Lockdown and the Festival Where Hindu Gods Go Into Isolation

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INDIA, June 18, 2020 (Atlas Obscura): The permanent residents of the Shri Jagannath Temple, in the Indian coastal town of Puri in Odisha, usually have busy schedules. Every year, three murthis, representing the holy siblings Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra see and bless millions of Hindu pilgrims. But every June, the murthis go on sick leave, a fortnight of isolation and purification before emerging again for the Rath Yatra festival, in which three 45-foot-tall chariots, one for each Deity, process through the town, with an audience of hundreds of thousands (“Jagannath” is the source of the word “juggernaut”). This year, as India reels from the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, most of the devotees are absent. The temple complex is quiet. Inside, however, a few priests and temple attendants are trying to ensure that the divine itinerary–illness, isolation, reemergence–is followed.

The Rath Yatra at the Shri Jagannath Temple is one of the more spectacular annual Hindu festivals, preceded by a quieter set of rituals. This year, of course, with the nature of the festival changed from public to more private, the services have changed in a way few are able to see. This period, when the inner sanctum of the temple is shut, is called anasara, derived from Sanskrit word Anavasara meaning “no interval of leisure.” Worship of Lord Jagannath, Lord of the universe, is thought to have its roots in tribal practices dating back to the second century, but the origins of this ritual are unknown. For the communities that nurse the Deities back to health, the process is an act of cosmic hierarchy. Kirti Prakash Das Mahapatra explains that 18 days before the Rath Yatra, on a full moon, the trio of murthis appear in public for a holy ritual bath. After this, they are said to fall ill, and are brought to the anasara ghar, or isolation room. There, the Daitapatis are entrusted with healing the Gods–in complete secrecy.

For more on the behind the scenes rituals of the festival see “source” above.

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