Mathas in Puri are storehouses of archaeological remains. These representations can be broadly divided into two categories such as (i) images of enshrined deities and deified preceptors and (ii) decorative motifs on matha temples and residential structures.
All these, of course, cannot be dated along with the inception or establishment of the monasteries as stone-works that have been added from time to time. Even magnificent works have been undertaken during the last hundred years. For example, Venkatachari Matha has got its main entrance built recently with high-class scroll works and sculptural representations. Images of Laksmi and Saraswati with another pair of images of the same goddesses with variations present a magnificent artistic look to the doorway. Similarly ornamented work at the temple door in the Gangamata Matha was recently created. Modern masonry materials like glazed tiles and marbles have also been extensively utilized in many mathas, of which Radha Kanta matha is a glaring example. At the same time, mathas have many old mural paintings which should be studied before they completely fade away or become damaged.
The enshrined images both of the Deities and deified saints are built in stone, metal and wood. In some cases historical legends are associated with these images indicating their origin and greatness. The stone image of Krishna in the Radhakanta matha is said to have been brought from Kanchi by Purusottama Deva of Surya dynasty. It was first installed within the great temple and subsequently handed over to Kasi Mishra, which must have been during the kingship of Prataprudra. It is quite interesting to note that two Krishna images said to be brought from Kanchi by one king and installed in the great temple were later shifted to two new sites by the successive king in a subsequent period, specially when Krishnite Vaisnavism flourished. One was shifted to a temple built at a place almost 20 kms away from Puri. The place became known as Satyavadi after this reinstallment, meaning he who tells truth. It is now called Sakhigopala, Gopal who is a witness.
Due to the presence of a high pillar like the Aruna Stambha standing in front of the main entrance of Jagannath temple, brought from the dilapidated Konark temple during Marahatta rule, the temple at Satyavadi can be dated to at least the late Marahatta period, implying thereby that shifting must to have occurred in the recent past, but positively before 1800 A.D.
The second Krishna image was handed over to a Brahmana to be worshipped as his family Deity. It is learnt from the Vaisnavas in Radhakanta Matha that by the time Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu started staying at Kasi Mishra’s house, the Deity was already under worship. This may be a historical truth, but it is not accepted by all.
[This is clarified in Caitanya-caritamrta Adi 10:131, which states: “In Jagannatha Puri Lord Caitanya lived at the house of Kasi Misra, who was the priest of the king. Later this house was inherited by Vakresvara Pandita and then by his disciple Gopalaguru Gosvami, who established there a Deity of Radhakanta. The Gaura-ganoddesa-dipika (193) states that Kasi Misra was formerly Kubja in Mathura.. Pradyumna Misra, an inhabitant of Orissa, was a great devotee of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Pradyumna Misra was born of a brahmana family and Ramananda Raya of a non-brahmana family, yet Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu advised Pradyumna Misra to take instruction from Ramananda Raya. This incident is described in the Antya-lila, Chapter Five.”]
The king Purusottama Deva might have brought some images from Kanchi, including a Ganesha image with peculiar representations, still enshrined within the great temple. Then why only the Krishna images were displaced, that too, one to a temple and another to an individual? The status of this individual along with his relationship with the king and his court, indicates the transfer to be an improbability. Kasi Mishra was a kinsman of one Godavara Mishra, who became the second Rajaguru diminishing the dominance of Kavi Dindima Jivadevacharya of the famous Vatsasa family, the traditional Rajagurus of the kings. This change of portfolio must have caused mixed reaction among the conscious citizens of the period.
Under such condition thus inferred, some might have questioned Kasi Mishra for having accepted the Krishna image to be worshipped as a family Deity. His stay at Puri indicates that he found the place safe, being far away from the state capital, maybe to avoid criticism aimed at his family over the issue of appointment of a second Rajaguru from a non-Vatsana family. Be that what it may be, the image is installed on a pedestal in the Radhakanta Matha where public access is forbidden and hence iconographic study cannot be made. The pedestal has undergone complete transformation. Only a small stone panel of yester years depicting the episode of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill is left unchanged.
There are many stone images of Hanuman enshrined in various maths belonging to both Ramanandi and non-Ramanandi sects. For example, there are three such images in Odiya matha. One of these images is in a tiny temple at the entrance of the matha said to have been installed a century ago. The second one, which is equally as magnificent as the first one, is fitted to the wall in the courtyard where stands the matha temple. This one has sculptural variations from the former. The third one, a very small image now almost indistinct under a thick coat of vermillion, is fitted to the temple wall in its northwestern corner.
There is one Hanuman figure at the entrance of Gangamata Matha. So also one Hunuman image is kept in a niche, named as Bhutagada Mahavir, at the entrance of Radhakanta Matha. But this image had been placed by one local resident named Babaji Sahu hardly a few years ago. Similarly a Hanuman image is kept in Kavir Choura by one unknown ascetic who took shelter there in the recent past. Thus some Hanuman images, although they form a special group of sculptural representations and subjects of iconographic analysis, are of much more recent origin in non-Ramanandi maths.
