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Paita or the Sacred Thread in Bengal Temple Decorations

Dr. A K Chatterjee is a seasoned writer with more than 330 blogs in English and Bengali and 10 books mostly on travel, trekking and temples.

A priest wearing  the sacred thread; terracotta; Sridhar temple, Sonamukhi, Bankura

A priest wearing the sacred thread; terracotta; Sridhar temple, Sonamukhi, Bankura

Introduction

"Paita"/"Janeu" is the Sacred Thread worn nowadays by the Brahmin males of the Hindu community after a religious ceremony called "Upanayana" which is held usually in childhood. This has become the symbol of upper caste Brahmins now, though it has a colorful history starting from the Vedic age.

The history of "Paita" (as it is called in Bengali) or "Janeu" (as it is called in Hindi) is a very long one, and a bit controversial to say the least. In this article, we'll only touch on these superficially to help readers understand certain important points about them.
The main aim of this article is to show and analyze the depiction of persons wearing "Paita" in the decorations of temples in West Bengal.

A sculpture from Thillai Nataraja temple, in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu that shows Brahmins with Janeu.

A sculpture from Thillai Nataraja temple, in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu that shows Brahmins with Janeu.

What is the Sacred Thread or "Paita"/ "Janeu"?

"Paita"/"Janeu" is a tuft of 9 threads arranged in 3 groups of 3 threads each worn by Brahmin males (now-a-days) after a religious ceremony ("Upanayan"). This signifies a second birth of the individual from a lower ignorant state to a higher enlightened one.

But originally the Sacred Thread was not the sole monopoly of the Brahmins. Actually, all individuals (both males and females) who follow the Vedas could have this thread worn after fulfilling certain pre-requisite conditions. Gradually, the custom degenerated first into an exclusively male domain, and later the domain of the three "upper" castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas), thus excluding the 4th caste, viz. the Sudras.

The whole thing is highly controversial and incites emotional outbursts, so we'll steer clear of this and stick to our objective.

A Brahmin with the sacred thread; terracotta. At Gopaleshwar temple in Bankati, Paschim Bardhaman district.

A Brahmin with the sacred thread; terracotta. At Gopaleshwar temple in Bankati, Paschim Bardhaman district.

The Structure of a "Paita"/"Janeu"

Each "Paita"/"Janeu" consists of nine threads or "Tantu"s, which are arranged into three groups of "Sutra"s or "Dandi"s of three "Tantu"s each.

These threads are held together by five knots or "Granthi"s. These "Granthi"s are called "Brahma Granthi."

As per the scriptures, Brahmins shall wear "Paita"/"Janeu" made of cotton ("Karpas"), Kshatriyas shall wear "Paita"/"Janeu" made of hemp ("Shawn") and the "Paita"/"Janeu" of the Vaishyas should be made of animal hairs.

Significance of the Threads

The individual nine threads or "Tantu"s are believed to be the abodes or seats of nine gods/demigods, described as follows:

  • 1st thread – Seat of "Omkar," the primal cosmic sound.
  • 2nd thread – seat of the Fire God Agni.
  • 3rd thread – seat of Ananta Naga, the Celestial Serpent, on the coils of which lies Lord Vishnu.
  • 4th Thread – seat of Chandra, the Moon God.
  • 5th thread – seat of "Pitrigan."
  • 6th thread – seat of Prajapati Brahma, the Creator.
  • 7th thread – seat of the 8 "Basu"s.
  • 8th thread – seat of Yaksha, the keeper of Wealth.
  • 9th thread – seat of Shankar, the Anthropometric form of Lord Shiva.

The first three threads constitute the first "Sutra," symbolizing goddess Saraswati; the next three threads constitute the second "Sutra," symbolizing goddess Gayatri; and the last three threads constitute the third or last "sutra," symbolizing goddess Savitri.

Why Nine Threads?

It is believed that these nine threads will guard against the entry of sin into the body by guarding the nine entry gates or openings ("Naba Dwara") of the human body, viz. two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one each of the mouth, the reproductive organ and the anus.

The Prescribed Length of the "Paita"/"Janeu"

Again, there are strict rules as per scriptures regarding the length of the "Paita"/"Janeu" worn by different "Vedi"s (those who belong to the house of a particular Veda).

Those who belong to the houses of Rig Veda and Yajur Veda shall wear the "Paita"/"Janeu" from the left shoulder to the navel, and those who belong to the house of Shama Veda shall wear a "Paita"/"Janeu" from the left shoulder to the right hip.

An important point to remember is that originally there were three Vedas (called "Trayee") and the fourth Veda, viz. Atharva Veda, was included in the list of Vedas later.

How Do You Wear a "Paita"/"Janeu"?

Normally, it is customary to wear the "Paita"/"Janeu" from the left shoulder to the right hip, crossing the chest and back diagonally. This is done so that it crosses the heart, which is considered the seat of all emotions and the site of "Anahata Chakra," one of the 6 major "Chakra-s or nerve centres of the human body as told in the Hindu scriptures. This way of wearing the sacred thread is called "Upavita" and it is the most common method of wearing the sacred thread.

However, the sacred thread is worn in the opposite direction (i.e., from the right shoulder to the left hip) during some religious functions like the Last Rights of the deceased family members (especially during the "Pindadaan" ceremony). This type of wearing the sacred thread is called "Prachinavarti."

Sometimes, gods are depicted wearing the sacred thread in this fashion.

There is a third way of wearing the sacred thread where it is worn like a necklace. This is called "Malyavat," meaning "garland-like." It is again used during certain religious ceremonies like "Tarpan" (offering water to the deceased ancestors).

In iconography sometimes goddesses are depicted as wearing the sacred thread in this fashion.

