The Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha, is one of the holy char dham abodes of God that are considered to be extremely auspicious for Hindus to visit (the others are Badrinath, Dwarka, and Rameshwaram). If you don't let money-hungry Hindu priests (locally known as pandas) mar your experience, you'll find that this massive temple complex is a remarkable place. However, only Hindus are allowed inside.
Puri is just under two hours south of Bhubaneshwar, Odisha's capital city. The nearest airport is situated in Bhubaneshwar. There are frequent buses and trains from Bhubaneshwar to Puri. Puri's railway station also receives long distance trains from all over India.
Temple History and Deities
Construction of the Jagannath temple dates back to the 12th century. It was initiated by Kalinga ruler Anantavarman Chodaganga Dev and later completed, in its current form, by King Ananga Bhima Deva.
The temple is home to three deities -- Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Balabhadra, and sister Subhadra -- whose substantially sized wooden idols sit on a throne. Balabhadra is six feet tall, Jagannatha is five feet, and Subhadra is four feet tall.
Lord Jagannath, considered to be the Lord of the Universe, is a form of lords Vishnu and Krishna. He's the presiding deity of Odisha and is integrally worshiped by most households in the state. The culture of Jagannath worship is a unifying one that promotes tolerance, communal harmony, and peace.
Based on the char dham, Lord Vishnu dines at Puri (he bathes at Rameswaram, gets dressed and anointed at Dwarka, and meditates at Badrinath). Hence, a great deal of significance is given to food at the temple. Referred to as mahaprasad, Lord Jagannath permits his devotees to partake in eating the 56 items that are offered to him, as a means of redemption and spiritual advancement.
Important Features of the Temple
The Jagannath temple has four entry gates, each facing a different direction. The main gate on the eastern side of the temple, known as Lion Gate, is guarded by two stone lions. An unmissable towering pillar known as Aruna Stambha stands about 11 meters high outside it. The pillar represents the charioteer of the Sun God and used to be part of the Sun Temple in Konark. However, it was relocated in the 18th century after the temple was abandoned, in order to save it from invaders.
The temple's inner courtyard is reached by climbing 22 steps (called Baisi Pahacha) from the main gate. There are approximately 30 smaller temples surrounding the main temple, and ideally, they should all be visited before seeing the deities in the main temple. However, devotees who are short on time can make do with just visiting the three most important smaller temples beforehand. These are the Ganesh temple, Vimala temple, and Laxmi temple.
Other notable features inside the 10-acre Jagannath temple complex include:
- an ancient Kalpavata banyan tree, which is said to fulfill devotees' wishes.
- the world's largest kitchen where the mahaprasad is cooked in clay pots. Apparently, the kitchen produces enough food to feed 100,000 people each day!
- Anand Bazaar where the mahaprasad is sold to devotees in various sized pots. It's available throughout the day but fresh dishes are provided after 2-3 p.m. Anand Bazaar can be directly accessed by taking the north gate exit.
- a small museum called Niladri Vihar near the western gate, dedicated to Lord Jagannath and the 12 incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
- Koili Baikuntha, where Lord Krishna was believed to have been cremated after being accidentally killed by hunter Jara Savara. It's in the northwest corner of the temple, between the inner and outer compound wall. During the Nabakalebar ritual, new idols of Lord Jagannath are carved out of wood and the old ones are buried there.
More than 20 different rituals are performed at the temple daily. The rituals reflect those carried out in everyday life, such as bathing, brushing teeth, getting dressed, and eating.
In addition, the flags tied to the temple's Neela Chakra are changed every day at sunset in a ritual that's been going on for 800 years. Two members of the Chola family, which was given exclusive rights to hoist the flag by the king who built the temple, perform the fearless feat of climbing 165 feet without any support to affix new flags. The old flags are sold to a few lucky devotees.
How to Visit the Temple
The Jagannath temple is open from 5 a.m. to midnight. To avoid the crowds, the best time to go is early in the morning around 7 a.m. after the first aarti ritual, or after 9 p.m. The ambiance is evocative at night, when lamps are lit and the temple is illuminated.
