Jagannath is the name of the deity installed in the temple of Puri, Odissa. The sanctum sanctorum of this temple houses three wooden images signifying Krishna, Balarama and Shubadra. This is the only shrine in India where Krishna is installed with his brother and sister. Not more than carved and decorated wooden stumps, the image of Krishna is black in color with the images of Balaram and Shubadra painted in white and yellow colors respectively. Jagannath Rath Festival is the annual feature of this temple in which the three deities are taken in chariot procession. Perhaps this is one temple known to us where the principal deities move out of the sanctum sanctorum once in a year on the chariots. The temple is a unique accomplishment presenting a rare kind of massive architecture.
The meaning of the term
The term Jagannath (Jagat – universe; nath – Lord) means ‘Lord of the Universe’. This is a form of Vishnu and Krishna worshipped by the Hindus with great devotional fervor. The concept of Lord Jagannath does not have any Vedic reference and is therefore viewed as a later evolution. How Krishna is associated with Jagannath comes forth through an interesting story.
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Thirty six years after the Mahabharath war, Krishna decided to quit his mortal body. The arrow from the bow of a hunter called Jara inflicted fatal wound on Krishna’s toe. Krishna’s body of mesmerizing beauty was found lying under a banyan tree surrounded by animals and birds. Arjuna arrived there to find that Krishna had left his body and ascended to Vaikunt. When the body was cremated, the heart would not burn and was therefore left floating on the sea. The physical heart of Krishna turned into a beautifyl statue called Nila Madhav, which was worshipped by a tribe in the forest.
King Indradyumna attempted hard to have a vision of the deity. Finally when he succeeded in getting to the place, the deity had disappeared. An ethereal voice directed Indradyumna to carry a log of wood that came floating on the sea and get an image carved. The royal artisans found the wood very tough to carve. An old sculptor appeared there and claimed he would be able to do the job if left in privacy for an indefinite period of time till he finished the task. When the wood and the sculptor were left behind closed doors, the king could not contain his surprise after a few days since there was no sound of carving heard from inside. When he forced open the doors, the sculptor had disappeared leaving unfinished stumps. The king deemed it as the divine will of God to manifest in this age of Kali in such an unfinished form and named the deity as Jagannath and built a magnificent temple on the sea shore.
Some references in mythology do not mention about the physical heart of Krishna transforming as the image of Nila Madhav establishing connections to the stories narrated here. However, on any account, the term Jagannath came to be attributed to Lord Krishna. The temple history of Jagannath at Puri is a one of very rare kind in the Indian subcontinent.