The Baisi Pahacha [22 steps] which connects the Lion’s gate (Singhadwara Gumuta) to the 2nd gate (Baisi Pahacha Gumuta) inside the temple has long since been considered an important part of the Sri Jagannath temple.
Though the exact time of its construction is not mentioned anywhere in historical or puranic texts, legends say that it was built by a king named Bhanudev. After passing through the Lions’ gate of the Sri Jagannath temple, one has to go up these steps and then pass through a 2nd gateway out to a courtyard from where one can get into the main temple.
The length of each step is 70 feet, width 6 feet and height 6-7 inches. A stone called “Yamashila” is engraved into the 3rd step, which the devotees must step on while going up the steps [it frees from the reasons to be punished by Yama] but must not step on the stone on the way back, since it takes away the merits of Sri Jagannath darshan.
Numerous holy activities are performed on these steps. It is said that during the car festival several gods and goddesses, demi gods, other heavenly entities, the souls of the ancestors [near pitrusila], chitragupta and Yamadootas [near Yamasila] descend upon these steps to witness the Pahandi of Lord Jagannath. Annual pinda daan [a special ritual in which food is offered to the ancestors] is performed on both the sides of these 22 steps. The ancestral souls are believed to be satiated by it.
Madan Mohan, the representative idol of Lord Jagannath, offers pinda daan on these steps to His ancestors – Nanda and Yashoda, Devaki and Vasudeva, Koushalya and Dasaratha] on chaturdashi tithi of the dark fortnight in the month of margashira. He also offers pinda daan to king Indradyumna [who had the Sri Jagannath temple built] and queen Gundicha, since they were childless.
On the day of Deepavali, people burn kaunria kathi [a bundle of light sticks] and show it upwards to illuminate the path of the ancestral souls. This ritual is called Badabadia [elders] Daka [call].
Believers of Jainism hold these 22 steps to be a symbolic representation of their 22 Tirthankars. Some say that these steps represent the 22 kinds of weaknesses and faults in human beings. Therefore, it stands to reason why some noble men, saints and vaishnavas took around 22 years in order to conquer these weaknesses and fault to make themselves eligible for a darshan of Lord Jagannath. So the scholars have named it ‘the steps of self-control’.
The small rough stone [the ones used for building houses] on the seventh step is called Preta shila or pitrushila. People leave Anna Mahaprasad [holy rice of the temple that has been offered to Lord Jagannath] on it for feeding the ancestors. This is believed to liberate the souls of the deceased.
Whatever might be the thoughts or interpretations behind these 22 steps, it is the faith in God which eventually counts. A devotee gets a sense of fulfilment, if he trustingly puts on his forehead a speck of dust from the surface of the steps.