Jagannatha is a name of Krishna that literally means the Lord or Master of the universe. Although many deities of Jagannatha are worshiped across the globe, the most famous is found in Odisha at the Jagannatha temple in Puri. Each year, many pilgrims visit this temple from all over the world to see Jagannatha and participate in the annual Ratha-yatra festival.
But just who is Jagannatha, and where did this unique form of Krishna come from? The Skanda Purana narrates how Lord Jagannatha manifested at the temple in Puri during the reign of King Indradyumna many thousands of years ago.
The Search Begins
A holy ascetic once paid a visit to the palace of Indradyumna and informed him of a beautiful, blue-black deity of Krishna being worshiped on the nearby Mount Nilachala. The deity’s name was Nila Madhava.
When King Indradyumna heard about this deity, he felt his whole body melt. He was overwhelmed by spiritual attraction. The king immediately sent his ministers to find the deity so that he could personally witness the beauty of Nila Madhava.
After some time, one by one, his ministers returned. King Indradyumna could tell by their slumped gait and lowered gaze that they had failed. Eventually all but one of his trusted advisors had come back to the kingdom without any leads on the location of Nila Madhava. Indradyumna prayed that somehow, by the Lord’s grace, his last remaining minister, Vidyapati, would be successful.
Vidyapati had been looking high and low, asking everyone he met for a hint about the whereabouts of the Nila Madhava deity. No one he talked to knew anything. Finally he found himself on the outskirts of a primitive mountain village.
“Surely Nila Madhava would not be here,” he thought. “These are śabaras, simple-minded aboriginals. Why would the Lord reside in this place?” Nevertheless, he chose to proceed into the village, for in his heart there was a faint inkling that perhaps Nila Madhava would be found there.
As Vidyapati wandered through the village, a beautiful young woman caught his attention. She stood outside a small hut cooking lunch on a brick fireplace.
“Greetings young lady,” Vidyapati said. “I am seeking a deity known as Nila Madhava. Is He worshiped in this village?”
The young woman gave a start and nearly dropped her ladle to the ground.
“Dear sir,” she replied, “I — I’m afraid I cannot help you.” She paused. “But if you stay till the afternoon you may inquire from my father. He may know something about this deity.”
Vidyapati was exhausted from weeks of travel. He gladly took the lady up on her offer to rest awhile. The woman offered him a seat in her home and a hot meal.
“Thank you, truly,” he told her. “My name is Vidyapati. I come from the kingdom of Odisha. I am a priest in the palace of King Indradyumna.”
“You’re most welcome,” the woman replied. “I am Lalita. We are honored to have you as a guest in our home.”
When Lalita’s father returned home, Vidyapati was sleeping. Lalita informed her father of their guest.
“Father,” she said, “he is a priest in the palace of King Indradyumna. He has come seeking Nila Madhava.”
Lalita’s father froze. “What?” he asked, “How could the king possibly know about Nila Madhava? What did you tell him?”
“I have told him nothing, father. I simply invited him to wait until you returned home. I did not know what to say. He seems like a very nice man.”
“Oh?” Lalita’s father saw his daughter blush as she spoke of Vidyapati. For years he had struggled to find a suitable husband for his only daughter. Perhaps this man has been sent by the Lord, he thought.
“Alright let us meet this Vidyapati.”
The next day, Lalita’s father spoke to Vidyapati and invited him to remain as a guest in their home as long as he desired.
As weeks passed, Vidyapati settled into life in the small village hut. He sensed that Lalita and her father, Vishvavasu, knew something about Nila Madhava, but they would not tell him anything. He decided the best course of action was to wait and see if they would furnish any further information.
Meanwhile, Lalita was growing very fond of Vidyapati. She enjoyed preparing and serving meals for him and she often asked him about life in the palace. She found him to be very handsome, and for his part, Vidyapati also admired Lalita’s beauty and charm.
Vishvavasu was pleased to see that the Lord seemed to have finally sent his daughter a husband. He arranged for a wedding ceremony and a grand festival was celebrated in the village. Vidyapati hoped the king would understand his circumstances and not fault him for neglecting his service. He still hoped to gain further knowledge of the whereabouts of Nila Madhava, but he also found himself attracted to the simplicity of life in the mountain village.
One day, Vidyapati noticed the house smelled of incense and camphor. That’s peculiar, he thought. It was midday, and, as usual, Vishvavasu had just returned home from venturing out the previous evening. Vidyapati always wondered what he might be up to at such odd hours, but because he was Vishvavasu’s guest, and now son-in-law, he never dared to ask. So that very evening, after Vishvavasu had left, Vidyapati asked Lalita about this unusual smell.
