Odisha's Biraja Temple & the Cosmic Vortex

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    Nestled within Odisha lies a mystical triangle, an otherworldly landscape reminiscent of the eleventh vowel of the Odiya alphabet. It is a sacred region where the energies of eight Chandis, eight Bhairavas, and thirteen Rudras intermingle with the energies of the three rivers, seven tributaries and seven mountains. At the very center of this cosmic vortex stands the temple of the revered Goddess Biraja, radiating an aura of unmatched holiness.

    This is how numerous Hindu religious texts have praised the 'Biraja Kshetra' or the 'Land of Goddess Biraja', today better known as Jajpur in Odisha. The magnificent temple of the Goddess Biraja, in the heart of the old Jajpur town, stands as a beacon of faith and is revered as one of the most significant Shakti pithas in all of India. There are many fascinating aspects of this shrine, that make it so unique.

    Eminent Odiya historian KC Panigrahi in his book ‘Biraja Vakrutmala’ (1973) extensively covered the story of the temple and the region. He speaks of how numerous texts from Hindu epics like Mahabharata and the Puranas to the 14th century ‘Tantra Chudamani’ have referred to the region as ‘Biraja Tirtha’ ‘Biraja Kshetra’ and ‘Biraja Pitha’, each with its own connotation.

    The Beginnings of Biraja Tirtha and the Pitha

    Historians like KC Panigrahi, Ekadashi Padhi and others believe that the region emerged as a pilgrimage place around 4th-5th century CE, during the rule of the Gupta empire. As more and more regions of India were being reclaimed from forests and brought under agricultural cultivation, places on the riverbanks known as ‘Tirthas’ began to gain importance. The River Baitarani, which flows through Jajpur was considered sacred and this was the beginning of the ‘Biraja Tirtha’. Over times, it became incorporated in the broader Hindu tradition and found mention in epics like Mahabharata and the Puranas. According to Mahabharata, the northern bank of the River Baitarani was inhabited by Brahmins who performed Yagnas here. The Bramanda Purana mentions the emergence of Goddess Biraja from the Grahapatya or the Sacred fire on banks of River Baitarani. Another Purana, the Vayu Purana states that Goddess Biraja was the wife of Nahasa and the mother of King Yayati, the ancestor of the Pandavas and Kauravas.

    As per medieval text ‘Birajakshetra Mahatmya’, Lord Brahma offered prayers Goddess Parvati who emerged from the Gruhapatya fire. The Goddess was pleased with Lord Brahma who asked him to name her as ‘Biraja’. Many historians like KC Panigrahi, Ekadasi Padhi and others believe that is allegorical description that an earlier mother goddess was incorporated into the Hindu Pantheon and named ‘Goddess Biraja’.

    Emergence of Biraja Temple as a Shakti Pitha

    During the 7th century, the worship of the Goddess in the form of Shakti, or Shakta worship, gained widespread popularity in Odisha. This resulted in the emergence of the term "Biraja Pitha," which carries a tantric connotation and refers to a seat of a deity where a Sadhaka can attain siddhi or fulfillment of their desires. Numerous medieval tantric texts such as Hevajra Tantra, Kalikapurana, and Rudramalaya Tantra highlight the prominent position of Goddess Katyayani of Uddiyan among the celebrated Shakta Pithas. Historians have identified the shrine of Goddess Biraja at Jajpur as the location of "the Katyayani of Uddiyana."

    During this period, the story of Daksha Yagna gained immense popularity. As per this story, Goddess Sati committed suicide when her father Daksha insulted her husband Lord Shiva at a Yagna. Overcome with grief, Lord Shiva carried Sati's lifeless body and performed the Tandava or the 'Dance of Destruction'. Fearing the destruction of the world, Lord Vishnu, armed with his Sudarshan Chakra, dismembered Sati's body into pieces, which fell to earth. It is believed that Goddess Sati's Navel or Nabhi fell at Jajpur, where a Shaktipitha emerged.

    From the 9th century, during the reign of the Bhaumakara kings, Vajrayana or the Tantric form of Buddhism flourished in the Jajpur region. Historians, such as SP Mishra in his book 'Biraja: The Capital of Ancient Odisha,' document how the temple was worshipped by Tantric Buddhists in the name of Prajnaparamita, the renowned Goddess of the Vajrayana Buddhist pantheon.

