Orissa is better known as the land of Lord Jagannath. Orissa is the state where the culture exhibits a unique experiment in religion. The culture of Orissa means the culture of Jagannath, and the culture of Jagannath means the synthesis of varied religions.
The origin of the sacred shrine of Jagannath goes back to the pre-Vedic period and Purusottam Kshetra, the sacred abode of Sri Jagannath, has been described in various Sanskrit works, such as the 'Padma Parana', 'Narada Purana', 'Matsya Parana', etc.
The Purusottam Kshetra-Mahatmyam of the Skanda Purana depicts the glory of the Purusottam dham and its presiding deities--Jagannath (Purusottam) Balabhadra and Subhadra. The primitive deity of Lord Jagannath was worshipped for years as Nilamadhab by the Savaras in the dense forest. Viswavasu was their chieftain. Lalita was his only daughter and Vidyapati was the priest of King Indradyumna of Malab.
Taking these characters there is a beautiful narration in Skanda Purana. According to this legend, Indradyumna is the builder of the first temple of Jagannath. After Savaras, Lord Jagannath was gradually embraced by all the religious sects like Jains, Buddhists, Saivas, Saktas, Vaisnavas, Ganapatyas, Sauras, Nathas, etc.
Consequently, the cult of Jagannath came to be regarded as the religion of masses 'Gana Dharma'. That means Jagannath cult is a unique cult. Indian culture has reached its culmination in the unique culture of Lord Jagannath. It is more than a cult -- an all-embracing synthesis of cults. It has combined diverse faiths, cultures, creeds and ideologies.
Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Orissa, is the Lord of Universe. The family God of most households in Orissa is Lord Jagannath, who not only holds a unique place in the history of the land, but in the lives and customs of its people. He is also known as Jagabandhu. He is the friend, philosopher, guide and the anchor of the purest thoughts of the people of the entire Universe.
He is the Great Initial. He is Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Ganesh, Kali, Bhairab, Buddha, Jin and what not. He is the supreme creative artist who has created Himself and is also the source of all art. As 'Sakti', He is the source of all creative energy.
Considering Jagannath as the cult of the masses, many hypotheses and theories have been proposed, predicted and propounded by different scholars in different times to trace out the origin of Purusottam Jagannath.
Still, no satisfactory and commonly acceptable solution has been derived as yet, which would solve the problems arising out of the mystery wrapped round the very primitivity of the cult of Jagannath. Efforts have been continuing in this direction. Scholars devoted to this cult are searching hard to unveil the mystery behind the origin of Lord Jagannath.
The shrine of Jagannath became most famous from the beginning of the Ganga rule in Orissa, in the early part of the twelfth century A.D.