The Jagannath Temple of Puri: Indian Architecture at its Prime

Jagannath Temple Puri Arch India Cover

The Temple Town of Puri, covering some 3000 square kilometres, is one you could cover mostly on foot. The city holds tremendous historic, religious and architectural significance, such as the Jagannath Temple. Embarking on an attempt to map the beauty and wonders of the quaint city, ArchIndia dedicates a series of articles to Puri: The Temple Town.

The city of Puri is a small one, most of which can be traversed on foot. The Jagannath temple and its precinct forms the most important node for the entire city. They weave together all the different zones and elements that make Puri the vibrant little Temple Town that it is today. Besides, the temple is also the most important landmark for the city; multiple roads – all of very important architectural, historical and cultural value – radiate from here.

The City Road Layout

The most important one radiates north-east from the Jagannath Temple and is called the Grand Road, or the Bada Danda. This road terminates at the Gundicha Temple or the maashi bari. It is along this street that the world famous Ratha yatra takes place. Here, Jagannath and his siblings trip to their aunt’s house at Gundicha temple and stay there for days. Then they return to their abode at the Jagannath Temple in the same chariot.

The other very important road is the one leading from the Jagannath Temple to the Swargadwar. Legend has it that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the much-worshipped saint, took this street that leads one directly to the sea, and walked his way to heaven (Swarga – heaven; dwar – door).

The road that cuts off from the Grand road and takes one to the Narendra tank is another major route, because Narendra tank is one of the most auspicious and sacred water tanks in the city of Puri, and also the one where the annual Chandan Yatra festival takes place. The Lokenath road, emanating from the West gate of the Jagannath temple, takes one to the Lokenath temple, which forms the western end of the city.

jagannath temple road
The Bada Danda or Grand Road

What Makes the Architecture of Puri Unique?

The architecture of Puri sees influence from a number of parameters over the years, which are unique to the city. The temple town has a complex terrain, which can best be simplified to the understanding that the chief temple of the city, the Jagannath Temple is located on the highest ridge, surrounded by lower lands in all directions. This has a direct impact on the layout of the city, which is radial in nature. The Gundicha temple is located on another peak, and this has led to the birth of the Grand Road or Bada Danda.

Accordingly, the areas that are located on lowlands have higher plinth levels than the ones on higher lands, no matter if they are in the same neighbourhood.

Also of significant importance, are the existing and extinct water bodies comprising the rivers, tanks and the sea. Three prominent rivers, Musa, Mangala and Malini fed the town, and led to the creation of several life sustaining tanks such as the Markandeya and Narendra tanks. The rivers have reduced to mere nallahs, and the tanks have become predominantly stagnant, yet the architectural pattern around these tanks has lent a unique identity to the city. Today, they function as major spots of social interaction.

Neighbourhoods and Houses

One characteristic of the Puri houses that stands out among all others is the porosity of the streets and house verandas, because of the close-knit structure of the neighbourhood, as well as so that every locality can view the temple from their street. Houses have raised plinths, which project outwards to form a space for sitting and chatting between neighbours and even passers-by. The residential neighbourhoods do not have front setbacks, so there are always eyes on the street, and as such the street becomes an integral place of activity and interaction. Balconies, terraces, verandas – all open into the street and maintain the social life of the people.

The City Zoning

Ecological differences have divided the city into a few major zones, directly influencing the architecture and the microclimate. First comes the core heritage zone on the ridges; paved, negligent greenery, very hot and congested, commercial and lined with religious buildings primarily.

puri zoning
Puri Grand Road Stretch Land Use (Source: Author)

The second is the social interaction space around water tanks in depression basins, replete with very cool microclimate, rich green and blue zones on Puri’s ecological map, buildings of social/residential character. The third is the beach-side commercial zone of hotels and restaurants experiencing moderate climate with an undefined and unregulated architectural style.

The climate of the place has a direct impact on its architecture. The residences in the city, besides the Mathas and the Ashrams all show courtyard typology to beat the hot and dry days of the summer. The openings are small to moderate in size, predominantly recessed. It is common to have a front veranda, and the living spaces pushed to the interiors to avoid direct sun rays from entering rooms within.

The Jagannath Temple

Surrounding the Jagannath temple are heritage neighbourhoods, while at larger distances lie modern housing units, hotels and restaurants, such as the ones on the Chakra Tirtha Road – an integral road of the city.

Also known as the Sri Temple, this is the temple of the Lord Jagannath, his consort Sri and his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra. Situated at the western end of the Grand Road or Bada Danda and surrounded by a total of eight Sahis (local neighbourhoods) in its immediate vicinity, the Jagannath Temple is a marvellous example of Orissan Temple architecture, a subset of the Nagara style of temple architecture.

