Monks, Monasteries and Murals: Puri’s forgotten two legendary Mathas

Puri: Neelachal Dham Puri, the abode of Lord Jagannath is widely celebrated as a supreme Hindu shrine for its legendary Jagannath cult. Everyday Puri is visited by thousands of devotees from all over India for the ‘darshan’ of the Trinity at Jagannath Temple.
However, apart from the grand Jagannath Temple many other monuments and religious places, lesser-known among the visitors, are getting minimal attention not only from tourism, but also from conservation point of view though they are like living galleries of the famous Puri paintings. Once covered with murals profusely with time there are only two monasteries left where one can trace the evolution of Puri paintings, although in a highly faded condition.
The present Jagannath Temple might be a 12th Century structure testifying the highest achievement of Kalingan School Architecture, but the celebration of Puri or Srikshetra as a Hindu shrine goes back to much earlier time. For example Gobardhana Matha located in Swarga Dwara had been founded by Adi Sankaracharya in 8th Century as a centre of learning and culture.
Well-known archaeologist and writer Jitu Mishra, also co-founder of Virasat-E-Hind Foundation, who have studied Puri paintings and working on its documentation, said ‘’from then on mathas or monasteries have been playing an important role in performing seva or duty for Lord Jagannath. There are a large number of mathas belonging to different sects located around Jagannath Temple. ‘Mahantas’ or heads of these monastic institutions, are also the spiritual preceptors of many followers of the sect. These mathas are treated as social infrastructure located within historic residential neighbourhoods or ‘shahis’ where monks or ‘bhikkus’and devotees stay to practice meditation for spiritual growth.’’
The Bada Odia Matha
The Bada Odia Matha has the largest concentration of Puri paintings on its walls drawn in the 19th Century. This matha was established by Atibadi Jagannath Das in the 15th Century. He was a great religious poet and composed the Odia Bhagabat. The image of Atibadi Jagannath Das is preserved in the matha. Jagannath was the intimate disciple of Sri Chaitnya Mahaprabhu and founder of Atibadi Sect of Vaishnamism. The Odia Matha makes arrangement for ‘pankti bhoga’ in the Jagamohana during ‘Rukminiharana’ festival and supplies ‘kala sari’ (black cloth) to Goddess Vimala. It is also vested with the duty of cleaning the ‘Ratnavedi’ and supplying of canopy for the inner sanctuary and the pillows for the Lord. The matha provides ‘trimundi chandua’ and silk cloths for ‘chaka apasara’, til oil for ‘phooluri neeti’, oil and ghee for ‘Deva Deepavali’.
More than life size murals of Lord Vishnu, Krishna and Rama with their consorts and allies the matha boasts some of the finest religious art of the region. As one enters the inner monastery gate the first sight is the murals of Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra. Next are scenes from Krishna Leela and the Ramayana. The depiction of Anantasayi Vishnu is yet another major draw among the murals of the matha. One also finds the episode of Samudra Manthan or the Churning of the Ocean in the monastic wall.

‘’Among the decorative figures the images of peacocks are eye catching. The ‘Kaliya Dahana’ scene of Krishna is yet another important mural of this monastery. However, sadly most of the murals are in the verge of extinction,’’ Mishra said after a recent visit to Puri.
Gangamata Matha
Gangamata Matha located in Bali Sahi is yet another monastery where one can see traces of Puri murals of 19th Century. Belonging to Gaudiya Sect, the matha is located beside the sacred Swetaganga Tank. Like Bada Odia Matha here also one finds life size murals of the Hindu Trinity (Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra) at its entrance.

In the next panel the mural boasts child Krishna along with the depiction of forest environment. There are also depictions from the scenes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
‘’In Indian mural tradition, Odisha played an important role as a link between south and north. However, unlike other mural traditions, such as Vijayanagara, Cholas and Nayakas of South and Orchha and Bundi of Rajput north, the Puri paintings have hardly drawn attention. One of the major concerns is their preservation from the sultry tropical weather and human interference. However, before they are vanished completely it is critical to preserve them from their further decay with the help of art restorers and experts,’’ observed Mishra.