The Cult of Jagannatha: Myths and Rituals offers a new approach to Orissan ethnography. In sharp contrast with dominant explanations, centered on tribal influences and the history of aryanisation, this book provides extensive evidence on the importance of religious orthodoxy. Vedic and Hindu sacrificial symbolism is at the core of the extremely rich mythical narratives and cult practices related to Puri’s great temple.
Jose Carlos Gomes da Silva is Professor of Anthropology at Lisbon University Institute. His writings reflect two major interest: the ethnography of Orissa, where he developed field research since 1979 (mainly in the districts of Dhenkanal and Puri), and the epistemology and critique of anthropological thought. He has published L’Identite vole: Essais d’Anthropologie sociale(1989) [Stolen Identity: Essays in Social Anthropology], and O Discurso contra si proprio (2003) [The Discourse Against Itself] along with other books and articles.
The transition from the coastal to the inland regions of Orissa is characterised by sharp demographic and sociological discontinuities (Bailey 1957; 1960). Such regional differences are probably a reflection of aryanisation. Indo-European communities once settled in the fertile plains of the coastland (those of the Mahanadi delta, in particular), forcing the local tribal populations to migrate progressively to poorer and less irrigated areas. Ethnological accounts have most commonly relied on the historical reconstruction of this process. It has been assumed that native communities exercised a decisive influence on the traditions that flourished in the delta plain.- especially those related to its vital centres - the city of Puri and the temple of Jagannatha. "Puri’ Alexander MacDonald wrote, " is par excellence a meeting place between the Aryan and non-Aryan elements of the population" (1975: (46). In the words of Charles Fabri, "practically every temple... in Orissa" bears the mark of "non-Aryan beliefs" (1974: 12). This is questionable. The temples built in Orissa between the early 7th and the 14th century are examples of typical Hindu architecture, sharing "features in common with other northern temple styles such as the group of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh and those in Rajasthan" (Dehejia 1979: 1; see also Donaldson 1985-1987).
Some authors have also argued that autochthonous communities had a striking influence on the Jagannatha cult, namely as regards certain ritual performances and the unexpected prominence of Sudra ritualists of "tribal origin" (see Eschmann 1978c; Tripathi 1978b). The persistence of native religious iconography has been equally emphasised in the relevant literature. Eschmann, Kulke, Tripathi, and Stietencron, among others, saw in the image of Jagannatha an anthropomorphic transformation of a tribal (Khond) post. In many Orissan villages, the presence of a wooden post in front of a sanctuary seemed to confirm this point of view. According to Madeleine Biardeau, however, the existence of similar objects in South India weakens the plausibility of the tribal explanation in the Orissan context. In her opinion, autochthonous conceptions exerted no significant influence on the emergence of Hindu- ism in the region (Biardeau 1989: 65-66).
The wooden post commonly found in South India plays an important role in strictly Hindu rituals. It has been considered by Biardeau a transformation of the yupa, the sacrificial post of the Vedic period (see also Hiltebeitel 1988, 1991, 1999). The ancient yupa occupied a central place in the stage of sacrificial performances, and was closely associated to the brick fire altar, the primeval model of the Hindu temple. The same symbolic relationships are crucial elements of the traditions related to the Jagannatha cult. Myths and rituals show that sacrificial symbolism is at the core of Puri’s religious system. Explicitly associated with an inaugural asvamedha (the Vedic horse sacrifice), the building of the great temple is still seen as a transformation of the brick fire altar. These correlations are further supported by an impressive web of orthodox representations, both Vedic and Hindu.
This acknowledgement of orthodoxy takes us back to the so-called singularities of local traditions. How to interpret the iconographic "specificity" of Puri’s deities? What status should be attributed to the Sudra ritualists of the great temple? The present book provides new answers to these old questions. Puzzling as it may appear, the "strangeness" of Orissan ethnography is a particular — yet extremely coherent - expression of Indian traditions.
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