When world was water, you became a tireless vessel of the Vedas.
You, in Pisces form, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!
When this heavy earth you carried on your callused tortoise back, how venerable you were, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!
A blemish on the hare-marked moon, the earth became as on your tusk: you held us when a boar, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!
With nail on lotus hand you cut the bee-like Hiranyakashipu.
What a lion-man, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!
A marvellous dwarf, Keshava, you outwitted Bali: from your toenail water poured to bless the people: conqueror of the world, Hari!
Bhrigu’s lord, you made in blood of Kshatriyas the people bathe.
As evil left, the heat declined: conqueror of the world, Hari!
In Ráma’s body, you have hurled around you heads of Rávana, a blessing of the war, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!
You carried beauty as a cloud and shone as wielder of the plough that struck with fear the Yamuná: conqueror of the world, Hari!
Kind as Buddha, you refused to take the sacrificial life of animals despite our customs: conqueror of the world, Hari!
In Kalki’s body you became a sword to scourge the foreign people, comet-like in fire, Keshava: conqueror of the world, Hari!
You, in a decay form, Keshava, are the comfort of our life. Hear the poet Jayadeva, conqueror of the world, Hari!
Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda
Sometime in mid 17th century CE, a group of natives from a small village called Harirajpur (located on the outskirts of modern Bhubaneswar) had gone to Puri to witness the annual Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath. It was love at first sight for them. The spectacular scenes of Lord’s procession on the Grand Road of Puri (called Bada Danda in Odia) inspired them to conceptualize a similar event in their village. Upon returning to Harirajpur the village elders sat together to brainstorm which led to the birth of an idea widely celebrated as Dola Jatra, a festival that is celebrated after Holi in March every year to welcome Basanta, or the spring.
In Odisha, the temple deities are not passive and socialise just as we do. The conception of Dola Jatra revolved around this very idea of a get-together of temple deities in an open space called Melana Padia. This also allowed devotees to assemble in large numbers for darshan at one place. They need not go to the various temples located in different villages and towns.
While conceiving Dola Jatra at Harirajpur, the festival of Dola Govinda Utsava of Jagannath Temple, Puri was kept in mind. Jagannath is worshipped as Dola Govinda during Dola Purnima. Both Jagannath and Goddess Bhudevi are placed on the Dola Bedi.
Celebrated on the full day of Phalguna, the temple sevayatas and devotees apply abhira (natural dry colours) to them. Spring is welcomed through this festival and celebrated with pomp and gaiety. It is also referred to as Bastantautsava or the spring festival.
Dola Jatra is also celebrated as victory of good over evil through the performance of Prahlada Nataka (a form of folk theater), especially in South Odisha.
Prahlada Nataka or the Play of Prahlada is a theatrical rendition demonstrating the faith of child prince Prahlada, who worships Vishnu despite the evil machinations of his father. The play is thought to have been adopted from a classical text popularized by Raja Ramakrishna Deva Chotarai, a feudal ruler of Ganjam in the mid 19th century. A special mask endowed with great power is worn by the actor who plays Narasimha, the man-lion incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who ultimately destroys the wicked king.
Celebration of Prahlada Nataka in Odisha
Prahlada Nataka is on the verge of disappearing like many other folk art forms of the country. Most of the performers have shifted to other occupations with changing time. However, even of what is left, there is an inclusion of many modern elements, such as electronic lights and digital sound. Traditionally, the troops would perform on a bleacher like platform perched in an open field or in a temple compound. The performance included dialogues and songs accompanied by the music of mridangam, drums, harmonium, wind instruments (mukta veena), cymbals and conch shells. In the climax, the actor playing the character of Prahlada becomes possessed. He must be forcibly restrained by attendants from inflicting harm on the person of the actor playing the king. Symbolically, when the king is played by Vishnu, order is restored in the universe.
Before the congregation, the temple deities are taken around to houses in the village, where uncooked bhoga (food offerings) is offered to them. The idols are carried on decorated palanquins, called vimana and the procession is accompanied by singers and musicians, called ghantuas in Odia. The daily round of procession continues for four days and is known as chacheery.
On the fifth day, the idols from village temples of a locality or cluster assemble at melana padia. The entire atmosphere is reverberating with devotional music performed by ghantuas, bhajans, and ghoda nacha (dummy horse dance). In ghoda nacha, a dummy horse made from wood, beautifully painted and surrounded by colourful cloths is used as a prop. People from nearby villages gather in large numbers to play abhira with their gods. There is a strong belief that the natural colours used in abhira have medicinal properties that heals skin diseases.
Paschimasambhu Somnath Temple at Harirajpur is not an architectural wonder, but its religious significance cannot be under estimated. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and while talking to its trustee and head priest Shri Lakshmidhara Mahapatra, I discovered that the idea behind Dola Jatra is not just confined to the celebration of the swing of Radha Krishna but it has something to do with the syncretic cult of Hari-Hara or Vishnu and Shiva which has been the dominating aspect of Odia religious life for last 1000 years.
On the day of the Melana, I was in the temple to witness and document the entire process – from the preparation of Vimana and cleaning of idols till the gods being taken to Melana Padia in the wee hours. Here is the film that shows the sequence.