It has begun. The rituals by which Jagannatha, the presiding deity of Puri, Odisha, will die and be reborn along with his sister Subhadra and his elder brother Balabhadra and his weapon, the Sudarshana. The process, which lasts over three months, is called Naba-kalebara and has been taking place for the past 400 years at least, according to recorded history, every 14 to 19 years, when there is an extra month (adhik maas) in Ashada as per the traditional calendars. This year is one such year. The last one was in 1996.
It involves finding neem trees, the daru-brahma, with special marks: absence of nests, presence of an ant hill, snake and symbols of Vishnu. The trees once found will be cut and transported to Puri, and carved secretly, following prescribed rituals. The new images will be placed next to the old ones, in a few weeks’ time, at the height of summer. And on a special night, when even the government declares a total blackout in the city, special priests will enter the temple premises blindfolded, with their hands wrapped in cloth to transfer something called ‘Brahma-padartha‘ (soul-substance) from the old image of Jagannath to the new one. No one knows what that is and speculation is rife from the relics of Krishna himself, to the relics of Buddha to a sacred jewel, to a rare kind of fossil (shaligrama), to a Tantrik yantra, to even extra-terrestrial materials! Material for another Ashwin Sanghi novel, I guess.
With this transfer, the old body is discarded and the new one claimed. The old images are buried in a special enclosure called Koili-Vaikuntha (sacred burial ground) next to the main temple. The new body will be seen for the first time during the great pre-monsoon chariot festival.