Upanayana or Sacred Thread Ceremony

Upanayana (or "Sacred Thread Ceremony") is the religious ceremony during which young boys are first presented with the "Paita"/"Janeu." The minimum age requirements prescribed for different castes are as follows :

  • 7 years for the Brahmins
  • 13 years for the Kshatriyas
  • 17 years for the Vaishyas

After the "Upanayan" ceremony, the "Paita"/"Janeu" -holders are called "Dwija" or "Twice Born".

Interestingly, the Ayurvedic Brahmins traditionally have a second "Upanayan" (usually before they enter the profession of "Vaids" or physicians, but may be during their wedding), and then they are called "Trija", the Thrice Born.

The Religious Importance of the "Paita"/"Janeu"

The Sacred Thread is held in so high esteem because it is believed that Lord Brahma creates the threads ("Tantu"s), Lord Vishnu prepares the three "Sutra"s, Lord Shiva ties the knots ("Granthi"s) and the goddess Sabitri sanctifies the whole.

Bengal Temple Decorations

Before entering into the subject of "Paita"/"Janeu" in Bengal temple decorations, it will be helpful for the general reader to have a glimpse of the temple decorations in Bengal.

All temples are decorated to some extent or other, but we are concerned here with only those decorations which are put on the walls of temples. These decorations include pictures of gods and goddesses; scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; scenes from religious texts like Krishna Leela (Life Stories of Lord Krishna), Chaitanya Leela, etc.; social events; animals and birds; floral and geometric designs, etc.

The medium for these decorations is mostly bas-reliefs on terracotta plaques, but other types of media like stucco, stone, wood, metal or paintings (murals/frescos) are also present.

These decorations combine together to work as a kind of public teacher and social media.

Objective of This Study

The main objective of this study is to demonstrate and analyze different persons wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu" as depicted in the decorations of some selected temples from different districts of West Bengal.

Materials and Methods

The author has visited and photographed about 80 temples in 31 places in different districts of West Bengal (a list of the temples visited is given in the Appendix).

These photographs were diligently checked, and photos of persons wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu" were selected. These are classified into several groups and analyzed.

"Paita"/"Janeu" in the Decorations of Temples in West Bengal

Interestingly, we find the following groups of figures wearing the Sacred Thread in the temples of West Bengal:

  1. Gods
  2. Goddesses
  3. Avatars of Lord Vishnu
  4. Sages from epics
  5. Ascetics
  6. Yogis
  7. Priests
  8. Common men wearing "Paita"/"Janeu"
  9. Miscellaneous (this group includes guards with "Paita"/"Janeu," a highly interesting topic)

Let us discuss these, one after another.

1. Gods Wearing "Paita"/"Janeu"

Though, classically, all gods (and goddesses) wear the "Paita"/"Janeu," in our series we find the following gods in temple decorations. It is to be remembered that gods are often depicted with the sacred thread in the "Prachinavarti" fashion.

  • Lord Shiva: Lord Shiva in His anthropometric form (popularly called "Mahadeva") wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu" is depicted profusely in almost all temples, in terracotta mostly, but also in other media. In our present series, the notable examples are from Sridhar temple of Sonamukhi, district Bankura; Charbangla temple of Baronagar, district Murshidabad; Gopinath temple of Dasghara, district Hooghly; Jorbangla temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura; and Raghunath Shiva temple of Ghurisha, district Birbhum.
  • Lord Brahma: Lord Brahma wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu" can be seen in Sridhartemple of Sonamukhi, district Bankura and Shiva temple of Uchkaran village, district Birbhum.
  • Lord Vishnu: a) In Sridhar temple of Sonamukhi, district Bankura, we see Lord Vishnu carrying Goddess Parvati, His sister, as per the tradition in the wedding scene of Shiva with Parvati. b) In Radhashyam temple of Vishnupur, district Bankura, we see Lord Vishnu wearing a "Paita"/"Janeu" in his Khagendra Narayana form riding Garuda.
  • Harihara: In 2 temples (viz. Sridhar temple of Kotulpur, district Bankura and Shiva temple of Uchkaran, district Birbhum) we see "Harihara" (the combined or syncretic form of Lord Narayana or "Hari" and LordShiva or "Hara") figure wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu."
  • Lord Ganesha: In the Nalateshwari temple of Nalhati, district Birbhum, we see Lord Ganesha wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu."
  • Lord Kartikeya: In a Shiva temple from Sribati village of Purva Bardhaman district, we see Lord Kartikeya wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu."
  • Narada: Narada is a demi-god, called "Devarshi," the Sage of the Gods. In a Shiva temple of Uchkaran, district Birbhum, Narada is depicted in a terracotta plaque wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu."

2. Goddesses Wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu"

Goddesses like Mahishasuramardini are often depicted wearing the "Paita"/"Janeu." Moreover, there are references that goddesses often wear their "Paita"/"Janeu" like a necklace in the "Malyavat" fashion, not diagonally across the chest.

In our present series, we get two types of "Paita"/"Janeu" wearing goddesses.

  • Standard Diagonal: Goddesses with standard diagonal "Paita"/"Janeu" are seen in some temples. Examples are the goddess Bagalamukhi in Gopaleshwar temple, Bankati village, Purva Bardhaman, and the goddess Kaal Ratri in the Lakshmi Janardan temple of Ghurisha village, district Birbhum.
  • Necklace-like: Goddesses with necklace-like "Paita"/"Janeu" can be seen in many temples. In our series we get such goddesses in Radha Damodar temple Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura (Goddess Durga), and Gopaleshwar temple of Bankati village, district Paschim Bardhaman (goddesses Bagalamukhi, Gajalakshmi and Chhinnamasta).