Disrespect or dialogue?
by Sandhya Jain on 14 Oct 2008 0 Comment

A 24-feet-tall Hanuman statue, installed at Sunset Point, Kanyakumari, on 21 September 2008, was surreptitiously removed by the Tamil Nadu administration in the wee hours of 30 September after alleged complaints from local fishermen. 

The task was directed by Kanyakumari district collector Jyothi Nirmala, who claimed: “the trust which installed the statue had only obtained the permission of the panchayat and this was insufficient.” The panchayat had permitted Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Nama Bhiksha Kendra to create a ‘Hanuman Park,’ but, said vice-president, S. Pushparaj: “My wife Felicity, elected head of the panchayat, did not understand the difference between a simple park and the installation of a large statue in a public place, and allowed the installation. She wrote to the collector and withdrew her permission.”

There cannot be a greater example of religious intolerance than this peremptory removal of an image of India’s most popular deity. The incident is also indicative of the extent to which the country’s sensitive coastline has been turned anti-Hindu through evangelization. Only two questions are pertinent: why are monotheistic traditions unable to live in peace in pluralist societies; and how do Hindus who speak vacuously of inter-faith dialogue propose to contain the cultural annihilation and political dangers of evangelization?

It is precisely this kind of de-nationalisation that tribals are doggedly contesting in the remote jungles of Orissa, where Christian missionaries are trying to tell them that they (tribals) are not Hindus! Orissa is a state whose spiritual-cultural landscape explicitly reveals the deep symbiotic relationship between tribals and non-tribals from ancient times. Tribal gods have always dominated the Hindu pantheon, and in Orissa, this coalesced into a regional tradition centred round Jagannath, one of the foremost deities of the all-India Hindu pantheon.

Jagannath was first worshipped by the Sabara (Savara, Saora) tribe, and ‘miraculously’ appeared in Puri much later. Till today, Daita (Daitya) priests, descendants of the original tribal worshippers, alone have the right to dress the god, move him, and regularly renovate his wooden image. Similarly at the Lingaraj Temple in Bhuvaneshwar, tribal Badu priests alone are allowed to bathe and adorn the deity. 

Orissa is equally famous for the legend of Narasimha, the Vishnu avatar who burst out of a pillar to kill the asura Hiranyakasipu. The pillar is a uniconical image worshipped in tribal areas and to this day, Orissa abounds with Narasimha images on wooden pillars symbolizing Khambheshvari (Goddess of the Pillar). Narasimha is believed to derive his power from the shakti residing in the pillar. The pillar motif became so popular in Hindu tradition that Shiva as Bhairava was said to have emerged from a pillar. 

The girija or hill-born aspect of Narasimha reinforces the tribal roots of Hindu dharma. An aboriginal god in the form of the head of a lion or tiger was worshipped in the caves and mountains of Orissa and Andhra. Orissa has instances of Narasimha being worshipped as a salagrama stone. 

Jagannath, Vishnu as Lord of the World, shows the metamorphosis of a tribal god into a pre-eminent deity of the classical Hindu pantheon. The god’s icon is even today carved out of wood (not stone or metal), and the tribes whose rituals and traditions were woven into his worship are still living as tribal and semi-tribal communities in the region. This tribal god took a fairly circuitous route to his present pinnacle, via absorption of local shakti traditions and merger with the growing popularity of the Narasimha and Purushottam forms of Vishnu in the region in the medieval era.

Queen Vasata in the eighth century built the famous Lakshman temple in brick, in Sripur. The temple plaque opens with a salutation to Purushottam, also titled Narasimha, suggesting a trend in Vaishnava tradition to stress the ugra aspect of Vishnu. This culminates in Puri where Jagannath, widely revered as Purushottam until the end of the thirteenth century, had close connections with Narasimha who became popular in Orissa in the post-Gupta period. 

But who exactly was this wooden god? After the death of Anantavarman Chodagangadeva, who reputedly commissioned the Puri temple, his chief queen, Kasturikamodini, built a temple in his homeland in Tekkali (present Andhra Pradesh), east of his first capital Kalinganagara, in 1150 AD. The temple was dedicated to the god Dadhivamana, and the inscription reveals that the image installed was of the Wooden God, and not the famous Puri Trinity of Jagannath-Balabhadra-Subhadra. Scholars say this means that Chodagangadeva was a devotee of this god, and as the god’s name is preserved in Tekkali in this early period, it seems likely that Dadhivamana (or the original tribal form of this Sanskritized name) was the original name of the Wooden God. 

As the original Wooden God was a unitary figure, temples for the single deity continued to be built even after a Trinitarian image emerged at Puri. Even today there are 344 Dadhivamana temples in Orissa, which perpetuate the original state of the god. The Khonds even now practice a ritual renewal of wooden posts. 

There is also something striking about the figures comprising the Jagannath triad. Subhadra’s image consists of only a trunk and a head, but Jagannath and Balabhadra are larger, with a trunk, over-dimensional head, and arm stumps. But while the heads of Subhadra and Balabhadra are oval with almond-shaped eyes, Jagannath’s head is curiously flat on top and is dominated by enormous round eyes. 

Scholars explain this in terms of Narasimha’s association with wooden posts representing tribal deities. In the Andhra village Jambulapadu (Anantapur), Narasimhasvami is worshipped as a pillar to which a sheet shaped in the form of a lion’s head is attached. This lion-head explains Jagannath’s large round eyes, typical of Narasimha on account of his fury (krodha). The head of the Jagannath image makes sense when perceived as a lion’s head, where the emphasis is on the jaws, rather than as a human head.

If, as missionaries allege, classical Hindu tradition was different from the tribal, why would tribal deities rise to become the dominant figures in the Hindu pantheon? As this has been a regular pan-India phenomenon, it seems reasonable to deduce that tribals were never culturally subordinate in their interaction with non-tribal (caste Hindu) communities, but were rather the fountainhead of the Hindu cultural evolution.

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