Asit Mohanty & Sibkumar Das
Ancient Indians were conscious of the importance of plants for human existence. Plants were always considered indispensable for human beings and several plants like Tulsi were worshipped. Metaphors with reference to plants like ‘Olata Vrikshya’ or inverted tree are salient features of Indian philosophy. An understanding of plants and their proper classification played a major role in the development of Ayurveda. So, the choice of neem as the ‘daru’ or tree out of which the new idols of the deities of Sri Jagannath temple are carved out cannot be arbitrary. It is an attempt to make the masses aware of the importance of plants in our life by linking them with divinity.
Varahamihir’s ‘Vrihat Samhita’ describes materials, including wood, which can be used to construct deities for worship. In Kashyap’s ‘Shilpashatra’, ‘daru’ or wood has been described as the best material for construction of the idols of the deities. Bhavishya Purana’ stresses the use of wood during the construction of idols of Lord Suryanarayana or sun-god.
Scriptures mention logs of peepul, mahua, deodar, sandal, bel, khadir, anchan, neem, sriparna, jackfruit tree, arjun and raktachandan (red sandal) are the most suitable for construction of idols of worship. But the choice of neem tree for construction of deities of Sri Jagannath temple has a deeper meaning.
‘Bhavishya Purana’ has this immortal line ‘Nimbadyaah sarvavarnanam vrikshyah sadharanah smrutah’, which means an idol prepared from neem ‘daru’ is suitable for worshippers of all sections of society. It is supported by another manuscript named ‘Pratima Lakshana Soudhagama’. According to this manuscript, ‘Nimba pradhanmetasham pratima cha binirmitou’ (neem is the king of all ‘darud’.
Our forefathers had conceived Sri Jagannath temple as a non-sectarian, open place of worship for all. It was a place where a person of any class and ideology could get accepted. In Sri Jagannath temple, persons of every social class including descendants of Brahmin Vidyapati, Kshatriya king Gajapati Maharaja and inheritors of tribal Biswabashu play key role in the rituals of the deities. So, the idols of this temple have been constructed from neem ‘daru’ or tree to make them suitable for servitors and worshippers of every caste and class of society.
The choice of neem as ‘daru’ hints that our ancestors knew the importance of this tree in Indian environment. Neem that bears the scientific name ‘Azadirachta indica’ is a native of the Indian sub-continent. It’s medicinal and other beneficial aspects are well known. So, neem trees are abundant in India.
Historical documentation of past Nabakalebaras hints that there were forests of neem in areas adjoining Puri and Kakatpur. Within the short time frame of Nabakalebara rituals for reconstruction of idols it was not possible to bring ‘daru’ from far off places. So, neem trees meant to be ‘daru’ were always chosen from neem forests in areas around Puri.
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