The Jagannath Man

On the occasion of Rath Yatra, Kolkata Wire speaks to a professor who has chosen Jagannath Consciousness and its widespread presence as his subject of research.

Prof Maqbul Islam
Prof Maqbul Islam’s research compilation

He is Professor Maqbul Islam, a teacher of Bengali at St Paul’s College in north Calcutta who has earned a DLit on his research on Lord Jagannath and is continues to search for more understanding on the Jagannath culture. Rarely do we find such an eclectic combination that stands as a burning example to a society that boasts of tolerance and freedom in thought, ideas and belief. Professor Islam has not braced any ritualistic belief, but has only tried to dig deep into the roots a culture that goes back a thousand years, is time-tested and is the foundation of a section of people who have immense faith and confidence in Lord Jagannath.  

A simple man both from outside and from within, who has even simpler thoughts and ideas, Prof Islam lives in central Howrah. A Jagannath idol adorns his sitting area and so does a figure of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Two large framed photographs of his parents, Sheikh Sajad Ali and mother Hajera Khatun, take up a portion of the wall. “My ancestral home is in Kalyanpur, Bagnan. My family follows Sufi traditions where we believe in a religion that is inclusive and propagates freedom of religion.” Professor attributes much of his love and attraction to Jagannath to the fact that he has grown up among Vaishnavas in his village and later, when he shifted to Calcutta to study, he lived among the Odiya community. “I came to Calcutta when I was four-and-half years and I lived with a group of Odiya Vaishnavas. At that time, I was not acquainted with the figure of Jagannath. I had seen other Hindu deities like Durga, Kali, Ganesh, Shiva but had never seen Jagannath. I asked my father and he explained to me that he is the God of Odiyas. I was quite fascinated by this,” said Prof Islam.

The Chaitanya idol in his living room

After completing school from, Maqbul joined the Sanskrit College where again he was acquainted with the Sashtras, but Jagannath left a lasting impact on his life. When he decided to do research, he chose Jagannath as his subject. “I found it to be an easy subject for me, because I was so well acquainted with Jagannath from childhood and also because I could speak Odiya fluently.”

Request for Research on Jagannath Consciousness:
He started with writing about Bengal and Bengalis’ contribution to the spread of Jagannath culture. He wrote about his research findings in various magazines and journals and that prompted Utkal University, in Bhubaneswar, to invite him to do further research. “I was asked to do research on Jagannath culture by the University and this was a UGC Major project. My subject was Sri Jagannath Consciousness in West Bengal, Nepal and Bangladesh.” He started work in 2008 and completed his his research in 2012. Prof was awarded a D Lit for his extensive and laborious work. But this was not the end. In 2015, Prof Islam decided to further his research and started working on a new subject, Sri Jagannath in North East India, which he is still working on.  

Prof Islam’s work has been highly appreciated in Odisha, by the universities and even the Sri Jagannath Research Institute. In 2015, the very special Navakalevar Award, given in the year of Jagannath Navakalevar to one Jagannath research scholar outside Odisha, was awarded to Prof Islam by the Jagannath Research Institute. He received the award from the hands of the Sankaracharya in presence of Puri’s king, Gajapati Divyasingha Dev.

Prof Islam’s research has revealed a lot about the Jagannath culture in Odisha and beyond. He says, “Jagannath is the family deity of the people of Odisha, He is every individual’s Spiritual Deity and is also the State deity. In fact, if you notice the Odissi dancers of the Odisha Gharana, they actually perform to please Lord Jagannath, and not the audience,” said Prof Islam. For the purpose of his research, Prof Islam has had to travel through length and breadth of West Bengal, North East states, Nepal and Bangladesh. “I have not left any temple untouched and I have given detailed reports on the deities, their appearance and even the condition of the temple.”

A pertinent question that comes to mind is ‘Has Prof Islam ever faced any resistance when trying to enter the shrines or temples?’ “No. Never. Not even in the Puri temple. Probably one of the reasons is that I can fluently speak and read Odiya, since I lived with the community since childhood. Odiya is my second mother tongue. That helped me a lot in interacting with local people,” said Prof Islam. Professor also acquaints us with the fact that there is a silent revolution going on in Odisha, where the liberal intellectuals are saying that Jagannath temple doors should be open to all.

Pulling the four-storey chariot at Mahisadal

What is Rath Yatra?:
About Rath Yatra, Prof Islam says, “The rath or chariot is symbolic of the human body. He who sits insides the body is the atma or soul. So Jagannath sitting in the rath is the Paramatma or the Greatest Soul. Jagannath should not be mistaken to be a deity (Pratima), He is a symbol (Pratik) because a deity can be immersed, but a symbol cannot be.” Professor explains the different gharanas of Jagannath that he has witnessed during the course of his research. “The Assam, Tripura and Manipuri gharanas are visible in the style of the image. The eyes are different and so are the features. I have even seen Jagannath draped in Muslim type garments, wearing a cap like the Imams wear. However, all these are made following the Sastras,” said Prof.

 Professor Islam continues to do his research in North Eastern states and hopes to find more interesting aspects of Jagannath.