“My darling Lalita,” he asked. “I noticed a strange thing today. When your father came home he smelled strongly of incense and camphor, as if he had just returned from a temple of worship.”
“How strange,” she stammered, as she busied herself with folding laundry.
“Just where does your father go every night? It’s a peculiar habit he has, leaving every evening like that. He is clearly a man of virtue, so I don’t suspect he’s frequenting bars or brothels. Where does he go?”
Lalita felt several beads of perspiration form on her brow. She loved her husband dearly. “How can I lie to him?” She thought.
“My dear husband,” she whispered, turning toward him. “My father goes out every night to a secluded place. In the forest he has constructed a temple for the worship of Nila Madhava. That is where he goes every evening. He goes to Nila Madhava.”
Vidyapati gasped. “I knew it! I knew somehow you both knew something about Him!” He embraced Lalita.
“You’re not upset?” she asked.
“Upset? Why should I be upset? I have finally found the object of my quest! King Indradyumna will be overjoyed.” Then he looked Lalita in the eyes. “Please, I beg you, you must convince your father to take me to see Nila Madhava.”
Lalita was doubtful her father would agree, but she did not want to disappoint her husband. For several days she asked Vishvavasu again and again to take Vidyapati to see Nila Madhava. Finally, he relented.
“Okay son,” he told Vidyapati one afternoon. “Prepare yourself. Tonight I will take you to see Nila Madhava.”
That evening Vishvavasu wrapped a blindfold around Vidyapati’s face and led him out into the night. Unbeknownst to Vishvavasu, Vidyapati had secretly tied a handful of mustard seeds in the cloth of his dhoti. Every so often he would let some fall to the ground so that he could later return with King Indradyumna and follow the trail of mustard plants to find Nila Madhava.
After what seemed like many miles, Vishvavasu finally stopped.
“We’re here,” he said, removing Vidyapati’s blindfold.
Standing before Vidyapati was the most beautiful deity he had ever seen. He immediately fell to the ground offering prostrate obeisances and loudly singing prayers and Vedic verses. Then he shot up and began to dance and sway, his face wet with tears of ecstasy.
Vishvavasu left Vidyapati alone while he went to collect flowers and fruits for his worship of Nila Madhava. While Vishvavasu was absent, Vidyapati took note of his surroundings, attempting to identify landmarks which would help him again find Nila Madhava.
Suddenly, Vidyapati saw a crow fall from a tree into a nearby lake. After struggling for a few moments, the crow sank beneath the surface and drowned. Just then an effulgent four-armed being emerged from the lake and floated up to the heavens.
“Can it be?” Vidyapati wondered. “By dying in the presence of Nila Madhava, that crow has been promoted to Vaikuntha, the spiritual world!” Without warning, a voice rang out from the clear, dark sky.
“Vidyapati!” the voice said, “Do not think to follow this crow and obtain My kingdom so easily. You must keep your word and return to Puri to inform King Indradyumna that you have found Me.”
Vidyapati sought out the origin of the voice, but the forest was vacant except for himself and Nila Madhava. It’s true, he thought. In the ecstasy of seeing Nila Madhava and the astonishment of witnessing that crow’s departure for Vaikuntha, I had completely forgotten my service to King Indradyumna.
After some time, Vishvavasu returned, his arms full of assorted paraphernalia for worship. While Vishvavasu was performing his routine rituals, something unprecedented happened. Nila Madhava spoke to him.
“My dear servant Vishvavasu,” Nila Madhava said, “for so long I have been grateful to receive your service here in the forest of Mount Nilachala. It is now my desire to go to the kingdom of Puri so that I can receive opulent worship from King Indradyumna.”
Vishvavasu could not believe his ears. He was simultaneously delighted to hear the sweet voice of his beloved master, Nila Madhava, and terrified at the prospect of losing His service. Finally, the pain of imminent separation won out. Vishvavasu dragged Vidyapati back to the village and locked him in the guest room of his hut. For several days Lalita cried and begged Vishvavasu to let her husband go, but he could not bear the thought of losing Nila Madhava. Every night when he went to the forest for worship, Nila Madhava told him the same thing — He wished to go to Indradyumna. Vishvavasu shed silent tears as he offered the incense, fruits, and flowers.
“If You so desire, my Lord, then so be it,” he thought.
The Wooden Lord
King Indradyumna followed Vidyapati through the forest, accompanied by a small retinue of soldiers. His limbs quivered in anticipation as they ascended the gently sloping mountain paths.
“Are we near?” Indradyumna inquired. “I have been waiting so long for this moment.”
“Yes my king,” Vidyapati replied. “See these small mustard shoots? These are the ones I told you about, which I planted on my way to see Nila Madhava.”