Vehicles, with the exception of cycle rickshaws, are not permitted near the temple complex. You'll need to take one or walk from the car park. The temple's main Lion Gate is located on Grand Road. Entry to the temple compound is free. You'll find guides at the entrance, who will take you around the temple complex for a negotiable fee (about 200 rupees). It's not compulsory to hire one though.
Due to government restrictions, it's no longer possible to go inside the inner sanctum of the temple where the deities are kept. Instead, the deities can be viewed from a distance, depending on how crowded it is. A new ticketed darshan (viewing) system is proposed but yet to be fully implemented.
There is also a ticket system in place for viewing the temple's famous kitchen. Tickets cost 5 rupees each. Don't miss it! The food is prepared in the same manner as it was centuries ago, with traditional methods and implements. About 15,000 new clay pots are transported to the temple every day for cooking in, as the pots are never reused.
Allow a couple of hours to completely explore the temple complex.
What to Keep in Mind
There are unfortunately many reports of greedy pandas forcefully demanding excessive amounts of money from devotees. Recent intervention and monitoring by the police has greatly curbed this problem. The pandas are known to be experts at extracting money from people though, particularly at the smaller temples within the complex.
If you are approached by any pandas, it's strongly recommended that you ignore them. If you do wish to avail of any of their services, make sure you negotiate the price beforehand
and do not give any more than agreed. Most hotels have in-house pandas and you may be pushed to use their services. Be aware that you will pay a premium if you choose to.
If you wish to donate money to the temple, do so only at the official donation counter and obtain a receipt. Don't hand over money to the pandas or anyone else.
Barricades have been placed inside the temple to ensure the orderly flow of devotees and reduce harassment by pandas. There's a rush towards the inner sanctum though.
Note that you're not permitted to carry any belongings inside the temple, including cell phones, shoes, socks, cameras, and umbrellas. All leather items are banned as well. There is a facility near the main entrance where you can deposit your items for safekeeping.
Why Can't Everyone Go Inside the Temple?
The rules of entry into the Jagannath temple have caused considerable controversy. Only those who are born Hindu are allowed inside the temple. However, there have been instances of famous Hindus being denied entry. These include Indira Gandhi (the third Prime Minister of India) because she had married a non-Hindu, Saint Kabir because he had dressed like a Muslim, Rabindrinath Tagore since he followed Brahmo Samaj (a reform movement within Hinduism), and Mahatma Gandhi because he came with dalits (untouchables, people without a caste).
There are no restrictions as to who can enter other Jagannath temples, so what's the issue at Puri?
Numerous explanations are given, with one of the most popular ones being that people who do not follow the traditional Hindu way of life are unclean. Since the temple is considered to be the holy seat of Lord Jagannath, it has special importance. The temple caretakers also feel that the temple is not a sightseeing attraction. It's a place of worship for devotees to come and spend time with the god that they believe in. Past attacks on the temple by Muslims are sometimes mentioned as reasons too.
In 2018, the Supreme Court asked the temple to consider allowing all visitors inside, irrespective of their religion. This is yet to be decided though.
If you're not a Hindu, you'll have to be content with viewing the temple from the street or paying some money to view it from the roof of one of the nearby buildings (the old library opposite the main gate is a popular spot).
Ratha Yatra Festival
Once a year, in June or July, the idols are taken out of the temple in what is Odisha's biggest and most iconic festival. The Ratha Yatra festival sees the gods being transported around on towering chariots, which have been made to resemble temples. The construction of the chariots commences earlier in the year and is an intensive, detailed process.
Read about the making of the Puri Ratha Yatra chariots. It's fascinating!
What Else to Do Nearby
Local responsible tourism company Grass Routes Journeys offers a fascinating and insightful three-hour guided tour of the Old City surrounding the Jagannath Temple (including the pottery area). This tour is highly recommended for foreigners who aren't permitted to go inside the temple but want to learn about it.
Raghurajpur handicraft village is about 15 minutes by car from Puri. There, artisans carry out their crafts while sitting in front of their prettily painted houses. Pattachitra paintings are a specialty.
Puri's carnival-like main beach is a huge attraction for Indian tourists. They flock there in droves to frolic in the water, and go for joy rides on horses and camels along the sand.