The Unknown Poet

“ଥକା ମନ ଚାଲ ଯିବା, ଚକାନୟନ ଦେଖିବା,
ଶଙ୍ଖ ନାଭି ମଣ୍ଡଳରେ, ବେନି ନେତ୍ର ପଖାଳିବା।”
– ସାରିଆ ଭିକ

“Let’s go, oh tired mind, about time we see His beautiful round eyes,
And purify our eyes in the sacred temple at the centre of Sankhakshetra.”
– Saria Bhika


Not even a week more and I will be back in Puri for Rathyatra again. This will be my fourth visit to Him in just more than a year. I have to make up for the lost 26 years, you see! You can read about the lost 26 years here. It was a wait too long, indeed.

I have had a very strange relationship with Lord Jagannath and Puri, to say the least, bringing out the innermost emotions to the fore, emotions that I never knew existed in me. Bringing out that side of me to the front which even I wasn’t aware existed. And all of it in a good way. Even if I have been teary-eyed on each of the last three visits, I have felt a sense of happiness on each of those occasions. As Lord Jagannath grew on me, so did my interest in His miracles and associated lore. So far, I have come to know that He loves devotional songs wrote to please Him. And that’s how I dug deeper and wrote about Bhakta Salabega (pronounced Saa-law-be-gaw) a few months ago, which you can read here.

While there are many beautiful of devotional compositions dedicated to Lord Jagannath, many of which were composed by Bhakta Salabega, there is one heart-touching composition which was composed by one “Saria Bhika” (pronounced Saa-ree-aa Bhee-kaw). I have quoted the first stanza of this composition at the beginning. The best part about this composition is its simplicity, and its explanation of a devotee’s mind when (s)he goes to see Lord Jagannath in Puri. What makes it unique however, is the fact that this is the only composition made by this poet, and a few cryptic clues the poet has left in the poem. The last stanza for example asks the reader to tell something to one Balaram. This made me curious about him. Or her?

After searching a lot on the internet, I decided to have a word with the very bright Prateek Pattanaik (Twitter: @pattaprateek) who is one of the best knowledge repositories as far as ancient Odia literature is concerned. He was kind enough to point me in the right direction, suggesting that “Saria Bhika” might as well be a poetess, and if that turns out to be correct, she would be one of the first Odia poetesses.

Having been nudged in a particular direction, I started from the last stanza where the poet asks the reader to tell something to one Balaram. Lord Balabhadra, elder brother of Lord Jagannath is also know as Balaram, but why would the poet want something to be told to Lord Balabhadra. If a message needs to be conveyed to Lord Balabhadra, the poet being present inside the temple could do it. That brings us to another Balaram, i.e. Balaram Das, a fifteenth century poet, and one of the Panchashakha – five contemporary Odia poets who lived in Odisha within hundred years or so, and are credited with much of the revival of Odia literature. The second stanza of the poem talks about five minds and one existence, which made me kind of sure that the poet was indeed talking about Balaram Das. The second stanza however may also mean five different elements and one existence.

Balaram Das was also called Matta Balaram, because of his rebellious nature and utter disregard for social conventions of that time. There are three characters in Balaram Das’ life and writings who fit the bill of “Saria Bhika” – two of them were women and one was a dumb and deaf beggar (because Bhika in Odia also means alms).

The first and the most probable of the three characters was a harlot in Puri, whose brothel Balaram Das used to frequent during his visits to Puri. The brothel used to be a two-storey building in the grand road. On one such visits during Rathyatra, Balaram Das was deeply engrossed in the harlot when he heard the drums and trumpets announcing the arrival of Lord Jagannath. Like being woken up with a slap from a sleep, Balaram Das ran like a mad man towards the chariots, with his hair and clothes dishevelled. When he tried to climb onto the chariot, he was pushed down after being scorned by the priests for not being clean while coming to see the Lord. Balaram Das made the chariot stop with his devotion, and never visited the harlot again. This seems to be a turning point in his life. It could be possible that the harlot mended her ways and got into devotions towards Lord Jagannath, and while she wrote the only poem of her life, she also wanted let Balaram Das know about her changed life.

