Odisha’s Pattachitra paintings are rooted in the culture of the seaside town of Puri and, more specifically, in its legendary Jagannath temple. The primary deities—Lord Jagannath, his consort Goddess Sri, and his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra—are housed in an iconic tower built in classical Odisha style. [Read more about Hindu temple architecture here.] This temple tower is the sun around which the universe of Odisha Pattachitra comes to life.
Among Pattachitras, the sub-genre of Thiya Bodhia paintings focus entirely on the tower of the Puri Jagannath temple. It is believed to have been built in this coastal town in the 12thCentury. Known to sailors as ‘White Pagoda’ and later ‘Juggernaut’, the temple and its towering spire once helped guide ships in the Bay of Bengal. Today, it travels far and wide with pilgrims who want to take back a sacred keepsake in the form of a painting on a scroll. [Read about the history of Odisha Pattachitra.]
These painted souvenirs are known as jatra boti and the work at the top of this article is a classic example. Scholarly work on Odisha Pattachitra state that two groups of hereditary artists are associated with the Jagannath Temple. One clan is in charge of restoring the wooden sculpture of the Trimutri or triad, and the other is responsible for painting the pattas or cloth scrolls. Jagannatha Temple has known to have celebrated as many as twelve important festivals back in 1300 CE, which meant the artists would have to incorporate details of each unique ceremony in the decorative murals. Pattas were also commissioned by wealthy donors and were sold as souvenir paintings to visiting pilgrims, a practice which continues today.
Would any writing on Puri’s Jagannath Temple be complete without mention of its biggest festival, ie the rath yatra procession. This is the popular annual event that inspired the English word for an unstoppable force: juggernaut. In 2023, the Puri Jagannath rath yatra will start on 20 June. Sometimes artists will include a scene from the famed procession within the Pattachitra itself, a sort of meta narrative. Because these pilgrim souvenirs aren’t just paintings or cloth shrines, they carry with them the aura of the sea-swept temple town of Puri.