand Rathayatra of Puri Shri Jagannath Temple holds enormous significance for the people of Odisha. It is not just a religious festival, it is the celebration of faith, of equality and solidarity. On this auspicious day, let’s discuss a beautiful story linked with the grand Rathayatra of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath.
The Gajapati dynasty of Kalinga (the old name of Odisha) was established by Emperor Kapilendra Deva in 1434. Under Kapilendra Deva’s rule, the territory of Kalinga took in large parts of today’s West Bengal, eastern Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh in the south. After Kapilendra Deva, his second son Purushottama Deva ascended the throne of Kalinga in 1467.
Purushottama Deva was wise, brave and young. His elder brother Hamvira Deva, who was denied the throne due to various reasons, had frought allegiance with the Bahamani Sultan Muhammad Shah Lashkari. With the help from Bahamani Sultan, Hamvira Deva had taken control of the southern half of the Kalinga empire, ‘gifting’ the territories of Rajahmundry and Kondapally to the Sultan. Purushottama Deva launched a massive offensive from Odisha, defeated the joint forces of Hamvira and the Bahamani Sultan and took back Rajahmundry and Kondapally.
After re-establishing the former boundaries of his empire, Purushottama Deva focused on the Southern parts, towards Vijayanagara and the Krishna-Godavari delta. During the initial days of Purushottama Deva’s reign, when Kalinga was busy fighting a civil war launched by Hamvira, Saluva Narasimha Deva, the then ruler of Vijayanagara had launched an offensive and had captured some important fortifications, namely Chandragiri and Udayagiri. After defeating Hamvira, and the Bahamani forces, Purushottama Deva clashed with Saluva Narasimha Deva.
The instances of the clashes between Purushottama Deva and Saluva Narasimha Deva form the backdrop of the famous Odia literary work ‘Kanchi Kaaveri Upakhyana’, penned by Purushottama Das in the 1500s.
The first war with the Kanchi ruler resulted in a massive loss for Purushottama Deva
Historical references, literary works and legends mention that Purushottama Deva’s first offensive against Kanchi ruler Saluva Narasimha Deva resulted in a massive loss to the Kalinga Army. Thousands of soldiers died and Purushottama Deva himself barely made it back alive. The ‘Kanchi Kaaveri Upakhyana’ says that Purushottama Deva, wounded and defeated, came back to Odisha and fell on the feet of his Lord, Lord Jagannatha of Sri Mandir, requesting him to save him and help him.
It is notable here that the Gajapati emperors had established themselves as the ‘servant’ of Lord Jagannath, signifying that Lord Jagannath is the ruler of Kalinga while the Gajapatis only serve at his feet. Odia legends, folk tales and songs say that Lord Jagannath assured Purushottama Deva that he will win in his next endeavour. In the second mission to conquer Kanchi, Lord Jagannatha and Lord Balabhadra themselves fought alongside Purushottama Deva.
The legend that Lord Jagannath and Lord Balabhadra both dressed as warriors and fought for the Kalinga Army is a part of Odia folklore. It is often depicted by artists in the form of Pattachitras, weaving and other art forms, including songs and plays. Legend says that on their way to war, the Lords met a milkmaid named Manika who offered them food and drink. As payment, the Lords gave her a ring, telling her that they are fighting on behalf of the Kalinga emperor and when he passes through the way with his Army, Manika should show him the ring, and collect her coins.
When Purushottama Deva was shown the ring by the milkmaid, he immediately recognised the jewel as that of Sri Jagannath from the Sri Mandir. Realising that the Lord has heard his prayers and is out to fight his enemies, Purushottama Deva awarded Manika and her family handsomely with an entire village named as ‘Manikapatana’.