    From the 10th century onwards, during the rule of the Somavanshi dynasty, Vaishnavism flourished in the region. The Somvanshi kings built a large number of temples dedicated to Vishnu, and the Biraja temple was incorporated into the Vaishnavite tradition. This led to the popularization of the story of Jajpur as Nabhigaya, the place where the Navel of the demon Gayasura, a devout Vaishnavite, is said to have fallen. The Biraja Mata temple emerged as an important shrine for performing the Pindadaan ritual, which is believed to liberate the souls of one's ancestors.

    The History of the Present Biraja temple

    Despite the absence of archeological or epigraphic evidence to reveal who built the present Biraja Temple, historians have identified an important clue in the temple's main doorway. According to scholars such as KC Panigrahi and SP Mishra, parts of this ornamental doorway belonged to a Gupta-era Biraja temple at Kalaspura, located approximately a mile from the present-day Biraja temple. The remains of this temple can be seen scattered across the Kalaspura village. KC Panigarhi observes, "Evidently, the temple was very different from those still existing in Odisha, and it is not unlikely that it was a flat-roofed one like the Gupta temple at Sanchi."

    Based on the available historical evidence, it is speculated that as the shrine of Kalaspura perished with passage of time, a second temple to Biraja may have been built during the rule of the Bhaumakara dynasty, who had their capital at Jajpur. The 7th century text 'Bhaktibhagvata' suggests that despite being followers of Tantric Buddhism, the Bhaumakara dynasty were also ardent devotees of Goddess Biraja. During the early reign of the Bhauma rulers, there was a strong influence of Tantric Buddhism on the worship of Biraja, which was a unique blend of Haivism, Shaktism, and Tantricism. This intriguing mixture of religious beliefs and practices likely influenced the development of the Biraja Shrine.

    A multitude of Chamunda images scattered all over Jajpur district, testifies to the popularity of this goddess amongst Shaktas, Shaivites, and tantric Buddhists. Moreover, the Trilochaneshwar compound at Jajpur houses an 18-armed Chamunda image, which was the presiding deity for Shakta tantrics during the Bhauma dynasty's reign from 736 to 950 CE.

    Subsequently, the Somavanshi kings who ruled the region from 950 to 1114 CE, also venerated Chamunda, along with Lord Vishnu (Hara) and Goddess Chandi. Notably, King Mahashivagupta Chandihara Yayati or popularly known as King Jajati Kesari, a devout follower of both Chandi and Vishnu, oversaw the thorough sanctification of the Biraja Temple during his reign, and reinstalled the image of Goddess Biraja through Yagna.

    The Somavanshi rule over Jajpur ended with its conquest by the Eastern Ganga King, Anantavarman Chodagangadeva around 1114 CE. Jaapur continued to be the Eastern Ganga capital till 1230 CE when King Anagabhimadeva III shifted the capital to Cuttack. Jajpur lost its political importance with time.

    In 1568, Jajpur suffered the ravages of war at the hands of General Kalapahad and his Bengal Sultanate army. The hallowed Biraja shrine was left in ruins, its precious Biraja idol shattered and unceremoniously dumped into a nearby well. Forlorn and forgotten, the temple lay desolate for centuries. However, when the Mughal reign in Odisha ended circa 1750-51, a venerable Vedic pandit named Tryamvaka Agnihotri courageously retrieved the battered idol from the well, meticulously restored it, and reinstated it within the temple. Though the original structure lay in ruins, the fortitude and determination of the people led to the restoration of the remaining portion during the Maratha era between 1751 and 1803.

    The Biraja temple complex stands tall and proud, an inseparable thread in the vibrant tapestry of Odisha's cultural heritage. Every year, throngs of faithful pilgrims flock to the Biraja Kshetra, seeking the divine mother's benediction and guidance. The air is redolent with the heady fragrance of incense, and the temple resounds with the mellifluous strains of hymns and chants. The sacred aura of the hallowed grounds envelops visitors, imparting a sense of calm and serenity that lingers long after they depart.

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