Jagannath Rath Yatra and Osiris Festival
V. Krishnakumar, A. M. Adhyapak, N. M. Krishnakumar
Lord Jagannatha temple of Puri, India is one of the important places of pilgrimage in India. Lord Jagannatha is identified with Krishna. Following important points about Lord Jagannatha is of concern for our discussion. There are several good sites where one can gather information about Lord Jagannatha [32-39].
- In his original manifestation as Nilamadhaba, Jagannatha was worshipped in a sacred Nyagrodha or banyan tree .
- Puri is called Yamanika thirtha as Lord Jagannatha nullifies the effect of Lord Yama, the God of Death .
- The major festival of Puri is the Rath Yatra or Cart festival. The construction of the chariots starts on Akshaya Tritiya. On this day, the farmers start ploughing their fields .
- This day also marks the beginning of a three week long Chandan Yatra, the sandalwood festival. In this festival, the images of the deities are taken out in colorful processions and ceremonial boat rides in the Narendra tank daily .
- The presiding deities of five main Shiva temples of Puri known as Pancha Pandavas, the five brothers of the Mahabharata story, participate along with Jagannatha and Balarama in the festival. The deities have a ritual bath in stone tubs filled with water in a small temple with sandalwood paste, scents and flowers .
- Story of Krishna’s death, Daru-Brahman: The myth behind Jagannatha Ratha Yatra is associated with Krishna’s death. In Musali Parva of Oriya Mahabharata, Krishna was killed by the arrow of a hunter called Jara. Then Jara and Arjuna planned for his cremation. They heard a divine voice that told them to cremate the body by setting fire on a log of wood which has the symbols of Lord Vishnu namely conch, wheel, club and lotus. They did so, but found that Krishna’s heart did not burn. Also, they heard a divine voice that suggested them to leave the un-burnt heart in the sea. This heart became the wooden Daru-Brahman. One version says that this Daru-Brahman was seen at Banki-Muhan at the confluence of a river with Bay of Bengal . According to , there was a hill by name Nila parvatha where the river Ganga meets the sea as mentioned in Patala khanda in Padmapurana, and that the Daru-Brahman must have floated from there to Puri.
- Story of construction of Jagannatha temple: Indradyumna, who was the king of Avanti, built a temple for Vishnu, following a divine voice that told him to do so. Also, the divine voice told him that the god would preside the temple in a wooden form. However, after building the temple, he went to invite Lord Brahma to sanctify the temple, but returned only after a few generations had elapsed. Again, motivated by a divine intervention to make the idols out of a wooden log that floats on the sea, he recovered the wooden log Daru-Brahman that was beaming with light. The wooden log shattered into pieces whenever an artist touched it with his chisel, until God himself came in the guise of a sculptor and offered to carve the idol, but on a condition that he would not be disturbed until task is complete, which was about three weeks time. The king agreed for this contract, but could not resist visiting the sculptor after two weeks. The result was that the divine sculptor disappeared with idols incomplete. The idols were of the three divine siblings Lord Jagannatha, Balarama and Subhadra, but without limbs. Again the king being unhappy goes on a fast, when God tells him that he can make golden limbs to compensate for the lapse.
- Navakalebara: One of the important events in the cart festival is making the new idols of the three gods. This is called Navakalebara. The idols are replaced once in 12 years or so.
- Selection of the Daru tree: The choice of wood to make the idol of the three godsis discussed in a palm leaf manuscript in the temple called Niladri Mahodaya. The priest prays goddess Mangaladevi of Kakatpur (which is on the way to Konark from Puri) for the location to be searched. With her blessing, a group of people will search a Neem tree in that location that satisfies the following criteria [32-39]:
- The tree should be dark since Lord Jagannatha is dark too.
- There should be a facility for cremation and water source in the vicinity of the tree.
- The tree trunk should be sufficiently long.
- There should be an anthill and a hole where snakes may stay, close to the tree.
The trunk of the cut tree is carried to the sacred burial ground called Koili Vaikunta in Jagannatha temple premises where the gods are buried.
10. Installation in sanctum: After carving the idols, following steps are taken:
- They are placed in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple face to face with the earlier idols.
- The life of god is transferred from the old to the new idols.
- The old idols are removed from the temple and ceremonially cremated in Koili Vaikunta.
- The new idols are consecrated in the sanctum on the throne.
- The city will be in darkness during this procedure.
The entire procedure is done in private so that no one can see or perceive it. Even the priests who perform this procedure have their eyes and limbs covered with silk ribbons. The rights of performance of these procedures are reserved for the senior most servants of a specific family called Daitapati.
Here, we compare the similarity between Jagannatha festival and Osiris festival. The facts regarding Osiris and his festival are taken from  for comparison.
- The story of Lord Krishna’s death has some features in common with those of Osiris. After cremation, Lord Krishna’s heart did not burn and was floating as a log of wood, Daru-Brahman, in the sea near Nila parvatha, a hill in the delta region of river Ganga. This description matches the location where the heart of Osiris was consecrated by Isis namely Athribis, which is a small hill in the Nile delta. Incidentally, this is described in the Patala kanda of Padma Purana, where Patala means netherworld, for which Osiris is the lord. Thus, the location of Daru-Brahman and Athribis are quite similar and the chapter name Patala kanda also has the connotation of death.
- The myth goes that the log of wood that is Daru-Brahman, which was the heart of Lord Krishna, shattered into pieces whenever a sculptor touched it with his chisel, but did not when the Lord himself in the guise of a sculptor touched it. This may actually remind one that Osiris body was dismantled into pieces, and only gods Anubis and Thoth could put them together and goddess Isis could breathe life into him.