Vidyapati pointed ahead. “There. Do you see that lake? That’s where Nila Madhava resides.”
Indradyumna leapt down from his horse and ran ahead. But when he arrived at the clearing that Vidyapati had indicated, there was only an empty forest shrine. Nila Madhava was nowhere to be found.
“What sort of cruel trick is this?” Indradyumna demanded “Vidyapati! If you have deceived me, I shall kill you on the spot!”
“I would never!” Vidyapati protested. “My king, believe me, I would never dare do such a thing. I swear on my life that the deity was here.” He paused. “But perhaps…”
“Perhaps what?!” Indradyumna shouted.
Vidyapati hesitated. He knew that if he accused his father-in-law of hiding the deity, then Indradyumna would have him killed.
“Out with it!” Indradyumna cried. Falling to his knees, he clutched his face in his hands. “I’m begging you, Vidyapati. I’m begging you. Please! I must find Nila Madhava. How can I live if I do not find Nila Madhava?”
Vidyapati admitted that his father-in-law, Vishvavasu may have hidden the deity, knowing that they were coming to take Him away. On hearing this news, Indradyumna sent his soldiers to the village to arrest Vishvavasu. But when Indradyumna questioned him about the deity’s whereabouts, he claimed innocence.
“I did not hide Nila Madhava. I did not!” Vishvavasu barked. “Why would I try? He is God. He told me He wanted to go to your kingdom. How could I interfere with His wishes?”
Before Indradyumna could doubt his word, a voice resounded in the sky.
“Release him! The śabara is innocent. I have disappeared of My own accord. But do not fear. You will see Me, Indradyumna, but not in my form as Nila Madhava. You must ascend the Nila-Kandara Hill and build a temple at the peak. There I will manifest in my wooden form as daru-brahman.”
As the Lord instructed, King Indradyumna oversaw the construction of a grand stone temple on the top of the hill. When the temple was nearing completion, Indradyumna feared there might be more obstacles before he could begin worship. Therefore he traveled to Brahmaloka to request Lord Brahma himself to come and conduct the opening ceremony.
Due to time dilation, time is experienced differently in higher and lower realms within this universe. When Indradyumna finally returned with Lord Brahma, many thousands of years had passed. A new king named Galamadhava reigned over Puri. He had recently excavated Indradyumna’s temple, which had become covered with sand and earth.
In a dream, the Lord again appeared to Indradyumna and told him that He would soon appear as daru-brahman, a large block of wood washed ashore from the ocean. Indradyumna found the block of wood just as the Lord described, and returned Him to the palace to be carved into a deity.
Indradyumna asked all of the sculptors in his kingdom to carve a deity from the daru-brahman, but everyone who tried found that their tools were ineffective. The wood seemed invulnerable. Finally, Indradyumna requested Vishvakarma, the architect of the demigods, to carve the deity. Vishvakarma agreed, but only on the condition that he be allowed to work uninterrupted for 21 days.
As the days passed, Indradyumna grew more and more impatient. “Why must I wait like this? he thought. What’s the harm in seeing my Lord before He is completely finished?”
On the fourteenth day, King Indradyumna ran out of patience. In the dark of night, he ran to the workshop of Vishvakarma and listened at the door. There was total silence. “Now is my chance,” Indradyumna thought. “Vishvakarma is gone!”
Inside the workshop, Vishvakarma was nowhere to be found. Indradyumna saw three large deities partially carved out of the original daru-brahman. The shapes of Their bodies, faces, and arms were formed, but They did not yet have hands or legs.
Indradyumna’s heart sank. He had violated his agreement with Vishvakarma and now the deities would forever be unfinished. He resolved to fast until death to atone for his grave error.
That night, as Indradyumna slept, Lord Jagannatha appeared to him in a dream.
“O King,” the Lord said, “Please do not lament. I desired that you interrupt the carving of My deity form. I am Jagannatha, Lord of the Universe, and this form is My exhibition of transcendental ecstasy. I have appeared accompanied by My brother Baladeva and My sister Subhadra. You may now place Us in the temple and commence daily worship.”
King Indradyumna awoke with a start. His skin was damp with sweat and the hairs of his arms were standing on end. He leapt up and loudly called all his priests and ministers to tell them what he heard from the Lord in his dream, and to begin arranging everything necessary for the worship of Lord Jagannatha.
Since that time, Lord Jagannatha has been worshiped in Puri, and each year He is taken on a chariot procession in an eight-day festival known as Ratha-yatra.
LEARN MORE: Want to know more about the famous Ratha-yatra festival of Puri, India? Check out our article on the amazing festival of chariots.