Lord Jagannath Tales: Chera Panhara, The Royal Sweeper
The tradition of Chera Panhara started by King Purushottama Deva continues to this day. It is the most famous ritual associated with the Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra. During the festival, the Gajapati King sweeps all around the deities and chariots. He then cleanses the road with a broom (gold-handled) and sprinkles sandalwood water and powder. His action bridges the gap between the rich and the poor, the low caste and the high caste and sends out the very important message of dignity of labour.
The Jagannath Temple at Puri is one of the most magnificent and well known temples in India. It is the abode of Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and their sister Devi Subhadra. There are many celebrations associated with this temple and the greatest one is the Ratha Yatra.
Every year during the month of Asadh (June-July) the divine trinity leaves the temple in three ornate chariots for a nine day sojourn to their aunt’s abode in mausi ma or Gundicha temple. Devotees pull these chariots all the way along the bada danda or the Puri Grand Trunk Road to the Gundicha Temple. It is believed that the divine trinity blesses those who pull the chariots. This colossal spectacle is witnessed by lakhs of devotees many of who come not only from different parts of India from across the world. During the Ratha Yatra many rituals and ceremonies are performed. The story, which follows, is linked with one such ceremony.
Long ago Odisha was ruled by Gajapati Purushottama Deva of the Sun dynasty. He was a brave and noble King and a great devotee of Lord Jagannath. He would frequently say I am not the King I am merely the representative of Lord Jagannath, ruling the subjects on his behalf.”
During that period the Kingdom of Kanchi was ruled by another valiant King. He had a daughter called Padmavati who was renowned for her beauty and talent.
King Purushottama had also heard of the legendary qualities of Padmavati. He sent his ambassador to the King of Kanchi. The ambassador presented the gifts on behalf of the King and said, “O! Maharaj, my King the brave, noble and magnanimous Gajapati Purushottama Deva has sent me with a proposal.”
“Tell me what is the proposal of your King.”
“Maharaj the King has sought your daughter the beautiful Princess Padmavati’s hand in marriage.”
The King of Kanchi was delighted. He had also heard of the virtuous qualities of the ruler of Odisha. He had received many proposals for his daughter but none as attractive as this. However, before the King could give his consent one of his Ministers got up and said, “Maharaj, this proposal of marriage made by the King of Odisha cannot be acceptable to the Kingdom of Kanchi.”
“What do you mean?” the King of Kanchi asked in surprise. “What is wrong with Purushottama Deva? Haven’t we all heard tales of his valour?”
“Maharaj, the King of Odisha is no doubt a brave and just ruler. He is loved by his subjects. However, once a year he does the work of a sweeper. Tell me can the Kingdom of Kanchi accept the proposal for its Princess from such an individual even if he happens to be a King?”
“What! I don’t believe this?” the King exclaimed and then turning to the ambassador asked, “Tell me, is this true?”
“Maharaj, on the day of Rath Yatra, the Car Festival, the King performs a special ceremony called Chera Pahara. As a part of this ritual the King sweeps the floors of the chariots, which carry the images of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra. This ceremony stresses on the dignity of labour. There is no task, which is low or high in the eyes of the Lord, and the King by performing Chera Pahara seeks to emphasise this value. My King feels it is a great honour to perform this task and is proud to carry it out.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. No logic can justify your King’s lowly actions. Go and tell him that I refuse to give Padmavati’s hand in marriage to a man who is nothing but a sweeper. You can also tell him that he has insulted me by daring to even consider himself suitable as a husband for my daughter. And if you had not been an ambassador merely carrying out your impudent King’s instructions I would have beheaded you for bringing such an insolent proposal. ”
When the ambassador went back and recounted to Purshottama Deva his experience at Kanchi, the King was livid with anger.
“I shall have to avenge this insult. I’ll attack Kanchi, capture the Princess and get her married to a real sweeper. That will teach the haughty King of Kanchi a lesson he will never forget,” he declared.
In the first offensive on Kanchi, the army of Purushottam Deva was defeated. The King waited for a year and then decided to launch another attack. Before his campaign he went to the temple of Lord Jagannath and prayed. He invoked the blessings of the Lord in vanquishing the arrogant King of Kanchi who had insulted Chaka Aakhi himself. This time Purushottama Deva himself led his soldiers.
The King had not travelled far from Puri when he was stopped by a young woman.
“Who are you and what do you want?” the King asked.
“My name is Manika, I am a milk maid. Two men passed this way a few hours ago. One was fair and the other was dark. One was riding a white horse and the other a black one. They were handsome and looked of royal lineage. They very gently asked me for some curd. After they had eaten the curd I asked them for money. They started searching their belongings but found that they did not have any money. Then the one who was dark took out a diamond ring and told me, ‘A King, leading a huge army, will follow us shortly. You take this ring to him and he will pay you the cost of the curd.’ The two handsome strangers then galloped away on their horses,” with these words Manika gave the King a diamond ring.
The King looked at the diamond ring and was amazed. He could not believe his eyes. In his palm was the diamond ring of Lord Jagannath himself! Just then a messenger came rushing from the Jagannath Temple at Puri. He informed the King that the diamond ring, which adorned the finger of Lord Jagannath, was missing.
Purushottama Deva was elated. Lord Jagannath and Lord Balabhadra had personally joined his campaign against the conceited King of Kanchi. The King bowed in devotion to the Gods and informed his soldiers of their good fortune.
He paid Manika the cost of the curd and named the village she came from after her. To this day the village is called Manikapatna.
The King and his army set forth to Kanchi with renewed confidence. They were now sure with Lord Jagannath and Lord Balabhadra on their side no army could vanquish them.
In the war Purushottoma Deva’s soldiers fought like never before and trounced the King of Kanchi’s army.
Purushottoma Deva imprisoned Padmavati and brought her to Puri. He called his Minster and issued instructions, “Her father insulted me and my devotion to Lord Jagannath. Take her away and get her married to a sweeper.”
The Minister was an old man with a wise head on his shoulders. He took the Princess home and took care of her as his own daughter.
Months went by. At the next Ratha Yatra the King, as was the custom, swept the floor of the three chariots. After the ritual, as he stepped down from the third chariot, the Minister came up to the King. Behind him was standing Princess Padmavati.
The Minister bowed and addressed the King, “Maharaj you asked me to marry Princess Padmavati to a sweeper. Well I searched far and wide but could not find a more suitable sweeper than you. So please accept her hand in marriage and help me in carrying out your instructions.”
The King looked at Princess how was looking more enchanting than ever before. He had always loved her, but his ego had come in between. Now he brushed aside his anger and pride and accepted the hand of Padmavati in marriage.
The tradition started by King Purushottama Deva continues to this day. The Raja of Puri, even now sweeps the floor of the chariots and in this way pays his tribute to the Lord and the credo of dignity of labour.
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