Jagannath Culture & Communication

Dr. Bharati Bala Patnaik

Head, Dept. of Journalism and Mass Communication, 

SMIT, Hillpatna, Bahmapur, Ganjam, Odisha


Culture is a sense of ultimate value possessed by a particular society as expressed in its collective institution by its members as well as significant forms which they give to material object. Communication thus presupposes a shared symbolic environment and social relationship among those who participate. The non-verbal style reflects the relationship between people and their different statuses, power and relationships to other speakers and rituals are always reinforcing certain societal beliefs. The wooden image of Lord Jagannath with his massive square head and his circular eyes and raised hands to indicate that he is impartial but a friend indeed. He sits with his elder brother Balabhadra and younger sister Subhadra. Its significance is to focus on his relation to the devotee and the fallen. In group communication particularly where the group is very large, deception and pretence cannot be detected immediately. The theatre, religious services, dance performances, carnivals, the Kumbha Mela, Ramleela, Rasalila. Ratha Yatra (car festival), are also examples of group communication. The Rath Yatra is the most important festival of Odisha which attracts pilgrims from all over India. Here the untouchables, the social outcast, the downtrodden, all mingle together with the so-called upper castes on Bada Danda. It is important because it annually registers global brotherhood and offers unprecedented access to humanity to come closer to divinity. The Holy Trinity preaches human fraternity. Lord Jagannath himself known as Purusottam sends a message to the world to be good human beings.

The concept of culture is very closely related to that of the ultimate values. The most general terms in which culture could be explained would be something like this: “The sense of ultimate values which certain society has and according to which it wants to shape its life”. Culture is a sense of ultimate values possessed by a particular society as expressed in its collective institutions, by its members in their dispositions, feelings, attitudes and manners as well as insignificant forms which they give to material objects. To make the idea clearer we will try to distinguish it from two allied concepts- religion and civilization.

Religion in its wider sense coincides with and goes beyond, culture and in its narrower sense, forms an important part of it. Where religion signifies the inner experience which reveals to the mind the real meaning and purpose of life, it is the very soul of a culture, but where it is used for the external form in which the inner experience has crystallized itself, it is only the part of it. Religion as the inner realization of the highest truth can never be opposed to culture; but positive religion, when it has degenerated into mere form without substances, is often in conflict with cultural life. Civilization is that stage in the cultural development of a people when they begin to live in large habitations called towns which represent a higher level of material life or higher standard of living.

Communication thus presupposes a shared symbolic environment and a social relationship among those who participate. W.S.Cardon, a leading exponent of Kinesics, stresses that interaction within a culture is governed not so much by the language but by body ‘synthesizers’ set in motion almost immediately after birth and thereafter conditioned by culture. Communication is therefore not a matter of isolated entities sending discrete messages back and forth but a process of mutual participation in a common structure of rhythmic patterns by all members of a culture.

Both communication and culture develop together, one supporting the other. Indeed communication is an expression of a community’s culture and culture in its turn embodies a community’s communication and information needs and practices. Communication and culture are thus inextricably tied into each other: We cannot understand one without understanding the other: neither can we speak of one without referring to the other. Communication, language, culture, society and civilization and their Indian equivalents may have meanings of their own, but they are intimately linked to each other and have evolved together, through the pace of evolution might differ from community to community. Culture is a system of beliefs, dynamic and multiplex in nature that is made up of many smaller and interacting groups that connect as speech communities that share non-verbal communication as well as talk, rituals and beliefs. All of these forms of communication, however, reflect the bigger belief system that makes a culture what it is. Non- verbal styles reflect relationships between people and their different statuses, power and relationships to other speakers and rituals are ways of reinforcing certain societal beliefs.

The symbolic structure of Lord Jagannath communicates a particular meaning of the relationship between brother-sister, brother and elder brother, God and devotee and his role as a symbol of joy, happiness and peace and the non-verbal message of Lord Jagannath attracts the people of the whole world.

