Rebirth of god’s quite literally is unheard of. But at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, India this happens quite frequently. Legends say that the idols of the three deities of the temple were fashioned by none other than Lord Viswakarma, the architect of the Gods, from woods found drifting in a lake.
But there is more to this story. The idols of Lord Jagannath, Goddess Subhadra and Lord Balabhadra are said to have their own ‘souls’. Every 12 to 19 years, the three deities shed their old physical form and take on a new one. This ceremony is called ‘Nabakalebara’. It is derived from the odia words ‘naba’ meaning new and ‘kalebara’ meaning body or form.
Nabakalebara or the rebirth takes place every 12 to 19 years. Historically, it has been performed in 1912, 1931, 1950, 1965, 1977, and 1996. It was performed last in the year 2015. However, no one really knows the year of origin of this ritual.
The first step for Nabakalebara, the rebirth is to find trees to carve out the idols of the deities from. But no ordinary tree can be used for this ritual. The tree has to match all the prerequisites to even be considered. The first requirement is that the tree has to be Neem (Margossa) tree. If you have seen pictures of the three sibling deities, you must have noticed that Lord Jagannath is dark bodied compared to his siblings who are fair toned. So, the neem tree which will be used to carve out his idol has to be darker in color and the trees for carving Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra has to be light colored as they are fairer.
TREE FOR LORD JAGANNATH
The tree for carving Lord Jagannath must have four major branches representing the four arms of Lord Vishnu, the god of protection and preservation. The tree should be located near a water body (like a large pond or lake) and there should be a cremation ground in the vicinity. There should also be an ant-hill close by and at the base of the tree, a cobra should reside in a snake-pit. No bird should have made their nests in the tree and none of the branches should be broken.
The tree should be located near a crossroads with exactly three roads or near three mountains. No creepers must have grown on the trees. Varuna, Sahada, and Vilva (each of these trees are very rare and for all three to grow near each other is even more rare) trees should be growing near it. There should be a hermitage and a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the god of destruction nearby.
If all the requirements were not bizarre enough, there is still one more criteria to satisfy. There should be natural impressions of a conch and a wheel (called chakra) on the tree’s trunk.
After the trees are identified, a small ritual is conducted, and the three trees are cut down to the required size. They are then hauled back to the temple in Puri and new idols are carved from them. Once complete, they are taken inside the main chamber where the deities reside for the ceremony of Nabakalebara or the rebirth.
The newly carved idols are placed inside the main chamber of the temple complex. However, they are still missing something- ‘soul’. Legend has it that the idol of each deity has an inner core called ‘Brahma’ which no one has ever seen or felt. It is said that anyone who sees the Brahma dies instantly. Therefore, the entire ritual of Nabakalebara or the rebirth is done at the dead of night. The government blackouts the entire city of Puri.
The ceremony has several rules which has to be followed by the daitapatis (the priests that work at the temple) who carry out the ritual. The first rule is that three daitapatis must be blindfolded so that they cannot see the Brahma. The second rule is that they will have each of their hands covered in layers of clothes so they cannot feel the Brahma while transferring it from the old idols to the new. The third rule is in accordance with Hindu funeral ceremony.
In Hinduism, when a person dies, the son of the deceased does not shave or have a haircut for ten days out of mourning. Therefore, the participating daitapatis shouldn’t have shaved since the start of the search for the trees because they are essentially mourning the death of the three deities. The three daitapatis fast and meditate the entire day. Then as the clock strikes midnight, the ritual of Nabakalebara is carried in absolute darkness and deafening silence.
The old idols are then taken to Koili Baikuntha ( the burial grounds for the deities) where they are buried in the ground.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS THE BRAHMA?
Well, no one really knows. According to legend, the brahma is a part of Lord Krishna’s (Lord Jagannath is considered an avatar of Lord Krishna, god of compassion, tenderness, and love) true physical form. It is believed that after the death of Lord Krishna, the five Pandava brothers cremated him in a funeral pyre as per Hindu traditions. The whole body reduced to ashes except his heart which still burnt and continued to for years. The gods ordered the brothers to throw his heart into the sea, which they obliged. It is said that the heart took the appearance of wood and was collected by King Indradyumna’s men to carve out the idols. (Check that story here). This log is the Brahma which now resides inside Lord Jagannath’s Statue.
Every 12 to 19 years, the statue of Lord Jagannath is changed. But the ‘Life force’ remains.
The daitapatis who have carried out the ritual were interviewed to share their experience of transferring the brahma. They said that they had no idea what it looked like, its shape, appearance, or even weight. All they could feel was power surging through their veins and sending chills down their spine.
The soul never dies. Every Nabakalebara brings with it new idols, but their essence remains. Protecting and guiding us as the years go by.