- There is an Egyptian myth that, for the sake of safety, Isis put each piece of Osiris body in different towns with the rest of the body reconstructed using wax and spices, that is the rest of the body was artificially made to complete it. This is similar to the golden limbs made by the king in order to complete the body of Lord Jagannatha.
- The procedure for searching Neem tree has certain peculiarities. The condition that the location should be a place of cremation with a pond looks like the temple of Osiris at Sais where his tomb was near a pond.
- The Koili Vaikunta means the following: Koil means temple in Tamil, Vaikunta means the abode of god Vishnu, where the dead would reach him if good. Note that Koili Vaikunta is part of the temple where the old images of gods are cremated after removal from the temple. Again, the presence of a crematorium in the temple and its name Vaikunta is related to death.
- Placing the completed idol of Lord Jagannatha has a close counterpart in Osiris story. We shall compare the points:
- Lord Jagannatha story:
i. The new idols are moved into the sanctum, the ‘life’ is transferred from the old to the new idols.
ii. Then the old ones are cremated outside the sanctum in the Koili Vaikunta.
iii. The new idols are placed on the throne in the sanctum.
iv. The entire city will be in darkness during this procedure.
- Osiris story :
i. On the 24th day of Khoiak, after sunset, the new effigy of Osiris in a coffin of mulberry wood was laid in the sepulcher.
ii. That night the old effigy, which had been made and deposited the year before, was removed and placed upon the boughs of sycamore.
iii. On the 30th day of Khoiak, the new effigy in the coffin was moved to the subterranean chamber in the sepulcher so that it can rest.
iv. The first two steps are done in the night when it is dark.
The four items of comparison match almost one-to-one as follows: In the first item, the new idols of Jagannatha are moved to the sanctum in Puri, while the new effigy of Osiris is moved into the grave. The only difference is the transfer of life from the old to the new idols that happens in Puri; though the transfer of life is not explicitly stated in Osiris ritual, the Egyptians have a practice of transferring the life called ‘Ka’ to every dead body by a ritual called ‘opening of the mouth’ . The second item is quite similar: they cremate the old idol in Puri, while the Egyptians keep it on sycamore boughs. Third step: in the third item, they both move the gods to the ‘actual permanent place’ that is throne in Puri and subterranean chamber in Egypt. Finally, events happen after dark.
7. The priests who do this procedure have their eyes and limbs covered with silk ribbons. This may actually mean something more, although the claim is that it is done just to prevent them from perceiving their action. Priests who do a very high order ceremony in India are almost respected as the god himself. For example, the priest of Badarinatha is ceremonially brought to the temple in a palanquin. Here in Puri, the wrapping of priests eyes and limbs with silk ribbon may actually commemorate wrapping of Osiris body with linen bandages by the gods Anubis, Isis, Nephthys, Thoth and Horus.
8. The three images of gods are three siblings: Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra; this is very much like Osiris, Isis and Horus elder (or Seth), who are also siblings.
9. The word Navakalebara is interpreted as ‘new body’, Nava meaning ‘new’. ‘New body’ may mean resurrection, also applicable to Osiris. Nava also means number ‘Nine’, therefore we can interpret it as ‘nine pieces of the body’. ‘Nine pieces of the body’ may compare to the pieces of Osiris body itself, because, out of fourteen pieces into which Osiris was dismantled, the limbs and phallus should account for five; since Lord Jagannatha idol does not have these five parts, what remains is nine, thus explaining Navakalebara.
10. Lord Jagannatha protects one from the god of death, Lord Yama: this concept is similar to the worship of Osiris where he is believed to be a hope for resurrection.
11. There is an unexplained connection with Pandavas of Mahabharata in this festival: the idols of the Lord Jagannatha and Lingas (named after Pandavas) are taken for holy bath. We have shown in our earlier article that Osiris story resembles that of the Pandavas. This may explain the association.
12. Other minor points:
- Karnak has an important Osiris temple, the name sounds similar to Konark near Puri.
- Lord Jagannatha is dark as is Osiris.
- The word Nila means black or blue. It appears several times on different contexts in the story as follows: Nilamadhabha is the name of the god himself; Nilaparvatha is the hill; Niladri-Mahodaya is the scripture. Nila is close to the word Nile (river).
- Lord Jagannatha was worshipped in the tree form, as was Osiris.
- The Lord Jagannatha cart festival coincides with ploughing and sowing in Puri, as is Osiris festival.
- The presiding deities are taken in ceremonial processions and boat rides in Puri, as they did in Osiris festival in Egypt.
It looks convincing that Puri Jagannatha Ratha Yatra resembles Osiris festival. Also, the place Puri has some relation to Athribis, where Osiris heart is buried. Thus, we are showing the origin of Lord Krishna’s story can be in Egypt. Thus, Puri might have been viewed as Dwaraka at some point of time because of the association of Lord Krishna’s death with Dwaraka. Since the origin of the story of Lord Krishna can be Egyptian, it is possible that many more deltas including the present Dwaraka might have carried the legend of Lord Krishna’s death.
 J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, A study in Magic and Religion, 3rd Edition, Macmillan and Co. London, 1914
 Richard H Wilkinson, The Complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003
 Swamy Parameshwarananda, Encyclopedic dictionary of Puranas, vol. 1,5, Sarup, 2003, p.321
 Ralph Ellis, Eden in Egypt, Adventures Unlimited Press, 2005