The second character was an old woman of low birth who went by the name Shriya. Saria sounds like a corrupt version on Shriya and makes her a strong contender for our poet. In fact, she is the lead character in one of Balaram Das’ best known works called “Lakshmi Puran”. Lakshmi Puran is one of the earliest literary works in the world which propagates feminism (more like domestic feminism) and questions male hegemony in the society. You read that right, back in fifteenth century! “Lakshmi Puran” is the story of Goddess Lakshmi, consort of Lord Jagannath, when she is asked to leave the house (the temple in this case), because she went against Her husband’s wish. It lays down a code of sorts for all the married women.

The third and the least probable of the three character was a dumb and deaf beggar. Balaram Das was a regular speaker on Vedanta in the Mukti Mandap in Jagannath temple in Puri, and it was believed that whoever would touch his head would instantly become able to explain the philosophy of Vedanta. It is believed that a dumb and deaf beggar once touched Balaram Das’ head, and not only he got cured but went on to become a foremost intellectual on Vedanta. He was known as Hari Das.

It is really strange that the composer of one of the best known devotional songs of Lord Jagannath remains unknown to this day. May be that was the last wish of the composer. We would never know. Those of you interested in listening to the song can do so by clicking here. This version slightly different and was sung by the versatile Bhikari Bal. For those of you interested in the lyrics, I have given an almost literal stanza by stanza English translation below.

A devotee of Lord Jagannath pays Him respect, as singers in the foreground sing devotional songs dedicated to Lord Jagannath during Rathyatra in Puri, Odisha.

Jai Jagannath!


“ଥକା ମନ ଚାଲ ଯିବା, ଚକାନୟନ ଦେଖିବା,
ଶଙ୍ଖ ନାଭି ମଣ୍ଡଳରେ, ବେନି ନେତ୍ର ପଖାଳିବା।”

“Let’s go, oh tired mind, about time we see His beautiful round eyes,
And purify our eyes in the sacred temple at the centre of Sankhakshetra.”

(Puri is also known was Sankhakhetra, because of underlying design of the ancient city in the shape of a conch, and the Jagannath temple is right at the centre.)

“ବାଟରେ ବାଟମଙ୍ଗଳା, ଦେଖିବା ଅଠରନଳା,
ପାଞ୍ଚ ମନ ଏକ ମେଳା, ନରେନ୍ଦ୍ର ସ୍ନାନ କରିବା।”

“On the way the temple of Goddess Batamangala and also the eighteen arched bridge,
Although five minds, it is only one existence. Will also take bath in the Narendra pond.”

(Assuming that the poet in the second line refers to the Panchasakha and their common goal.)

“ପହଞ୍ଚିବା ବଡ଼ଦାଣ୍ଡେ, ସେ ରେଣୁ ପାଇବା ତୁଣ୍ଡେ,
ଛତା ତଳେ ରହି ଦଣ୍ଡେ, ସାଧୁଙ୍କ ସେବା କରିବା।”

“After reaching the grand road, let’s put the dust in our mouth in reverence,
Let’s stand under the umbrella for a while and serve the great souls who come visiting.”

“ସିଂହଦ୍ୱାରେ ଭିଡାଭିଡ଼ି, ବାଜୁ ଅଛି ବେତ ବାଡ଼ି,
ଠେଲି ଦେଇ ଯିବା ମାଡ଼ି, ଧକ୍କା ବାଜିଲେ ସହିବା।”

“There is huge crowd at the Lion’s gate, and the priests are hitting with sticks,
Let’s give a push and go ahead, and in case we get pushed or hit, let’s tolerate.”

“ଗରୁଡ଼ ପଛରେ ଦେଖ, ଦିଶୁଛି କଳା ଶ୍ରୀମୁଖ,
କହଇ ସାରିଆ ଭିକ, ବଳରାମଙ୍କୁ କହିବା।”

“Look behind the Garuda pillar, the beautiful black face of the Lord is visible,
Thus speaks “Saria Bhika”, please convey this to Balaram.”


In frame: A devotee of Lord Jagannath pays Him respect, as singers in the foreground sing devotional songs dedicated to Lord Jagannath during Rathyatra in Puri, Odisha. The Rathyatra of Lord Jagannath in Puri is one of the largest congregation of humans in the world.

VERY IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Yes, you can share this work with proper attribution. But, please seek permission before using this work (not including the photo), partially or fully. YOU CAN NOT USE THE PHOTO. Believe me, asking is better than ending up in court or facing public shaming on social media. Thanks for understanding.

© Amrit Panigrahy. All rights reserved.

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