Kasturi Crisis At Jagannath Temple
Last year, just prior to Lord Jagganath’s Rath Yatra at Puri, the Sankaracharya of Gobardhan Peeth, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati, wrote a letter to the centre, requesting the government to intervene and press officials in Nepal to provide the kasturi needed for the Lord’s worship.
Kasturi, a substance collected from the navel of the musk deer, is used for the mukha shringar (cosmetic facials) of the three deities at the Jagannath Temple during the Nabjauban Darshan, also known as the Netra Ustav, rituals performed ahead of the annual Rath Yatra. Apart from this, musk is also used for the mukh sringar of the deities during Hera Panchami. As a necessary beauty aid of the divinities, kasturi comes in handy at the time of gupta seva (secret service) during the Ansar rituals when the deities are taken sick ahead of the car festival. Thousands of visitors throng the temple to witness the ceremony, and the temple air is thick with the sweet spicy scent of musk. So intense is the smell, that even days after it has been applied, the scent pervades the air inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple.
Kasturi is supposed to be applied to the deities for mukh sringar every Wednesday, but over the years it has become a monthly ritual, due to the acute scarcity of the aromatic material. According to Daitapati Ramachandra Das Mohapatro, who has the honour of applying the paste on the deities, approximately five grams of the rare kasturi powder is mixed along with camphor, asafetida (hing) and other different herbs. The paste is then applied to the faces and bodies of the three gods, as these help keep the wooden images insect-free. These rituals also have a scientific base apart from having religious significance.
Madhusudan Shingari, another temple sevayat, who is in charge of dressing up the three gods, too rues the lack of kasturi. It is he and his fellow men who dress up the lord, adorn it with ornaments, apply kajal and other cosmetics. He feels that the shingar is not complete without the correct application of the kasturi paste.
Since the last few years, there has been an acute shortage of the rare and invaluable ‘kasturi’ at the 12th century shrine, giving sleepless nights to the temple servitors and authorities. Tradition has it that Nepal’s royal family, who enjoy special privileges at the Jagannath temple, arranged to have the much needed kasturi sent to Puri for the Lord. Since the fall of the monarchy in the Himalayan kingdom, Nepal’s new rulers have been unresponsive to the temple’s request for their regular supply kasturi.
The once abundant stock of musk in the Jagannath temple is depleting with each passing year as the supply from Nepal has stopped completely. Some devotees donate small amount of musk, and the temple has been managing with the help of these donations. Temple sources said the last official supply of musk from the kings of Nepal was in 1999. In the 80’s, King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya had visited the shrine with a huge stock of musk, which lasted for years. In 2006, the temple authorities were surprised when a visiting mendicant gave a few pods to the Lord. On rare occasions, some devotees make small offering of this rare substance to the Lord, which brings cheer to the sevayats and authorities. Lord Jagannath is not the only deity in the Hindu pantheon to use musk. In Sri Krishna Karnamrita there is reference to Lord Mukunda’s use of kasturi tilak: kasturi tilakam lalata phalake, vakshasthale kausthubham naasaagre navamouktikam, karatale venum kare kankanam, sarvaange harichandanancha kalayam, kanthecha mukthavali, gopastree pariveshthito, vijayate gopala chudaamani.
Musk deer or the kasturi mrigya, the only source of musk, is found in the Himalayan region, including Nepal. It is an endangered animal and figures in the Red Data List of the International Union of Conservation of Nature. The musk deer is a Schedule 1 animal and is protected under wildlife laws both in India and Nepal. Musk is the name originally given to a substance with a penetrating odor obtained from a gland of the male musk deer, which is situated between its stomach and genitals. To obtain the musk, the deer is killed and its gland, also called the “musk pod”, is removed.
The substance has been used as a popular perfume fixative since ancient times and is one of the most expensive animal products in the world. The name, originated from Sanskrit ‘muská’ meaning “testicle,” has come to encompass a wide variety of substances with somewhat similar odors although many of them are quite different in their chemical structures.
The authorities in Nepal, who are aware of the problem, express their helplessness. The strong links that the Nepalese Monarchy has with the Jagannath temple since antiquity is well known and accepted. The government had tried to allocate funds for the annual Rath Yatra. Recently, the Kaushi Toshakhana, a Hindu endowment body of Nepal which comes under the Finance Ministry of the Himalayan kingdom had released Rs 3 million for the upkeep of the Ma Kali temple at Kolkata. The Toshakhana, as the name suggests, is entrusted with the financial management of temples across Nepal, and a few in India which have old Nepalese connections. The Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation, has maintained that it was not possible to supply kasturi since it is illegal as per the Wildlife Act. Only a Cabinet approval will facilitate the move. The Nepalese authorities have also said that India has the option to source the rare perfume, as musk deer are found in Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh as well. The Guthi Sansthan, which comes under the Ministry of Land Reforms, manages the cultural and religious affairs in the country. It has earlier helped the Puri temple by supplying kasturi. The Sansthan is of the opinion that the Nepalese government should take the initiative to keep the age-old Nepal-India cultural and religious relationship intact. Late Gyanendra had ensured supply of kasturi to the Lord Jagannath Temple through Dhukuti (Treasury) Department of the palace.
The Nabakalebar of the Lord is due in 2015. This is one time when the holy deities of the grand temple at Puri are more close to fate than their human devotees. They too have to periodically discard their bodies and acquire new ones. The word ‘Nabakalebar’ denotes ‘the new body’ in Odia language and the four deities of the grand temple (Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshan) undergo a change-over. The wooden idols of the deities are buried and new ones are carved out by following the prescribed rites as mentioned in the centuries old scriptures found in the palm-leaf manuscripts of the temple.
This change-over takes place once every 8 to 18 years depending on the position of the almanac positions as per the Hindu calendar. It is usually held in a year when the month of Asadha is followed by another Asadha. Accordingly, the previous ‘Nabakalebars’ took place in the years 1969, 1978, 1969 and 1996; and the forthcoming one will be held in the year 2015.
After the burial of the old deities the new deities are immediately seated in the Ratna Singhasan. The next day the rite of coronation of the Lord and his siblings takes place followed by the Rath Yatra on the third day. Millions of devotees will gather from all over the world to see the Lord in the new form.
During the Nabakalebar rituals, a good quantity of kasturi will be required. This has the temple administration and servitors worried. Some years ago, there were worries for the availability of “phasi” wood used to make the three chariots for the Rath Yatra. The Government of Odisha had set up plantations of the trees keeping in mind the future need. Many devotees too had planted the trees on their land for giving it away when they grew big. The problem seems to have been solved, there shall be sufficient wood for the chariots in years to come. The government should, on similar lines set up reserves for the musk deer in its habitat area and try scientific extraction of the musk pods without killing them.
The Jagannath cult is deeply rooted in tradition, something that has been maintained over the years. Keeping this in mind, concrete steps should be taken to captive breeding of the deer to prevent its extinction. Musk is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and rampant poaching has decimated the population in its natural areas. The demand for animal products is increasing in China, with the liberal economy now in place. Some experts say that when the temple is faced with a crunch at a later stage, they may have to think in terms of an alternative. Meanwhile, the Pontiff at Puri has appealed to all to donate kasturi for the Lord. Jay Jagannath.
By Anil Dhir from Puri