DER Documentary

Navakalevar (New Embodiment)

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by Prithwiraj Misra
color, 50 min, 2005

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In Orissa on the eastern coast of India, the temple of Jagannath in Puri is an ancient center of pilgrimage for Hindus. Over the centuries, they have flocked there for the worship of Vishnu in the form of Jagannath, Lord of the Universe, seated in the temple with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. These well-known icons are of tribal origin, made of painted wood. Every year the deities are carried out of the temple for the car festival and suffer the subsequent wear and tear. In a cycle of twelve or nineteen years their bodies are replaced with identical new ones fashioned out of neem logs. This event is known as Navkalevar.

The festival begins with the ritual search for the logs. Strictly governed by ritual, a group of Sevayats (temple servitors) called Daitas leave on foot for the temple of Maa Mangala in Kakatpur, about 60 km away. Here they pray and fast and wait for a dream which will tell them where to proceed in search of the logs. They require four logs in all – one each for Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra, and a fourth for Sudarshan, the wheel on a staff, which is part of the iconography of Vishnu.

Once the neem trees are traced by the Daitas, a handful of Brahmins undertake the worship of the trees. These are Vedic rituals, necessary for the appeasement of the spirit of the trees, before they are cut down, shaped into large oblong blocks, loaded on to freshly made carts of Banyan wood, and then pulled with the help of ropes right back into the temple of Jagannath at Puri. The event becomes a popular festival as the crowds mill in the streets to help pull the carts. Behind closed temple doors, out of view of the camera, the fresh wood is shaped to look like the deities, and the old deities are then buried in the temple compound.

On the day of the car festival the new, happy Gods are finally brought out of the temple, and taken to their respective chariots – raths – and are pulled down the broad avenue of Puri by the rejoicing masses. It is a spectacle on a grand scale, and the congregation which can reach 500,000 makes it one of the greatest popular festivals on earth.

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Religion Today, International Festival of Cinema & Religion, Italy, 2006
Association for Asian Studies Conference, Boston, MA, 2007

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