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The Fascinating Secrets of India's Oldest Temple

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

Puri's Jagannath Temple in the State of Odisha India

Puri's Jagannath Temple in the State of Odisha India

The Four Blindfolded Men

In the dead of night, four men walk towards a secret destination within a city purposefully shrouded in darkness.

The men are blindfolded and their hands wrapped with a thick cloth as they finally enter the inner sanctum of their destination. They quickly put on thick gloves as they start removing a mysterious radiating substance kept within four wooden deities.

The Brahma Padartha

They work feverishly and finally finish removing the ‘Brahma padartha’ as they call it completely from the deities. It takes them another two hours to transfer the substance inside the ‘new’ idols they brought along with them.

Finally, they leave the premises, taking the old wooden idols with them and leaving behind the new ones with the mysterious radiating substance glowing inside.

Jagannath Temple in Odisha, India

Jagannath Temple in Odisha, India

Puri's Jagannath Temple

No, this is not the plot for a Hollywood movie filled with cliff-hangers and spies peddling espionage secrets. The four men are the priests of the famous Jagannath Temple located in Odisha, India, and they are performing a secretive ritual called Nabakalebara in which a mysterious substance called ‘Brahma padartha’ is removed from the wooden idols of Lord Jagannatha, Sri Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra Devi and placed into new idols every once in 14 years.

The Jagannath Temple—one of India’s oldest temples—is known for its breathtaking annual Rath Yatra. Witnessed by millions of people worldwide, it features a procession of three colossal chariots carrying the mysterious deities.

A Ritual and a Glowing Substance

Nabakalebara is an important ritual that happens in the temple every 14 years. It involves the installation of new images in the Jagannath temple and the burial of the old ones in the temple premises at Koili Baikuntha.

What's the Mysterious Substance?

In the process of changing the idols, a mysterious substance is transferred from the old to the new idols. The four priests who do this activity are bound to secrecy; to date, generations of these priests have steadfastly kept the nature of this substance a closely guarded secret.

All we know is that it requires heavy-duty gloves to handle it, it is radiant and glows in the dark, and it is put into idols made of wood (which is a poor conductor of electricity).

The Jagannatha Deities

The Jagannatha Deities

The Ritual of Nabakalebara

Preparation for the ritual begins with finding the right neem tree (Indian lilac) for making the idols.

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A Special Neem Tree Is Found

The right neem tree should satisfy certain special criteria; absence of nests, presence of an anthill, and symbols of God Vishnu (mace, chakra, conch) ‘growing’ on its trunk. Once the tree is selected, it is cut and transported secretly to the temple premises for making the idols.

Strictly Supervised Carving Begins

Skilled carpenters called ‘Biswakarmas’ are identified for the task who, after being sworn to secrecy, start working under the strict supervision and guidance of the ‘Daitapatis’, the four priests who are selected to execute the ritual. The oldest Biswakarmas are assigned to create the deity of Lord Jagannath.

And in parallel, the idols of Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra are carved by two other teams consisting of three carpenters each. The work is done in utmost secrecy and not even the head priest is allowed to enter the area. There is a special enclosure created for the carpenters where the carving is done behind strong doors.

The Idols Are Created in Utmost Secrecy

The carpenters are not allowed to go outside the temple and cannot eat, sleep, and drink within the temple premises until the work is completed. They also cannot communicate with the outside world and are provided with 50 assistants tasked with arranging any items or tools required for the creation of the idols. Devotional songs from the Vedas will continuously play day and night during these 21 days of idol creation.

The Idols Are Handed Over to Special Priests

Once the idols are created, they are handed over to the special priests or ‘Daitapatis’ who will carry out the ritual on a specially selected night. On this night, at midnight, the mysterious substance or ‘Brahma Padartha’ is transferred from the old deities to the new ones by them, completely blindfolded, with both hands and feet wrapped in thick layers of silk cloth so that the priests can neither see nor feel anything about it.

As the priests later say when asked about the experience:

It is very difficult to express what it is. It cannot be seen or touched. Our eyes are blindfolded and our hands are covered with cloth when we carry it. Yet a powerful feeling is very much present, like a rabbit jumping in our hands. This is our experience. Beyond this, exactly what this is that is so powerfully felt, nobody is able to say.

What Is It Exactly?

Any unsolved mystery inevitably gives rise to speculations, myths, and rumors, and over the years the contents of the ‘Brahma Padartha’ have given rise to multiple theories.

The Remains of Lord Krishna?

Many believe ‘Brahma padartha’ to be the mortal remains of Lord Sri Krishna, a major deity in Hinduism. This belief is also supported in an Odisha version of the famous Hindu scripture Mahabharata written by a famous 15th-century poet and scholar of Odia literature Adikabi Sarala Das.

The Buddha's Tooth?

Some believe ‘Brahma padartha’ may be a tooth of Gautama Buddha. As per Buddhist history, a tooth of Buddha collected from his funeral pyre might have reached Kalinga (Modern Odisha).

A Shaligram?

Some others claim it might be a massive ‘shaligram’ that is commonly worshipped by Hindus of Vaishnavite and Smarthist sects.

No One Knows for Sure

Whatever be the case, one thing is for sure; the temple authorities officially confirm that you need to wear heavy-duty gloves to handle it and that means it is an actually existing physical thing and not a metaphorical one.

Another interesting point is that whatever the mysterious object is, it slowly corrodes and disintegrates the idol of the wood. For that reason, new idols have to be created every 14 years (hence the need for the ritual Nabakalebara).

And its most mysterious fact is this: anyone who sees it will die. That is why the Government of Odisha orders a full blackout on this one night in the whole town of Puri.

Whatever it is, it has been the epicenter of religion, faith, and mystery for more than a thousand years, and we are not going to see the end of the mystery any time soon.

How to Reach Puri's Jagannath Temple

  • By Air: The nearest airport is Biju Pattanaik at Bhubaneswar which is 60 km from Puri. Bhubaneswar is well connected with all major cities in India.
  • By Train: Puri is a major railway junction that is well connected to all major cities in India. Trains run regularly to Puri from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata.
  • By Road: Puri is 60 km from Bhubaneswar on the national highway. Regular state transport buses, private buses, and taxis ply between the two cities. A journey from Bhubaneswar to Puri takes approximately 1.5 hours.

Temple Visit Details

Here are some details to help you plan your visit to the temple. You can also check the website to see when special events or closures are planned.

  • Dress Code: Men in formal attire and women in saree or salwar. Miniskirts and Bermudas are not allowed.
  • Entry fee: Free
  • Darshan timings: 5:30 am to 11:00 pm
  • Special events: Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra
  • Best Time to Visit: October to February


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

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