This #pattachitra pallu of a saree from #raghurajpur depicts the incident from Kanchi-Kaveri Upakhyana where Manika, a milk-maid meets Lord Jagannath and Balbhadra as they go to fight with the king of Kanchi on behalf of king Purushottam Deva, the king of Odisha. #RathYatra2020 pic.twitter.com/jBO6UKek9D— Shefali Vaidya. 🇮🇳 (@ShefVaidya) June 23, 2020
The Gajapati emperor becomes a ‘sweeper’ for one day, in the service of Lord Jagannath
It has been a centuries-old tradition of the Rathayatra that the ruler of Kalinga becomes a ‘sweeper’ for one day. The Gajapati of the Suryavamsa gets up to the Ratha and sweeps the Lord’s chariot with a golden broom, a ritual known as ‘Chhera Panhara’.
As the ‘Kanchi Kaveri Upakhyana’ tells, Purushottama Deva had heard that Padmavati, the daughter of Saluva Narasimha Deva, is unparalleled in beauty and grace. He wanted to marry Padmavati so he sent a proposal. Saluva Narasimha Deva had sent emissaries to Kalinga who witnessed the ‘Chhera Pahanra’ ritual, finding it odd that the all-powerful Gajapati was performing the duties of a sweeper.
Saluva Narasimha Deva considered it an affront and declared that his daughter will never marry a mere sweeper. Purushottama Deva was enraged. This was an insult not just to him, but to the ritual and the culture of Lord Jagannath too. After his second conquest of Kanchi, where he emerged the victor and captured Saluva Narasimha Deva, Purushottama Deva had princess Padmavati brought to Kalinga, declaring that he will indeed get her married to a sweeper.
Would a princess really marry a sweeper?
The tale further goes that while Purushottama Deva, in his anger and outrage, had declared that he would have Padmavati marry a sweeper, the ministers in his court were worried. The young emperor needed a queen, and it would be an injustice and affront to princess Padmavati to forcefully marry her off to a person beneath her status. On the other hand, they had their emperor’s orders to get the princess married to a sweeper.
The ministers waited for an opportune moment. On the day of Rathayatra, when Gajapati Purushottama Deva started sweeping the chariot with a golden broom, princess Padmavati was ushered forward by the ministers and priests. While the emperor was sweeping the chariot, literally a ‘sweeper’ at that time, the princess placed a garland on his neck, marrying him at that moment. The situation was resolved. The emperor’s orders were not violated, and both the emperor and the princess found a match worthy of their status and desire.
As per an article in History of Odisha, while many historians agree to the turn of events, some parts of the story are contested. Saluva Narasimha Deva was indeed a ruler of Vijayanagara and had fought with Purushottama Deva. Kapilendra Deva, Purushottama Deva’s father, had conquered Bidar, the territory of Bahamani Sultan and was called as ‘Kalabargeswara’. Historian KC Panigrahi had stated that Chandragiri was the seat of Saluva Narasimha Deva and it may have been known as ‘Kanchi’ in popular references, after the Pallava capital Kanchipuram.
Purushottama Deva had indeed defeated Saluva Narasimha Deva in his second attempt and had brought back the idols of Ucchista Ganesha of ‘Kanchi Ganesha’ and Sri Gopala as symbols of victory. The Ucchista Ganesha idol is now inside Sri Mandira and the Sri Gopala idol in Satyabadi, Puri district.
There are some conflicts about the name ‘Padmavati’ too. Some texts cite that Purushottama Deva’s wife was ‘Rupamvika’. It has been argued that it is possible that the daughter of Saluva Narasimha Deva was named Rupamvika whose name was later changed to Padmini or Padmavati as per an Odia custom that is still in use, of a bride changing her name and adopting a new name after marriage.
The tradition of Rathayatra still continues, as the custom of the Gajapati performing the duty of the sweeper during the Chhera Pahanra. The present Gajapati, the descendant of the glorious emperors, still performs this ritual on every Rathayatra. The culture and legend of Lord Jagannath have always been about equality and devotion, and that is reflected in every small ritual and custom associated with the Temple. In another article, we had discussed how Goddess Mahalakshmi had mandated that there will be no caste discrimination under the rule of Lord Jagannath. As the massive wheels of Mahaprabhu’s Ratha roll on the Grand Road of Puri today, the entire civilisation of Sanatana Dharma bows before the Lord of the universe, to receive his blessings.