A symbolic culture of Lord Jagannath

Puri, popularly known as Sreekshetra, is an ancient city of Odisha. It is famous in the world for the shrine of Lord Jagannath and has been considered as one of the four sacred dhams of the Hindu religion, the other three being Badrika, Dwaraka and Rameswaram. Lord Jagannath is the total symbol of Odisha’s identity-social, cultural, religious and spiritual. He is the source of our beliefs, social norms and relationship, cultural excellence and value systems. But the culture of Jagannath is an integrated whole. It has absorbed the Narayan culture of Bhagavata religion, Madhav culture of Odisha, the atheist culture of Buddhism, and Gopinath culture of Vaishnavism in course of time.

The wooden image of Jagannath with his massive square head and short arm stumps and the extraordinary look draws immediate attention of the devotees. There is no semblance of artistic touch. Jagannath does not discriminate between the rich and the poor or high and low castes. His circular eyes and raising hands indicate that he is impartial to all and a friend indeed. Our traditional legends give him high dignity describing him as a friend of the poor, distressed people. This figure is more symbolic, a real idol with an incomplete form with the limbs. An abnormal form of the icon without ears, legs and hands indicates that he is an impartial observer. Impartiality is the best quality of a ruler. He sits with his elder brother Balabhadra and younger sister Subhadra. The significance of this relation is to focus on his relation between devotees and the fallen. He may be the Lord of the universe but has no supremacy over devotees. So, he shows a deep sense of reverence to them as a younger brother responding to his elder brother. On the other hand, he loves the fallen and distressed people with eternal affection as an affectionate brother to his loving younger sister. This concept also indicates that the ancient Indian culture treats all as brothers and sisters.

The Jagannath culture is not a single religious creed like Buddhism, Jainism, Islam or Christianity, but a sect of the Indian pantheon.

On the authority of Harivansa Purana, it is believed that Vardhaman Mahavir came to Utkal in the 6th century B.C. and Jainism struck roots. Emperor Kharavela (2nd century B.C.) was the greatest monarch of Utkal adopting Jainism in his life. The famous Rath Yatra of Sri Jagannath is a Jain ceremony that is borne out of a similar celebration for Minanath in Nepal by the Jains.

The three deities Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath installed in the sanctums of SriMandir are interpreted as the tri-Ratna of Buddhism viz. Dharma, Sangha and Buddha respectively. The city of Jagannath called Puri is, according to some Buddhist, actually Dantapuri. Buddhists believed that the sacred tooth of Lord Buddha is enshrined in Jagannath.

Before the advent of Jainism or Buddhism, there were aborigines culture among whom the Savars (tribal) were a special clan associated with the legend of Jagannath. One Viswavasu had worshipped a bluestone called ‘NilaMadhav’ that came down to him as a legacy from the dim past. This was located by Vidyapati, a Brahmin, through guile, by marrying Viswavasu’s daughter. Informed by Vidyapati, King Indradyumna of Malawa came with his force to find ‘Nila Madhav’ which had disappeared. The king was however directed in a dream that he would retrieve a log of driftwood from the sea and make out of it a thing for his worship. Tat the king did. But the most significant part of this legend is that Indradyumna was made to swear by the Lord in his dream that

  1. There would be no ban based on the caste and creed in the temple
  2. That a Brahmin could eat Mahaprasad from a Chandal without any caste constraint
  3. And that the Brahmin descendant of Vidyapati would worship the deities whereas his descendants by the savara wife would prepare the food every day to be offered to the Lord.

To date, this combination of Brahmin and the savara is maintained in the temple rituals.

Besides Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath, another image is known as ‘Sudarshana’ is added to this divine assembly. Sudarshana is installed on the Ratnavedi on the left side of Lord Jagannath in the form of a meaningful staff. In Purans, Sudarshana is described as the divine disc of Lord Vishnu. According to the Vaishanavites, the demonic forces on the earth Sudarshanais personified in this scripture as a God and a close acolyte of Lord Jagannath.