A Vishnu image found placed in the Vasudev Ramanuja Matha, situated in front of Venkatachari Matha, was brought here and enshrined in 1935 A.D. by one Maharaja Samarendra of Bhawani Pur, Kolkata. He found the image in an old tank in the village Baghawani Pur, Kolkata, previously from an old tank in the village Baghawada (Tripura). Similarly one will come across many images in various mathas and temples brought and enshrined by pilgrims who have found them in their native places.
In addition, each matha has their presiding Deities belonging to various cults. There are Nrsimha images in Sankarananda, Mahiprakasa, Dakhina Parsva, Siddhavakila and Narasimhachari mathas. These images are worshipped as presiding Deites. The Nrsimha image in Pandu Ashrama is of a rare design, the Deity being eight-armed. The intestines of the demon Hiranya Kasipu are seen held in two uppermost hands. Hands below these are seen holding disc and conch, the attributes of Vishnu. The next pair of hands are engaged in tearing open the chest of the demon. The lower most hands are holding the legs of the demon tightly and the head firmly.
The image of Ugrasena in Bhrugu Ashrama is also a rare specimen. The four-armed Gopaljew image in Jagannatha Ballabha Matha is really an image of Krishna-Vishnu. This concept is said to have evolved in the line of Harihara or Ardha Nariswara. Radha-Krishna, Sita-Rama, and Raghunatha jew images are extant in various mathas. There are even instances of various Deities being worshipped in the uniconical form of Salagrama. Lakshmi-Nrsimha in Rewasa matha and Viswambhara Raghunatha in Sanajhadu Matha are examples of such worship. Thus, both stone and metal images present in these mathas represent a big hoard of icons which need independent study.
The other category of decorative motives that contribute their major share to the archaeological remains of these mathas are the door lintels, which contain Navagrahas. Especially those mathas which were established in the 16th century have door lintels with more than nine figures. There are 13 figures in the door lintel fitted to the temple in Bada Odiya matha and 11 figures in Kavir Chaura. In Kavir Chuaura, nine figures are flanked by two similar figures with their arms raised upward as if lifting some heavy material. Both the figures are in sitting position, one leg crossed horizontally and another closed vertically, being in erected pose. All other two-armed figures are sitting in Padmasana.
The sixth figure is holding a mace in right hand and details of the left one cannot be identified. The seventh figure is having beard and displaying Varada Mudra in one hand, while the other one is not clear. The figure in the 8th position is holding two swords in two hands. The 9th figure may be Rahu, but looks like the figure of Jagannath holding a bow in his left hand and maybe an arrow in the right hand. This image has a crown. The 10th figure is holding a pitcher in his left as ketu, holding a mace in their left lower hands resting on the ground, conch and disc in both the upper hands.
The galaxy of wooden images in various mathas can be classified as (i) images of Jagannath cult, (ii) images of cultic deities, and (iii) images of deified preceptors and saints. Barring a few, almost all mathas have enshrined wooden images belonging to the Jagannath cult, either as single Patita Pavana, Trimurty or Chaturdha Murti. In Sankarananda, Gopal Tirtha, Sivatirtha, Mahiprakash, Emara Jiyaraswamy, Narasinghachari, Papudia, Chhauni, Chaulia, Nevala Das, Surangi, Radhakanta and Odiya mathas etc., all have the wooden Patita Pavana images enshrined as Parsvadevata. At Hati Akhada, Mangu and Bauli mathas, Patita Pavana is the presiding Deity.
In Ramji matha belonging to the Nimbarka sect and Jagat Mohini of Goudiya faith, Patita Pavana Jagannatha is worshipped as the presiding Deity along with Radhasagar Gopal and Krishna-Balarama, respectively. So also wooden images of the holy triad or Chaturdha Murti are enshrined in mathas such as Govardhana, Raghava Dasa, Jagannatha Ballabha, Bada Santha, Bada Chhata, Sana Chhata, Trimili, Kunja Kataki, Haridasa Samadhi, Siddha Vakula and Ayodhya Dasa, etc.
Vidura matha is an exception in two ways. First, Vidura’s stone image is worshipped in this temple as the presiding Deity. Secondly there is one set of triad Deities and one set of Chaturdha Jagannatha images built in wood and enshrined within the matha. After the precious metal image was stolen, Bhuvaneswari, the presiding Deity of Gopal Tirtha matha, is worshipped through her wooden image. This is also very significant.
Six Radha-Krishna images in Gangamata maths are all made of wood. The most significant aspect is that images of preceptors are generally wooden, especially belonging to post-16th century. Of course, there are stone images of Sri Chandji in Mangu and Bauli Matha, of Jagannatha Dasa in Odiya and Sata-lahadi matha. Images of Ramanuja are built either in stone or in metal.