The total temple area is 10.7 acres. According to popular belief, the construction of the temple began in the 12th century. This was during the reign of Choda Gangadeva. Measured by Babu Manamohan Ganguly, the temple has a height of 174 feet 8 inches. The temple has a beautiful spire than one can see from several kilometres away. In fact, it is a popular tradition for the pilgrims to begin their journey about 12 km away from the temple, with its first glimpse.

Until 1975, the intricate façade saw heavy coatings with lime plaster. This comes across as a probable measure to protect the temple surface from the salty sea breeze. Their might have been other implications of a cultural kind.

Within the temple, apart from the main Sri Temple, are about 100 shrines. Their names take after the gods they are dedicated to such as Sri Lokenath, Adhivasa devata, Bata Mangala, Bata Ganesha, Bata Narayana, Pancha Pandava, Indrani, Kalpa Vriksha, Kutama Chandi, Ananta Vasudeva, Surya Narayana, Kshetrapala Shiva, Mahalakshmi, Rosha Mahavira, Sadbhuja Gauranga to name just a few.

Architectural Details

The temple complex is squarish in plan, with four gates in four cardinal directions. These are: the North elephant gate or the Hastidwar, the East lion gate or the Singhdwar, the South horse gate or Ashwadwar and the West tiger gate or Vyaghradwar. There are two concentric walls for the temple complex; the external wall or the Meghanada Prachira being 24 feet high. The complex came to life in 1448 and then served as a protected gallery. Security guards could attack rivals with arrows from here, thanks to its double wall row at an interval of 11 feet.

The internal wall or the Kumbha Berha was constructed in 1470, and derives its name from the intricate carvings of tortoise figures. The Kurma Berha houses 95 smaller shrines within its domain, the largest being the Sri Temple itself.

Linearity of Spaces

Just like other temples of Orissan style, the Jagannath temple has a linear arrangement of spaces. The various halls are the Bhogmandapa, a Natmandir, a Jagamohana and a Garbha griha, in the same order. Just before the south gate is present a small bhajan kutir. The famous Peja Nala discharges the waste from the temple kitchen, fed on by destitute and animals.

Opposite the south gate stands the 22 feet tall Arun stambha, with an ornately decorated base. The pillar is a chlorite monolith, with sixteen facets. The base also has carvings of animals and mythical creatures.

The Main Shrine

The main shrine within the temple is called Bada Deula housing the Garbha Griha or the sanctum sanctorum. The topmost part of the temple, the Amla Beda and the Dadhi Neuti bears a sacred pot or kalasha on its head. The Deula is constructed in the Pancharatha style, comprising five horizontal pagas or segments. The central segment is called the Raha, while the two sides are called the Anuraha and the corners Kanika.

The Pabhaga consists of five design bands connected by vertical lines. These design bands (sometimes called “mouldings”) are called Khura, Kumbha, Pata, Kani and Basanta. The Khura is shaped like a horse hoof and shows patterns of inverted leaves and dotted borders. Each Paga has a Kirita (crown) design and shows royal figures.

The Kumbha has a pitcher shape. The Kani is plain, but the Pata and the Basanta are richly carved. The bas-reliefs on the Pata section also include military processions with elephants and horses, foot soldiers and a general or king in a palanquin. The lower Jangha has Khakhra mundis (miniature domes of the Khakha type) in the Kanika and Anuraga Pagas. Besides, the top section of the wall, called Baranda, consists of 10 carved bands of almost equal size.

The Other Halls

The most external hall, called Bhoga mandapa, and is 44×44 feet, in yellow sandstone painted ochre. There is a flight of steps on the north side. A similar number of steps existed also on the south side. However, they were removed later when the passage way from the kitchen was built.

The hall of the Jagamohana is 80×80 feet and its roof stands supported by four large square pillars. The roof has a pyramidal shape, consisting of Pidhas or horizontal platforms receding in size as they go upwards. The carvings and even the niches of the small shrines are not visible any more. This is because of the heavy layers of plaster that cover almost everything. However, it is a fact that the outside walls of the Jagamohana bear decorative maithuna images.

After the Jaya Vijaya Dvara, seven steps (sat pahacha) connect the Jagamohana with the Nata mandapa (the dancing hall). The inner room of the temple, also called Garbha griha, Mani Kotha, or Vimana, is 24×24 feet wide. In the front of the Ratnavedi there is a space called pokhoria, where most of the worship is performed.

Source: Several informational pieces from the HRIDAY Report on Puri.

Want to read more about Puri? ArchIndia is attempting to document the Temple Town with a series of articles dedicated to the beautiful city. Stay updated with the best on architecture, travel and lifestyle with us!

Sakshi Singh
Sakshi Singh

Sakshi is an Architect and Content Consultant, working towards bridging the gap between the AEC Industry and their need for strategic Digital Communications. She offers Content & Communications services for Architects, Designers and others in the Construction Industry as a freelancer.


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