Until recently, the mysterious Lord of the Universe, Jagannath Mahaprabhu, and His art and culture was Greek to Mohammad Abid Ali, a Muslim resident in Bhubaneswar. The town of Bhubaneswar lies about 60 kilometers from Jagannath Puri.

Because he is a non-Hindu, quite understandably has no access to the 12th century shrine, which is off limits to Ali and his ilk. But he is all smiles now, for within seven days, he not only gained knowledge on Jagannath art and culture but also saw the Lord’s daily rituals and veshas (decorations) without going into the temple!

Biswa Jagannath Chetana Sansad, a Puri-based religious and social organization, brought that golden opportunity not only for Ali but for many non-Hindus, who have little idea about the pastimes or paraphernalia of the presiding sibling Deities of the world- famous Jagannath Temple. The organization recently performed the daily rituals and veshas of Lord Jagannath at the state capital, Bhubaneswar. The aim was to spread Jagannath culture among the non-Hindus who are prohibited from entering the shrine.

“It was a heaven-sent opportunity for me and my family. We were always wondering how to know the Lord’s art, culture, rituals and veshas. Even though we had read some of that from books, we were curious for more. And the public exhibition made it possible for me,” said 50 year-old Ali.

His wife Salma Begum has been participating in the Lord’s annual Rath Yatra for the last ten years. Rath Yatra is the only occasion when the Lord comes out for all devotees, irrespective of any caste, clan and class. “Rath Yatra was the only medium wherein I could see the Lord and touch His giant chariots. But the seminar at Bhubaneswar gave me a chance to acquire more knowledge on the Lord and His exquisite features,” Salma said.

According to sources, the seven-day long public exhibition clinched thousands of devotees, including Hindus, everyday. The exhibition was organized from March 18th through 24th. So far as the daily itinerary was concerned, every day around 3 hours were devoted towards a seminar on various topics on Lord Jagannath. In addition, 2 hours were allotted each day for showcasing the daily rituals and veshas of the presiding Deities of Puri temple. Curious devotees were given 2 hours each day to satiate their queries on Jagannath-related issues. A preaching programme was also scheduled everyday. This apart, the saints and priests performed a Yagna everyday for the welfare of the universe.

More than 300 priests from the Puri Jagannath Temple went to Bhubaneswar to perform the daily rituals, veshas and bhog (prasadam) offered to the Deities every day at Jagannath Temple. Besides, nearly 200 scholars and researchers from different parts of India came to participate in the unique exhibition, the first of its kind in the country.

“Everyday, we displayed four veshas in the exhibition as performed at the Jagannath Temple. In a year, the Lord Jagannath is clad in 32 veshas. We displayed all the veshas in front of the devotees. Besides, we showed in public all the varieties of prasadam offered to the deities, everyday at the temple. Even the Hindu devotees do not get enough opportunity to witness all the veshas in a year, even though they visit the Jagannath Temple every day,” said Surya Narayan Rathsharma, the chief acharya of the Biswa Jagannath Chetana Sansad, which was founded by his late father, Pandit Sadasiba Rathsharma

“So the exhibition was also a learning center for the Hindus as well. For, the Hindu pilgrims even are not aware of the nitty-gritty of the Jagannath art and culture. A mere reading through books cannot entertain their queries. Such seminars and exhibitions will come in handy for them,” Surya Rathsharma said.

Some eminent artistes from Puri displayed sahijaat (community festival) on the streets in Bhubaneswar. Sahijaat is performed every year at Puri where mythological episodes are staged in streets. The sahijaat revolves around Rama’s birthday, up to Ravana’s death. Meanwhile, the whole ambience at Bhubaneswar reeked of spiritual fervor amid the chants of “Jai Jagannath!” Bhubaneswar donned the look of Puri in those seven days, for sure.

“I come to Puri temple once in a month. Busy schedule and distance is a factor for not being able to visit the temple frequently. But I did not spare a single day when the exhibition was in session. My relatives from Delhi had also come to attend the exhibition,” said Sudhansu Sekhar Hota, a businessman in Bhubaneswar.

The exhibition not only attracted old-age pilgrims, but also caught the fancy of the modern day students, who hardly indulge in religious activities. “For me it is almost impossible to visit Jagannath Temple by sidelining my studies. Yes, I am not a hardcore religious-minded girl. But when I got a chance to gain knowledge at my place, I did not let the chance go begging. I attended some of the sessions in the seminar and asked some questions about the veshas and rituals of the Lord Jagannath. I did not imagine that I would like the exhibition. I was really happy,” said Alka Rath, a B. tech student at a Bhubaneswar-based college.

The occasion also brought good footfalls from foreign ISKCON devotees, who are always anxious and interested to know Jagannath culture. A number of ISKCON devotees from Mayapur and Vrindaban had come to take a hands-on experience with the Lord’s art and culture. “When I heard of such a programme at Bhubaneswar, I immediately reached here with my friends from Mayapur. I also only read and watched Jagannath art and veshas in books. But I was thrilled after seeing them right under my eyes,” said Narayan dasa, an American devotee.

“I think, it was a great attempt by the Biswa Jagannath Chetana Sansad to spread Jagannath culture among non-Hindus. We welcome their move. This exhibition surely gave me a whole lot of information on Lord Jagannath,” replied a jovial Kripachandra Madhav das, another ISKCON devotee from America.

“We really were elated to see the kind of response from people. It was a big click. People from all walks of life thronged to know something, which may not be available for them in future. We are planning to organize such programmes in other places in India. But we need financial support from the government,” Surya Rathsharma maintained.

“Even we are happy that our endeavour brought good result. People are still eager and excited to know Jagannath culture. But they need time and a platform like this,” said Balaram Mohapatra, a Jagannath Temple priest. “Actually, due to shortage of time, we could not showcase some features of Lord Jagannath. If time permits, we will organize such an exhibition again in future,” he said.

Meanwhile, another interesting feature of the exhibition was to woo people not to say ‘hi’ and ‘hello’ while greeting someone or answering on the telephone. “We requested people to utter ‘Jai Jagannath’ instead of ‘hi’ and ‘hello’ during telephonic conversations. And we found the effect, to some extent. People need to be motivated. This is a good way to spread Jagannath culture,” Surya Rathsharma said.