Eminent scholars find a sense of universalism from trio-colours. They contend that the white colour of Balabhadra includes the white-skinned Europeans; the yellow colour of Subhadra represents yellow-faced Mongols and the dark colour of Jagannath the Afro-Indian races. More or less this conception includes all the human races. The Astro-Asiatic family of India, the Chinese race of Tibetans, the Turkish and Mongoloid family of North Central Asia, the Indo-European descendants, the Negros of Africa and tribal races of South America are included (The Cult and Culture of Lord Jagannath, 1984, P-67).

Culture through non-verbal messages

Non- verbal communication is everything that communicates a message but does not include words. Facial expressions, hand movements, dress, jewellery, physical attractiveness, position in the interaction and atmosphere.

Some non-verbal messages can be identified with culture. Each aspect of culture is related to other aspects of that culture. Alfred G. Smith (1966) wrote that communication and culture are inseparable, that culture is a code we learn and share that requires communication and that communication coding and symbols must be learned and shared as some of these symbols are non-verbal. It is partially through the non-verbal messages that we experience the culture.

The Lord Jagannath temple at Puri, a centrally protected monument since 1974, is the earliest Ganga monument in Odisha. The de-plastering work (1975-93) has brought to light the carving hidden so far. It demonstrates the superior workmanship of the Kalinga artisans and the temple is considered to be the most harmonious and beautiful temple among the surviving specimens in Odisha.

The de-plastered surface of the structure exhibits the temple proper (vimana) vertically consisting of a pista, badam, gandi and mastaka. It exposed a high platform designed in the shape of khakharamundi appearing in different projections forming the Pancha Ratha plan. Sri Krishna’s life is depicted like GiriGovardhana or lifting of Govardhana playing with Gopis on a hill, proceeding towards Mathura on a chariot, kaliyadalana etc. inspired by the BhagabatPurana and the elephant, horses with riders.

The front face of these miniature khukharamundi shrines depicts the figures of Digapalas or guardians deities of the directions such as Yama, Kubera, Varuna, Ishana, Agni and Vayu. Another figure exhibits the king’s court, seated on a Singhasan, accompanied by court ladies and courtesans, the priest giving sermons to the devotees, teacher teaching disciples. The two sides of each miniature shrine exhibit the figures of Vishnu, Shri Krishna with Radha, the herd of cows, playing the flute etc. The front face of each Pidha Deula is occupied by a figure of Dasaavatars of Lord Vishnu.

Coming to the upper level of Gandi on the east side includes the figure of Varah and Narasimha, while ones on the western side have images of Balaram and much damaged and restored Buddha and Kalki incarnations. Finally, those on the northern side contain a seated Vishnu in yoga asanas and a fine Ram with his bow, as well as Krishna and Vishnu. Beautiful massive female figures occupy the recesses of the upper level of the Gandi. These sculptures are standing on cylindrical bases.

Vertically the Masataka or the head is the topmost part of the temple which is above the Bisama or sealing level of the Gandi. It comprises Beki, amala, khapuri, kalasa which is ultimately crowned with wheel (Neelachakra) and flag (Patitapabana)

RathYatra: a form of group communication

Group communication shares all these qualities though in much less measure. As the group grows in size, communication tends to become more and more of a monologue, for participation becomes more problematic. The degree of directness and intimacy, therefore, depends upon the size of the group, the place where it meets, as also the relationship of the members of the group to one another. In group communication, particularly where the group is large, deception and pretence cannot be detected immediately. That must be the reason why acting is associated with group communication. The theatre, religious services, dance performances, carnivals, the Kumbha Mela, Ram Leela, Rasa Leela, RathYatra(Car Festival) are also examples of group communication.

The Ratha Yatra (Car Festival) of Lord Jagannath at Puri is the most important festival of Odisha which attracts pilgrims from all over India. Each year on the second day of the bright fortnight of Asadha, the image of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are dragged forth in a grand procession on three separate chariots along the Grand Road (BadaDanda) from Sreemandir to the Gundicha temple. For its profound religious fervour, magnificence and display of colour, the car festival of Lord Jagannath is perhaps the most spectacular religious ceremony in the world.

