Bhakta Salbeg

Janmejaya Panda
Bangalore


Since time immemorial, the sacred land of Bharatvarsha has been blessed by the supreme creator who is fondly called by his devotees, the people of this land, by various names. Most notably, he has been conceptualized by a very logical and prudent vision in the form of the three deities namely, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Brahma is the creator and is mostly revered as a father figure amidst the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. Shiva is the destroyer and is widely respected for his simplicity (hence called Bholanath) but feared mostly for his uncontrollable rage(rudra avatar) once he is displeased. 

Of all the gods and goddesses, Vishnu is the only god whom the devotees affectionately visualize as someone very close in various forms, sometimes as sakha(friend), sometimes as data(giver or blesser of fortune) sometimes as pita (father). His lilas suggest his non-chalantness, his love and devotion to his bhakta and his eternal lilas test the bhakta’s faith in him. He is the epitome of dharma rakhsha eternalized in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. When the entire creation is in trouble, all the devatas including Shiva and Brahma turn to him for salvation and deliverance. Though he isn’t easy to get, yet even an asura can find him with true love and devotion and attain moksha. His maya is incomprehensible and yet he appears in the simplest of forms to his bhakta. 
But the one place which is very dear to him is his bhakta’s heart, where he resides eternally. The various avatars of Vishnu have been preserved since ages through tales of bhakti, of devotion between the bhakta and his beloved god. We shall read about an individual in the following narration, derived from many folk lores of Odisha about a Mleccha(cow eating) Moslem who though had started out on a journey of conquest, but eventually was conquered by the very idol he set out to destroy. He became a believer for life and penned many beautiful poems celebrating the nobleness of the Lord and the submission of a devotee. 

The life and tale of Bhakta Salabega is one of those rare aspects of devotion which transcended every social and religious barrier practiced in medieval India. Medieval India of the 17th century at the birth of Salabega was going through a turbulent time, not only politically and militarily but socially as well. Islam, with massive political backing from various Islamic kingdoms and the Mughals, contested with the religion of the land, Hinduism to be the paramount religion of India. Jehangir was the ruler of the Mughals then and the Mughals were vying with different smaller independent regional powers for absolute hegemony. One such power was Khurdha in central Odisha, a vestige of the mighty Gajapati empire. From the 8th century till the late 16th century, it was under the rule of the imperial Gangas and the Gajapatis after them who ruled a vast landmass, known as the empire of Utkal-Kalinga stretching from the Ganga in the north (half of present day West Bengal) to the Cauvery in the south (northern Tamil Nadu), the Bay of Bengal in the east to central Madhya Pradesh in the west. This empire like other contemporary Hindu empires of India got fragmented and eventually lost its unity owing to betrayal by the regional governors, treachery and internecine warfare. Tokens of principality emerged out of the empire which though warred with each other over land and petty issues, yet were engaged in warfare mostly against the Mughals, the Afghans of Bengal and the Qutub Shahis of the south, to preserve their kingdoms.
In the 17th century, a Muslim general serving with the Mughals, called Lalbeg during one of the mughal raids into Odisha had carried off a Hindu woman with him. A son was born to the woman who was named Salabega. While the fate of the mother is unknown, yet as the child grew up in a Moslem society, it became clear that his Hindu mother had profound influence on him in spiritual matters. From his mother, Salabega had inherited a feeling of reverence to Lord Jagannath of Puri, though not akin to that of a devotee. Eventually Salabega joined the army and participated in many battles. Fate ultimately led Salabega, an officer with the Mughal army and on orders from the Mughal court, to raid Hindu principalty of Khurdha. He came not as a devotee but as part of a fresh invasion force directed against the Raja of Khurda, who had steadfastly opposed and continued to fight both the Moslems of Bengal and the Mughals of Delhi. Little did Salabega know that destiny had ordained that he would return from Odisha as a devotee of the very idol he had set out to destroy. Legend has it that during one severe battle, he was surrounded by the enemy and death seemed to be at hand. At such a juncture when all seemed lost, he recalled his mother’s words and prayed to Jagannath on the battlefield. For a moslem, this seemed quite rare and extra-ordinary, since generally they have been known to get down from their horses and pray to Allah. Yet his belief in the powers of the Lord became strong when he found the danger receding and his life saved from absolute peril. Thereafter Salabega became a devotee of Sri Jagannath and spent the rest of his life composing poems dedicated to the Lord. 

Being a Yabana (Mlechha Muslim), he couldn’t be allowed inside the premises of Puri Jagannath temple, hence he would observe the deity from the hole in the wall and sing praises of the lord. Once Salabega wanted to see the Lord clad in his beautiful dress at the time of Rath Yatra, but he fell sick while on his way to Srikshetra Puri dham. He was very sad and with tears in his eyes, he implored the Lord to wait until he reached puri. The pandas, the Gajapati and the people were shocked to see the Rath of Lord Jagannath standing still and not budging even an inch. Hours later Salabega reached the place where the Rath had stood firm and prayed to the Lord. Only then did it move and the people realized the supreme devotion of Salabega and hence the legend of Bhakta Salabega was born, who although a Muslim, loved the lord and dedicated the rest of his life in the service of Sri Jagannath. Salabega has coined some of the most popular and widely loved Jagannath bhajans which to this day are as beautiful as at the time of their creation. One of the most popular songs coined by bhakta Salabega is known as “Ahe Nila Saila prabala matta barana”, still recited by many Odia families while praying to Sri Jagannath, the spirit and soul of Odisha. 

The supreme devotion of Salbeg has been remembered by all the Odias with great honor. His devotion has been epitome of grandness of Jagannath culture centering on (Bhaaba) feelings, (Bhakti) devotion and (Prema) love that is beyond the narrow ambit of race, colour, creed and religion.

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