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Rath Yatra and Gajapati – a King without a Kingdom


Book Review

By Manoj Pande

The Jagannath Rath Yatra 2024 commenced on Sunday, 7 July. This year, our President, Droupadi Murmu, who is from Odisha, was among the devotees witnessing this spectacular event.

Beginning on the Ashada Dwitiya as per the Oriya Calendar, the idols of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra venture out in three huge wooden chariots drawn by a multitude of devotees to Gundicha Temple, where they reside for a week before returning to the Jagannath Temple.

As thousands line the main street of Puri waiting for the Yatra to begin, the chariots are swept clean by one man – the Gajapati, a king without a kingdom and by tradition, the first servitor of the lord.

Ashok Kumar Bal’s engrossing book, “Gajapati – a King without a Kingdom”, covers in much detail, the story of Gajapati over a couple of centuries. If it were a simple story of succession, the tale would have been staid and boring, but the story of Gajapati over 500 plus years is full of fascinating incidents, and of powerful and weak personalities.


Not many outside Odisha are aware about Gajapati. I certainly was not. Ashok Kumar Bal, born in Odisha, hearing childhood stories and folklore was certainly aware who the Gajapati was, but curious why his horoscope made by the village Jyotish mentioned the name of the Gajapati, and the regnal year when Ashok was born. Curiosity led to research spread over several years. The result is this book which has 19 Chapters covering roughly a period from the 15th Century to the present Gajapati Dibyasingha Deb IV, who completed 50 years of his tenure on 8th July 2020.

In the simplest sense, history is nothing but a story. Yet the narrator may choose to omit or amplify certain instances and incidents, what may be loosely termed as bias. Bal has narrated the Gajapati story in a matter-of-fact manner and that is one reason why this is a work worth appreciation, apart from the meticulous research that has gone into it.

In the introduction itself, the author confesses that he is not a historian and that although the narrative is based upon historical facts, it is not a book of history. As the chapters progress, we learn more and more, about how different rulers (Ganga Dynasty, Suryavanshis, Afghans, Marathas, Mughals, British) impacted the kingdom and gradually reduced the scope of his rule, and yet could not take away Gajapati’s role as prime servitor of Lord Jagannath and his position as the Chalanti Vishnu or the living embodiment of Lord Vishnu in the minds of the Oriya populace.


‘Gajapati’ is the title used by the kings of Odisha. Ananthavarman Chodagangadeva (1078-1150), of the Ganga Dynasty, which ruled far beyond the present-day Odisha is said to have constructed the present temple structure in the 12th Century and is the earliest king to have been associated with the title involving elephant or ‘gaja’.

The first king who formally used the title ‘Gajapati’ was Kapilendra Deb (1435-1467), who founded a new dynasty (Suryavanshi). An adopted child, he was found on the premises of the temple complex by the last king of the Ganga dynasty Bhanudeva IV, who was childless. Kapilendra Deb propounded himself as an elect of the Lord Jagannath. He surrendered all his wealth to Lord Jagannath and started the practice of consulting with the Lord before taking any difficult decision, thus making the Lord both a witness to and approver of his decisions. This was accepted by the priestly class and gave legitimacy and acceptance of his decisions among the populace as well as the feudatory kings. It was also the origin of the concept of ‘adyasebak’ or the first servitor.

Another Gajapati, Raja Dibyasingha Deb was convicted of murder of a monk named Siba Das, and exiled by the British to the Andamans in 1878, where he died of Tuberculosis in 1887. In his absence, his mother Rani Suryamani Patamahadei (1818-1926) conducted the offices of the temple for 34 years in two spells. First, when Dibyasingha Deb was minor. And second when he was imprisoned, and his son Mukunda Deb had not attained maturity. This was not an easy task. Petitions and litigation were also resorted to, assisted by a lawyer Madhusudan Das, who himself was a practicing Christian!

The story of Gajapati Ramchandra Deb II is tragic. Imprisoned by the Mughal Subedar in 1732, he married one Razia and converted to Islam. Ashok Bal says that it is not clear whether it was a forced conversion but mentions that the Gajapati did not use his Muslim name nor lose his loyalty and devotion to Lord Jagannath. But he could no longer enter the temple as entry of non-Hindus is prohibited. Thus, the image of ‘Patitapabana’ (Lord Jagannath as the Lord of the fallen) was installed near the main entrance of the temple so that the fallen king could have darshan of his beloved Lord from outside. Such images can be seen in other Jagannath Temples which constructed much later in other cities.

The population disapproved of a Muslim as the Gajapati. So, relinquishing his kingdom, Ramchandra Deb II went away to Narsinghpur, finally ending his life when, both, he and his wife committed suicide by consuming poison together in December 1737.

The book has many more stories, incidents, and characters. There are ruthless soldiers like the Afghan Kalapahad who desecrated and looted the Jagannath Temple and even burnt the idols. There are loyal and committed individuals like Jayee Rajguru who led the Paika rebellion in 1817, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who spent the last 18 years in Puri and whose Bhakti cult greatly influenced Gajapatis. And Gangaram, the ceremonial elephant who met a tragic end.

Each chapter in the book can be read independently. There are so many characters that one often tends to get confused, but the titles help. Ashok has relied on many English and Oriya texts to dig out histories. One that is extensively quoted is the ‘Madala Panji’, which are the chronicles of the Jagannath Temple. I would suggest that later editions contain a chronological list of the Kings as well as the English names of the Oriya titles, for quick reference, as the cast of kings is quite extensive.

Each successive victor took away a slice of kingdom and power of the Gajapati. So, today, we have a King without a kingdom and with the last elephant Laxmi having passed away in 1987, a Gajapati without a ‘Gaja’ or an elephant, performing the ‘chherapanhara’ or the ceremonial sweeping ritual every year during Rath Yatra at Puri.

Dr Karan Singh says in his foreword- “This (book) will fill a gap in the history of Odisha and will be of interest not only to historians but to the general public”. That about sums it all up.


By Ashok Kumar Bal

Konark Publishers Private Limited

Pages 427 (including 8 Appendices)


(A former Member of the Railway Board, Manoj Pande now resides in Dehradun)