Saturday, 6 May 2017

Muslim-born Salabeg, the greatest Lord Jagannath devotee

The grandiose Puri temple, dedicated to Lord Jagannath, his brother Balbhadra and sister Subhadra, is of paramount importance to Hindus as one of the four abodes or chardham and hence a sacred pilgrimage site. This centuries-old temple and stories of its origination find mention in old Hindu texts such as Brahma Purana and Rig Veda. Over the years, the cult of Lord Jagannath has expanded and transformed. There have been several devotees, stories of whose devotion became a part of the folklore associated with the temple. But one story stands out, that of Salabeg, a 17th-century poet who wrote paeans in praise of the lord.

Brother Balabhadra leads the way.
In the middle comes,
the sister with a pretty moon-face,
mingling with the noisy crowd
The ‘Dark One’ follows behind.
Says Salabega, i am a Yavana
The excerpt from one of the most popular poems written by him describes the annual ‘Rath Yatra’ of Lord Jagannath during which the wooden statue of the Lord is taken out of the temple, placed on a cart and paraded around the town for his devotees to have a glimpse.
There are a number of folklores associated with Jagannath temple which throw light on Salabeg’s deep devotion for the Lord. However, to ascertain his exact origins and identity, using the literary proofs that exist beyond his creations, it can be assumed that Salabeg was born in early 17th century. “Some have worked on his date of birth as 1606 or 07. As his writings say, he was the son of a Muslim father and Brahmin mother,” says Pritish Acharya, professor of history at Regional Institute of Education in Bhubaneswar.
The expansive complex of Lord Jagannath temple is every day visited by thousands of worshipers who sing songs, a number of them written by Salabeg. “Salabeg is eulogised a lot in Odisha. No doubt he is a great poet. He has helped a lot in simplifying the Jagannath tradition and making it easy to understand for the people. A movie has also been made on him because of his popularity,” says Prof Acharya.
According to local folklore, Salabeg began writing his bhajans in praise of Jagannath after his supplications were answered by the Lord. Yamin, in his book, has described the story as: “On the day of the car(t) festival, Nandighosha, the car(t) of Jagganath, on its way back to Simandira, did not move and remained static till the arrival of Salabeg at Puri.”
As the legend goes, after getting a glimpse of Lord Jagannath, Salabeg started living in Puri and composed his ‘bhajans‘ while living at the same place for the rest of his life. After his death, Salabeg was cremated at this very location where now lies his Samadhi — at Badananda in Puri’s Grant Road.
“Salabeg is the only devotee of Lord Jagannath whose Samadhi is situated on the way through which his chariot passes. To commemorate his devotion, every year during the Rath Yatra, the chariot is stopped outside his Samadhi for five minutes,” says Suryanarayan Rath Sharma, researcher and a specialist on Jagannath culture.
Salabeg’s literary contributions also came at a time when Bhakti movement in India had reached its pinnacle. The movement, which sought reformation of Hinduism by doing away with the priesthood and establishing a direct contact with the God, saw the emergence of poets and writers like Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai and Tulsidas among many others. “The 17th century Bhakti literature was an attempt at reaching out to God without the inter-mediation of priests. These people, including Dasia Bauri who belonged to a lower caste and Dinakrishnadas who was a leprosy patient, were not allowed inside the temple and thus approached Lord Jagannath through their poetry,” added Prof Acharya.
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