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Monday, June 16, 2014

Pillars of Homage to Lord Jagannatha

The Garudastambha and Arunastambha pillars of Puri by Prajna Behera.

Built in the 12th century, the temple of Lord Jagannatha at Puri has the distinction of having two unique pillars, namely, the Garudastambha (shown below) and the Arunastambha (above) . In Sanskrit, a pillar or a column is called a stambha, while in Oriya it is called khamba. The objective of this paper is to throw light on the significance and historical perspectives of these pillars.


Garuda is known to be the vehicle, or vahana, of Vishnu. Lord Jagannatha is considered identical with Vishnu and Krishna, hence His Vahan-stambha is placed in the nata-mandira of the temple.

The tradition of erecting pillars in honour of Vishnu goes back to 2nd century B.C. There is a pillar in honour of Vasudeva at Basnagar (Vidisha) in Madhya Pradesh. The inscriptions state that "this Garuda column of Vasudeva (Krishna), the God of Gods is erected here by Heliodorus, his worshipper." He was an inhabitant of Taxila and he came as Greek Ambassador from king Antialkidas to Kasiputra Bhagabhadra. It is thus evident that Heliodorous was a Vaishnava, even though he was also a Greek.

In Orissa, with the progress of Vaishnaism, Vishnu temples were erected. The Nila Madhava temple at Gandharadi of Boudh district in 9th century A.D. and the 10th century ruins of the Vishnu temple at Ganeshwarpur of Cuttack district may be cited as notable examples. Jajpur, which was primarily a Shaktapitha dedicated to Viraja, also has numerous Vishnu images. In Jajpur there is beautiful column, which according to historian James Fergusson, originally seems to have supported a figure of Garuda, the vahana of Vishnu. A detached figure of Garuda is also found in Jajpur and it is said to be an identical one. Fergusson assigned the pillar to the 10th or 11th century. This pillar, locally called Subhastambha, indicates the existence of a Vishnu temple at Jajpur.

The temple of Lord Jagannatha was constructed by Ananta Varman Chodagangadev in the middle of the 12th century. The temple complex consists of Deula, Jagamohan, Natamandira and Bhogamandapa. The presiding Deities on the Ratnabedi or Jewelleddias are the Chaturdha-darumurthi, i.e., wooden Deity forms such as Balabhadra, Subhadra, Jagannatha and Sudarshan. The images are made out of the wood of the Neem Tree (Melia azardicata). These are renewed every 12 years in a ceremony known as the Navakalebar. The Ratnabedi is said to contain Salagrama or ammonite fossils, sacred stones worshipped by the followers of Vishnu.

Salagrama means the "village where the Sal tree (Shorea robusta) grows." Salagrama shilas are found in the bed of Gandaki River, a tributary of the Ganga, and also in the Narmada river.

In the Natamandira of the temple on the eastern side, a unique Garuda stambha is located. In the first sight it looks like an ordinary stone column surmounted by a Garuda figure on the top. But on examination its shaft seems to be a remnant of a plant of a past geological era. The shaft bears the impression or traces of a Sal tree shorn of its bark. The impression of the Sal tree is readily preserved. The total height of the column along with the pedestal and the Garuda capital is about 10 feet. The height of the shaft is about 7 feet. The column is not made of ordinary stone, but is a Salagrama stone. It is the largest known Salagrama stone, unique in the fossil record of India. This Garudastambha, made up of fossil, is quite harmonious to the chaturdha-darumurthis on the ratnavedi made of salagrama stones.

The erection of Garudastambha in Vishnu temples became quite popular in the Ganga period following the model of the Jagannatha temple. We find Garuda stambhas in later temples such as Madhavananda temple (13th century) at village Madhava in Cuttack district, and Ananta Vasudeva Temple in 1278 A.D. at Bhubaneswar.

Inside the Jagannatha temple, the Garudastambha is considered very holy. It has its own rituals and devotees usually have darshan of the Lord from this place. They used to place lamps in honour of the Lord, and the pillar became smoke-stained as a result. It will be worthwhile to discourage this practice in future.


In addition to the Garuda column inside the Natamandira in front of the Singhadwar (eastern gateway Jagannatha Temple), there is a monolithic pillar of chlorite crowned by a squatting figure of Garuda. The total height of the pillar is 33 feet 8 inches. The pillar has a magnificent base carved with military scenes and other figures. The monolithic shaft of the chlorite is 16 sided. The capital, decorated by a series of lotus petals, is 2 feet 6 inches and the whole pillar is a monument of great beauty.

Aruna is the charioteer of the Sun God. Hence the pillar is called the Sun Pillar or Arunastambha. Originally this beautiful pillar was erected in honour of the Sun God at Konark. King Narasinha I built the famous temple of the Sun God at Konark in the 13th century.

The temple, consisting of the Deula and Jag Mohan was in the form of a solar chariot provided with 24 wheels. In front of the eastern gateway of Jagamohan there was the beautiful pillar called Arunastambha. In the 16th century, Abul Fazal, the court historian of Moghul Emperor Akbar, while giving the description of the Sun Temple mentioned the "octagonal column of black stone" which evidently represents the Arunastambha.

When the Konark temple was deserted and worship ceased there, this pillar was brought to Puri in the last quarter of the 18th century. The Madalapanji records that during the time of Divyasinghadev, the Maratha guru, Brahmachari Gosain brought this pillar from Konark and re-erected it at the singhadwar of Jagannatha temple. A drawing of the Arunapillar, prepared on 26th April 1815 at Puri, is now in the India Office library, London.

Andrew Sterling, a British officer who was in Orissa from 1818-1822, mentioned that the pillar had been brought from the famous "but now deserted, temple of the Sun at Konarak, about sixty years ago, by a Brahmachari inhabitant of Puri, of great wealth and influence."

The placing of Arunastambha in front of the temple of Lord Jagannatha is quite appropriate as from the Vedic times, the Sun God is considered identical with Vishnu.