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The Origin of the ‘daru’ or wooden idols

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Asit Mohanty & Sibkumar Das

Puranas as well as historians indicate that in its most ancient form, the idol of Sri Jagannath was not made of ‘daru’ (wood). Myths and stories of puranas say worship of Sri Jagannath as Nilamadhav by ‘sabaras’ or tribals preceded the worship in His present wooden idol form. The idol worshipped by tribals was ‘manimayi’ or crafted out of a precious jewel.

puri srimandira uttar dwar bate koili baikuntha ku gala sudarshan nka daru sagadi

Historians like Satyanarayan Rajguru have opined that the ancient idol of Sri Jagannath was made of stone. Some interpreters of Madala Panji, the chronicle of Sri Jagananth temple, feel Nilamadhav became Sri Jagannath with time and was worshipped alone. Devi Subhadra was a subsequent addition following the resurgence of Shaktism. At some point in history, Sri Balabhadra was added to satisfy the Shaivas. Sri Sudarshan was a later addition to encompass the Sauras, the sun worshippers.

‘Skanda Purana’ and ‘Sarala Mahabharata’, the Odia Mahabharat written by saint Sarala Das, say when the idol made up of Indranilamani (blue sapphire jewel) vanished, the Lord appeared in the form of a divine ‘daru’ or as a wooden log. This log got washed ashore on the Puri coast. As per these scriptures, new idols were prepared from this divine log. ‘Skanda Purana’ further mentions that the Lord has taken the form of ‘daru bigraha’ or wooden idol in holy and enlightening Purushottam Kshetra. It is nothing but part of a leela or divine game of the Almighty for the humans.

In his translation of ‘Skanda Purana Purushottama Mahatmya’, Chaitanya Charan Das has said the word ‘daru’ was derived from two Sanskrit roots.  One of these is ‘daa’ and the other is ‘do’. ‘Da’ means ‘darana’ or to cut and ‘do’ means ‘to give’. The Almighty divinity cuts off all our sorrows and provides infinite bliss and happiness. So, he has taken the form of ‘daru bigraha’ as part of His ‘leela’ among the humans. As part of this ‘leela’, he takes up new ‘kalebara’ at definite intervals. It is believed that collection of ‘daru’ and construction of idols are done through subtle mental directives of divinity.

But common sense suggests that ‘wood’ is the most common material found around us. Unlike other materials used to construct idols, ‘daru’ or wood is related to living entities or trees. It can be said that in choosing ‘daru’ as the medium for construction of the idols of Sri Jagannath temple, our ancestors had tried to make these idols that represent the omnipresent life force as close to ourselves as possible. Neem was chosen to become the ‘daru’ for Sri Jagannath since it is the most abundant and beneficial tree in India.

Wooden idols deteriorate faster than those made of metal or jewels. Wooden idols provide the scope to depict the cycle of life and death at regular intervals. It also provides the scope to observe the metaphorical phenomenon of death and rebirth of idols through the process of Nabakalebara at least three times within the average human life span of 60 years. A devotee would witness death and rebirth of his deity at least thrice before meeting his or her own death. It is meant to increase the confidence of humans to accept death.

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