The peculiarities of the three cars represent the other aspects of human life especially Sattva, Tama and Raja. The car of Balabhadra popularly known as Taladhvaja consists of 14 wheels and is decorated with green and red clothes, ploughs, a bunch of corn and PurnaKumbha (water pitcher). The car represents creativity and agriculture that are the root cause of human prosperity. It symbolises the royal qualities of human life or Rajabhava.

The 12-wheel ‘Darpadalan’, the chariot of sister Subhadra, is marked by Talabhava or balanced qualities of human life. The 12 months are imaginatively fixed with 12 wheels which help in carrying the programme of creativity inaugurated by elder brother Balabhadra.

The 16- wheel ‘Nandighosh’, the chariot of Lord Jagannath, is represented by Sattabhava or Seren and holistic qualities covered with red and yellow clothes. Jagannath is known as the master of Sholakala, the 16 qualities need for human progress.- hence 16 wheels. The word ‘Nandighosh’ means a happy journey. In other words, the car festival stands for the journey of happiness, the journey of devotion and the journey of trances admits the all-pervading favour of the Lord.

The festival symbolizes ‘confluence of all religions, for the presiding deity of the Car Festival, various religious sects like the Saivas, the Shaktas, the Vaishnavas, the Ganapatyas, the tribals, the Buddhists, the Jains and the Muslims alike and are none else but the sons and daughters of the same Almighty Who has manifested Himself in vary many ways through vary many forms. RathaYatra is a unique example where the Lords comes out of the sanctum sanctorum to meet his devotees, irrespective of caste, colour or creed distinctions and gives His blessings of peace, love and harmony to all.

The British officer who had taken a leading role in the conquest of Odisha witnessed the Car Festival in 1805 and recorded his impression as follows: ‘The concourse of pilgrims exceeded anything I ever witnessed. It is generally believed that at least five lakhs were present. As far eyes could reach nothing could be seen but the heads, I was astonished at the order and regularity preserved. There was not the least tumult or disposition to violence.”

The festival is a universal one. Here the untouchables, the social outcast, the downtrodden mingle together with the so-called upper castes on Bada Danda. It is important because it annually registers global brotherhood and offers unprecedented access to humanity at large to come closer to the divinity. Man and God and man and man become one in Ratha Yatra. No distinction in whatever form exists.

The Car Festival of Lord Jagannath Puri is popularly celebrated all over the world. This festival is observed with intense enthusiasm by the masses. The ISKON devotees have spread the message of the Lord all over the world and by the year 1997, 62 foreign countries observed this festival. It also attracts a multitude of visitors from all over the world transcending all barriers of caste, creed and colour.


With the erection of the Jagannath temples in different parts of India, Lord Jagannath has assumed pan-Indian popularity and the car festival has become a national festival and the greatest symbol of Odisha culture with its non-sectarian outlook, the unique symbol of national integration.

Even the Muslim devotees Santhakabir, Jaban Haridasand many others have attached great sanctity to Mahaprasad otherwise known as ‘Anna-Brahma’. Through Mahaparasad relationship is established with different groups and individuals who are considered more important than clan connections. Non- Hindu devotees like the follower of Jesus Christ, a Romanian Prince known as Falahari Baba, reposed his faith in the Jagannath culture and many other mono-theists like Sankaracharya, dualists like Ramanuja, Krishna devotees like Madhav, Nimbarka, Ballavachari and Shri Chaitanya have accepted Jagannath as Shreekrishna and established their monasteries at Shreekshetra, Puri.

Sankaracharya has described Shri Jagannath as “Sahaj Ananda Rupadhruk’ meaning which means that the shape he has taken gives pleasure to everyone. He distributes pleasure in ‘Ananda Bazar’. The holy trinity preaches human fraternity. Lord Jagannath himself known as Pusrusottam sends out a message to the world community to be good to fellow human beings. This message of Lord Jagannath should be widely propagated to establish universal brotherhood in the present torment-ridden and fragmented world community. It is the only panacea for establishing world peace.


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  8. Pradhan C. Ramesh ( Compiler) (2014), Sri Jagannath Enigmatic Lord of the Universe, Sishukalam Publisher, Bhubaneswar.
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