CONFRONTING BRAHMINIZATION: THE STORY OF BALA DHUPA

From the Ashwina shukla ekadasi (eleventh day of the waxing moon of the month of Ashwina) till the end of the month of Kartika, a special ritual is held in the Jagannath Temple in Puri. It is an additional food offering to Mahaprabhu Jagannath. Incidentally, “Jagannath” is a popular cover term for the Chaturdha Murti (Four -Form Images) of Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana. The food offering in question is “bala (pronounced as ‘baala’) dhupa”. Now, the name of the first food offering, dhupa, to Jagannath is “gopala ballabha” or just “ballabha”, which is sometimes called “bala dhupa”. But the word “bala” in the special food offering under reference doesn’t have the meaning “first or the earliest”- this dhupa, incidentally, is the third dhupa of the day. The word has the meaning “hair”, in which sense it is most frequently used in Odia. This would appear quite odd, considering that in the relevant culture, hair is considered impure. The non-shastrik rituals generally have tales associated with them and there is one associated with bala dhupa. It occurs in Madala Panji, which is a chronicle of the Jagannath Temple, dealing with the doings of the kings of Puri belonging to different dynasties, some important events connected with the rituals and the like in the Bada Deula (the Big Temple), as the Jagannath Temple in Puri is famously called.

Long ago, in the first part of the fifteenth century, Nishanka Bhanumana Deba of the Ganga dynasty was the king of Puri. One day, he came for the darshana of Jagannath (The Lord is generally and fondly addressed and referred to by the people of Odisha as simply “Jagannath” without any honorific prefix or suffix). At that time there were no flowers on the head of the Deity. Extremely nervous, the pushpalaka servitor (these servitors dress the Deities) engaged in the seva (service of the Lord) on that day, placed the garland he was wearing on Jagannath’s head. When the king arrived, he took that garland from the Deity’s head and offered it to the king as prasad.

Later, the king found that there was a strand of hair in that garland. He was furious. He ordered his men to bring the servitor to his presence. He thundered at him, urging him to tell him how there was hair in the garland. The nervous, confused and terrified servitor told him that there was hair on Jagannath’s head. The king told him that he wanted to see it for himself the following morning. The servitor was utterly miserable. That night the king heard a voice in his dream asking him not to trouble His servitors. The voice asked him to come to the temple the following morning and see His hair. Early in the morning, at the time of Jagannath’s abakasha (bathing), when He wears nothing on His head, including flowers, the king went for His darshan.  And he saw long, thick hair flowing down from His head. The king prostrated himself in front of Jagannath. He then comforted the servitor and instituted an additional food offering called bala dhupa. Over the centuries, this special ritual has commemorated that narrative and celebrated the Lord’s mercifulness.

Dadhyata Bhakti (Steadfast Devotion), which is a collection of stories of some great devotees, composed in verse by the poet Rama Dasa in the eighteenth century, contains the story “Talichcha Mahpatra”. It can be viewed as a variation of the story in Madalapanji, mentioned above. In this story, however, the servitor had a name: Jagabandhu Mahapatra. He had the tilachcha seva, which included dressing the Deities. Now, he was not just a servitor but a great devote of Jagannath as well. The king then was Prataparudra Deva (sixteenth century), who was known to have a quick temper and who gave harsh punishment to the guilty. When he came for darshan one day, there were no flowers on Jagannath’ head. Jagabandhu put the garland he was wearing on the Deity’s head and when the king came to the Lord’s presence, he took that garland from the Deity’s head and gave it to the king as prasad. When the king found hair in the garland, he told Jagabandhu that if he did not see hair on the Deity’s head the following morning, he would punish him. Terribly frightened, that night Jagabandhu prayed to Jagannath to save him. He kept some water mixed with poison with him, having decided to drink it in the morning in case he did not receive any divine indication during the night to the effect that he would be saved. Jagannath appeared in his dream and told him that he had no reason to worry, for the following morning, he would see hair on His head. When the king came, Jagabandhu told him that he could see Jagannath’s hair for himself. Suspecting that the servitor had played a trick and that the hair was false, the king pulled out some hair and he found blood in them. The penitent king threw himself at Jagabandhu’ feet and begged for forgiveness.  Why the expected reference to bala dhupa is missing here is open to conjecture. Our tentative and rather weak surmise is that the episode, like the others in the collection, is about devotion and the devotee, as its title suggests; for the poet, things about the object of the devotee’s devotion were dispensable.

There is yet another construction of the Madalapanji story. In Surendra Mohanty’s classic, Neela Saila (Blue Mountain), published in 1968, a character, Kantha Mekapa, narrates the story of bala  dhupa for the benefit of his captive audience of Jagannath devotees in a village. Here the servitor was a suara. The suaras prepare food for offering to Jagannath. One day hair was found in the food (in poda pitha, roughly speaking, a kind of baked / roasted Indian cake) which had been offered to the Lord. The king, who, like the suara, is un-named here, put the servitor in prison. Jagannath appeared in the king’s dream and told him that He would not accept any food if His servitor was not released. Post- haste, the king went to the servitor, apologized to him profusely and set him free himself. On that day, the king instituted bala dhupa. Mohanty has attempted to make his version more credible and persuasive than the source narrative. If a food offering is instituted, not a dress (like Gajanana besha (Elephant dress), for example), then from the point of authenticity, the story is better contextualized in food than in dress (flower on Jagannath’s head). 

This is Jagannath’s story, not Lord Vishnu’s or any avatara’s. When Jagannath was brahminized (using the term without any caste implications), that is, assimilated into the Great Tradition of Sanatana Dharma, the narratives of the leela of Vishnu or His avataras became His stories. Prior to this assimilation, there was no leela of Jagannath (or whatever name the forest dwellers had given him); therefore, no stories of His own. In the Ramayana, there is the story of the savari who fed Lord Rama with berries which she had already tasted for sweetness and the hair story of Jagannath is similar to it to the extent that the Lord in each had accepted polluted food. But there the similarity ends. Ignoring details, there are no rituals in any Rama temple, to the best of our knowledge, where the savari episode is commemorated through a ritual. 

The hair story, like Rai’s story, the milkmaid Manika’s or the little girl in the brinjal field’s, are purely local stories, with a distinctly folk flavour. Who created these, for what purpose and in what context, we may never get to know for certain. But we tend to look upon these stories as attempts to confront the brahminization of Jagannath and construct His identity in consonance with the Little Tradition.

 (Published in margAsia. Summer 2020. pp. 9-11.)    

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