Radhakanta Matha has quite a good number of wooden images of Pournamasi, Lalita, Visakha, Adwita, Nityananada and Gopala. Guru, Astabhuja Jagannatha Dasa (Lord Jagannatha) and Sadabhuja Gouranga images in the Odiya Matha are wooden. Later devotees of both Lord Chaitanaya and Jagannatha Dasa successfully established amicable relationships between profounder and propagators of tenets of both the faiths. Had it not been so, two more hands would not have been added to the image of Jagannatha Dasa. In most of the works relating to Chaitanya and Jagannatha Dasa’s relation, the latter is said to be representing the Radha aspect. Why then in the 8-armed image is Jagannatha Das shown as Krishna? This may be for all probabilities due to inter-faith tension.
Sadabhuja Gouranga, or six-armed Sri Chaitanya image in Gangamata Matha is shown with an axe and kamandalu (water pot) being held in both the lowest hands. This is said to be representing Chaitanya, the Dandi Sannyasi. But the presence of the axe clearly appears to denote the images to be a unified form of Rama, Krishna and Parasurama, three anthropomorphic incarnations of Vishnu.
Images of Adwita, Nityananda and Gouranga, extent in Surangi and Haridasa Samadhi, are all made of wood. From all such images one important fact that comes to light is that in the past, preceptors and saints were given iconographic forms mainly in wood as a traditional practice, and part of the deep-rooted tradition was of worshipping the ancestors of predecessors. Thus, wooden Deities enshrined in the great temple can be discussed in the line of the same tradition. Maybe the venerated gods, whom now crores of devotees are praying to and worshipping, were having their origin in such a primary stage when wooden images of ancient personalities, whose identities are lost due to interpolation of Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Siva, Bhairava and Kalika, etc. by various theological thinkers of subsequent periods, according to dominance of the respective cults.
Iconographic representations of deceased saints along with presence of Samadhis with their relics are conclusive testimony of predominance of ancestral worship among the mendicants belonging to various faiths and cults. Birth-days and Death-days of these saints are regularity observed. In the Emara matha, a small image of Ramanuja is under worship along with the beggar prototype, which can be easily moved for meeting necessities. In all the temples one will find the presence of a movable image to be carried on journey festivals. In the case of Ramanuja the same style is followed.
This movable image is taken on tour to various other Mathas in the month of Vaisakha and the occasion continues for ten days. Probably this system has been evolved in the line of the famous Ratha Yatra of Jagannatha, the presiding Deity of this temple town. Astonishingly there is a similarity between Ratha Yatra and the tour of Ramanuja, as both are celebrated for ten days. Thus the archaeological study along with analysis of matha ritual will testify to the predominance of the ancestral worship and deification of preceptors.
It may not be inappropriate to mention that in some mathas, foot prints said to be of the profounder of the faiths are also under worship. Kavir Chaura is an example, where a pair of footprints carved on a block of stone is under worship. Worshiping footprints of Vishnu is an old tradition. In many matha temples, footprints of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu are being worshipped. Footprints of Lord Chaitanya are also enshrined within the great temple. In some mathas, wooden footwear of the profounder are also under worship.
Wooden decorative motifs displaying master craftsmanship of local carpenters are in no way insignificant. Though woodcrafts of much antiquity are not available yet, these exhibit artistic splendour belonging to last two hundred years. These motifs are largely found on doors and windows of these monasteries. Odishan windows are devoid of railings and shutters. Therefore various Puranic and epic episodes such as Krishna taking away the clothes of bathing Gopis, or lifting Govardhana, are included among the representations. This trend cannot be said with all certainty to have its origin in the post-16th century Chaitanya movement or earlier, when the influence of Bhagavata was dominant.
Artistic representations of Navagunjara and various geometric diagrams are also found nicely carved on windows. Doors of ancient structures are also well ornamented by art works which enhance beauty on one hand and strength the shutters on the other.
There are Jhulana Mandapas that are the platform to observe the amorous sports of Krishna and Radha, along with a few Vaishnavite images in the Sankarananda and Gopala Tirtha Mathas. From this it can be conclusively said these two mathas belonging to the Sankara sect and believing in pure monism have compromised with the flourishing dualism of the Radha-Krishna cult, which gained ground there in the 16th century A.D.
In the Radhakanta Matha is found a metal image of Lakshmi, standing one and half feet high, enshrined near the Patita Pavana image. This decisively indicates Lord Jagannatha to be Vishnu. But theologically, the Vaishnavas of Radhakanta matha understand Lord Jagannath to be Krishna Himself, the paramount Purusha (male partner) in the philosophy of Bhakti. This is another example of cultic synthesis. Many such examples can be listed from which it will be seen that these religious institutions have been lenient to other faiths and theologies and thereby a synthesis has been achieved which is the quaint essence of the Jagannath cult.
Thus independent study for proper and detailed assessment of the contribution of these institutions in development of the Jagannath cult and the cultural synthesis attained thereby is warranted.