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Divine Diplomacy – How Jagannath Shaped a Millennium of Indian Politics

Jagannath’s story has many parts, but here we will explore its political dimensions – starting in an unexpected place: Tamil Nadu in the 11th century.

State Gods in the Cholaric Kingdom

From 985 AD and onwards, the Chola emperor Rajaraja I embarked on an astonishing program of expansion, culminating in 1010 with the consecration of a titanic shrine called Rajarajeshvaram, “Home of the Lord of Rajaraja”. (Today it is known as the Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur).

The Cholas often patronized local deities to win loyalties, but at the height of their expansion they were most interested in new forms of Shiva, which would serve as the focus of their empire. Their temples served as massive ritual engines to redistribute spoils of war Rajarajeshvaram had a huge treasury and thousands of animals, most seized through war and then invested in the hinterland to stimulate agriculture. Rajaraja’s successor, Rajendra I (r. 1012–1044) built another temple, “The Home of the Chola Who Conquered the Ganga”, and consecrated it with water from the Ganga River. According to Chola inscriptions, this was the culmination of a ravaging expedition that stretched from present-day northern Andhra Pradesh all the way to Bengal.

To the Cholas’ contemporaries, it may have seemed that their military success stemmed from their massive Shiva temples, in turn equipped with spoils of war. And so, the 11th century saw the initiation of a stream of massive temples, such as the incomplete Bhojeshwar Temple in Bhojpur (Madhya Pradesh). One of the most spectacular such temples – and the most relevant to the story of Jagannath – is the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar.


Read also: How Odisha Resisted Muslim Onslaught For Centuries – Give Credit To Monarch Jagannath


Rise of Jagannath

The Lingaraj Temple was commissioned by the Somavamsis, a clan from central India that had conquered the coastal kingdom of Tosali. (We talked about Tosali and its remarkable dynasty of queens who were defeated by the Somavamsis in an earlier Thinking Medieval column.) As the distinguished historian Hermann Kulke points out in his book chapter, “Imperial Temple Architecture and the Ideology of Kingship in Odisha”, the Somavamsis almost certainly built the Lingaraj to compete with the great temples of the Cholas further south along the coast. More importantly, just as the Chola temples served as integrative centers for their state, Lingaraj was destined to integrate the forest kingdom of Somavamsi with the newly conquered coastal plain. Unfortunately, the Somavamsis could not make use of the great temple. By the end of the 11th century, imperial temples across India were in shambles: they had few followers outside the court and were too expensive to maintain without conquest.

This paved the way for an aggressive new power: the Gangas of Kalinga, a kingdom on the border between present-day Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. Year 1135, as Prof. Kulke writes in The Jagannath Cult and the Regional Tradition of Odisha, the Ganga king Anantavarman (r. 1078–1147) had united the small kingdoms of the Odia coast and sought to consolidate his rule. To do so, he needed a patron deity, to be transformed into the emblem of Ganga’s power and piety. A new god would not suffice; he needed an independent, popular deity. At Puri he found just such a deity: a “Tree God”, identified with Purushottama, a form of Vishnu. The god’s sanctuary had long been in disrepair. Anantavarman ordered it to be massively expanded with the aim of turning it into a new imperial centre. And so in the 1140s, the tall spiers of the Jagannath Temple in Puri first began to rise.

Over the next century, as the temple grew, geopolitics on the East Coast worsened. From the 1150s onwards, the Cholas – once dominant up to coastal Andhra Pradesh – retreated into the Kaveri Valley. The political vacuum was filled by a dynasty from the interior of Telangana, the Kakatiyas. In their capital, Warangal, the Kakatiyas built another great imperial temple Svayambhu Shiva, the self-manifest. In an attempt to integrate the proud post-Chola aristocrats of coastal Andhra, they merely claimed to be “worshippers of the divine feet of the illustrious lord Svayambhudeva”. This made Kakatiya rule more acceptable to blue-blooded nobles. Loyalty to the Kakatiya king, a man of peasant tribes, was presented as devotion to Shiva. This was a significant political innovation.

Quickly learning of Kakatiya’s success, in 1230, the Ganga kings of Odisha claimed to be “the son and deputy of Purushottama (Jagannath).” In 1230–31, the temple of Jagannath was further expanded and land was donated to Brahmins. By 1237, the Chodagangas no longer called themselves kings at all: only “rāhuta” (Raut, “son of the king”) of the god. This was elegant smoke and mirrors: by the 1230s, the Gangas were the dominant kings on the east coast, successfully expanding into Bengal and warring with armies from the Delhi Sultanate. By claiming the title of Jagannath’s rāhutathey made their rule more acceptable to the strong men of the land, who in turn were considered the king’s rāhuta. If the king himself was one rāhuta of Jagannath, who is that of the Ganga king rāhuta was simply devotion to Jagannath.


Read also: Why are South Indian temples bigger than those in the North? The answer is not “Islamic invasions”


Jagannath and Odia kingdom

The Kakatiya god, Shiva the self-manifest, did not survive the conquests of the Delhi Sultanate. But Jagannath, protected by the mighty Ganga state, did. In the 15th century, the Gangas were overthrown by one of their ministers, who established a new dynasty, the Gajapatis. The Gajapatis had no right to claim descent from Jagannath. Instead, they assumed a new title: the chosen ones of Jagannath, Jagannath’s chief servants. As usurpers, they relied on the god for legitimacy and asked Jagannath’s help in defeating rebels. In return, they gave additional gifts to the god, further growing his regional prominence.

As Jagannath’s wealth and religious following grew, he also became a target for marauding armies. In the 16th century, his shrine was targeted by the Afghan mercenary Kalapahad, in the employ of the Sultan of Bengal. Soon after, both Bengal and Odisha became provinces of the Mughal Empire of the Gangetic Plains. As Prof Kulke points out, Jagannath’s popularity and antiquity attracted an ever-increasing number of pilgrims, which the Mughal governors encouraged by recognizing local rajas as “Kings of Puri”. In 1633, the English traveler William Bruton noted that Mughal officials participated in the Jagannath Rath Yatra alongside the raja. Dibyasingha IV, today titular king of Puri, is descended from the same clan.

The history of Jagannath in the early modern period is complex. The temple often functioned as a chess piece between its Brahmin community, the local rajas and various Muslim officials. But it always continued to expand and grow. According to the 1971 census, one in seven people in Puri was employed by the temple, and it continues to have its own dedicated subcastes of service personnel, such as potters. From a local deity to the emblem of an expanding empire, to a symbol of Odisha itself, Jagannath is one of India’s most notable deities. No other deity encapsulates the history of a region quite like he does: not Venkateshwara at Tirupati, not Nataraja at Chidambaram. For all Jagannath’s mythology, his past is deeply political; based on statements from some politiciansit appears that the god will continue to have a political future as well.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Opinions are personal.

This article is part of the ‘Thinking Medieval’ series which takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics and history.

(Edited by Prashant)

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