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Approximately fourteen miles west of Jagannatha Puri-dhama lies the place known as Brahmagiri or Alarnath (spelled “Alalanath” in most Bengali books). For millions of years it has been a holy place of pilgrimage. The local tradition describes that in Satya-yuga Lord Brahma came and worshipped Lord Narayana here on top of a hill. One day he heard a voice from the sky. Lord Narayana said, “I am very pleased with your worship. Make a four-handed Narayana deity of Me with a shankha, chakra, gada, and padma, a conch shell, disk, club, and lotus. The deity should be ornamented with a kaustubha gem, a golden crown, a blue lotus flower, a gajamani-mala (garland of elephant pearls), a sacred thread, a diamond ring, yellow garments, and ankle bells. The deity should be made from one piece of black stone. Also install a deity of Garuda.” Finally the Lord told him, “This place will be known as Brahmagiri (literally Brahma’s hill) because you have worshipped Me here.”
The Lord of the Alvars
The present temple of Lord Alarnath is said to be two hundred years older than the Jagannatha temple in Puri, which would make it about 1,100 years old. When the temple was constructed, some expert Kamma brahmanas from the Sri-sampradaya of South India were brought to perform the worship. These brahmanas were in the disciplic line of the great acharyas of the Sri Sampradaya prior to Ramanujacharya known as the alvars, thus this deity of Lord Narayana became known as Alvar-natha, the Lord of the Alvars. The king of Orissa donated sufficient land to maintain all of the brahmana families.
A Boy’s Simple Devotion
After some time the families increased in size and the lands that the king had donated were no longer sufficient for the community’s food production, so they started taking turns going to beg alms. One day it was the turn of a brahmana named Sri Ketana to go and beg. Sri Ketana was the priest in charge of offering foodstuffs to Lord Alarnath. Before he left he instructed his young son named Madhu to make the bhoga offerings to Lord Alarnath. Madhu told his father that he was only a small boy and did not know the mantras or procedure to offer bhoga to the Lord. Sri Ketana told him that he should just put the offerings before Alarnath Deva and pray that He accept them. Then he left.
Later that day when it came time for the bhoga to be offered, Madhu’s mother called and told him that everything was cooked and he should offer it to the Lord. Madhu brought the plate to the altar and placed it before the deity, praying, “Oh my dear Lord, my father has told me to make Your offerings while he is gone for begging. Please accept this offering. I am only a little boy and I do not know how to offer things to You in a proper way.” He then went outside to play with his friends. Twenty minutes later he returned and found everything still on the plate. He did not understand that the Lord can eat simply by glancing over the food, and thus He leaves the offering as prasad (mercy). Instead, the boy thought that the Lord was meant to eat everything on the plate and not leave anything behind. Seeing that all the items were just as they were before, he became disturbed that the Lord was not responding to his request due to his inexperience. He prayed to the deity, “Oh my Lord, You have not eaten the food that I have brought for You. My father will be very angry with me, please eat Your meal.” Again he went outside and returned after a few minutes. Still finding the offering there as before, Madhu began to cry. “My Lord, I understand that You are not eating because I am not qualified to offer to You. I am only a little boy. I don’t know any mantras or procedures for worship. But please accept this offering.” Madhu again went outside. When he returned a few minutes later he found that the plate was empty. He thought, “Oh, the Lord has eaten.” With tears of happiness in his eyes, he brought the now empty plate back to his mother.
She was surprised, “Where is the prasad?”
“Alarnath ate everything”, Madhu replied.
“He ate everything?”
“Yes.” And Madhu went out to play with his friends.
There being no prasad, the family had nothing to eat that day. Madhu continued to offer bhoga to Alarnath and every day the Lord ate everything. Thus the family fasted. After three days, Sri Ketana returned and asked his wife for some prasad. She replied, “There isn’t anything. For three days we have not eaten. Madhu says that Lord Alarnath is eating everything.”
Sri Ketana called his son and in a stern voice asked him, “Where is Alarnath’s prasad? What have you done with it?”
“He ate it, father. I just offered it like you told me.”
Sri Ketana thought that Madhu was eating the sweet rice himself, or perhaps giving it to a dog. Or out of fear of his mother he was throwing the prasad away. He began chastising the boy. But Madhu said, “No, no, father. Narayana is taking everything. I am not eating it.”
The father then became angry, “Narayana is taking everything? Nonsense! He is made out of stone. How can a stone deity eat? You prove it to me. You go again and make another offering. I will hide on the altar and watch.”
The simple boy again went before Alarnath and prayed, “My dear Lord, please accept this offering. My father has returned and is very angry with me. He thinks that You are not eating.” After the boy left, Lord Alarnath, who is known as bhava-grahi janardana – He who accepts the love of His devotees, reached down and picked up a pot of sweet rice. Suddenly Sri Ketana jumped out from behind a pillar and caught the Lord’s arm. The hot sweet rice flew up in the air landing on the Lord’s body in several places. Sri Ketana said, “Stop! What are You doing? You are a deity. You cannot eat. Who ever heard of a deity eating? How will there be any prasadam for us? How will we survive?”
Although he was a priest for Lord Alarnath Deva, the brahmana Sri Ketana was actually a materialistic person. He had no faith the Lord was real.
The Lord then told Sri Ketana, “O materialistic person in the guise of a brahmana, for your offense, all of your family and descendants will be destroyed except for your son Madhu. I am pleased with his simplicity and devotion and thus I have eaten his offerings. No matter how opulent, I am never pleased with any offering if it is made with no devotion and no faith in Me.”
According to the local history, a few days after this incident a great tidal wave came from the nearby ocean and destroyed all of the brahmanas in Brahmagiri except for Madhu. To this day the priests of Lord Alarnath show several places on the body of the deity where He was burned by the hot sweet rice that fell on His body when the brahmana Sri Ketana grabbed the Lord’s arm. Srila Thakura Bhaktivinoda has written:
samudra-tira diya daksina jaite puri haite chaya-krosa dure
‘alalanatha’ gram. tathay ‘alalanatha- caturbhuja- vasudeva- vigraha. vana-madhye ekti ksudra-grame tanhar mandir; tathay ati-utkrsta paramanna-bhoga haya. pandara ekhana-o usna- paramanner daga vigrahe dekhaiya thake.
“Traveling along the coast from Puri about six krosha, fourteen miles, is a village known as Alalanath. There one will find the four-armed deity of Vasudeva known as Alalanath. The Lord’s temple is within a forest in this small village. The most excellent sweet rice is offered to the deity. Even nowadays the pujaris show the mark on the deity where He was burnt by hot sweet rice.”