Festivals of India: Jagannath Rath Yatra

Yesterday, June 23, was the most important festival in the state of Odisha. It was the chariot festival or the rath yatra of its most famous dieties, the Jagannath of Puri.

The term Rath Yatra particularly refers to the annual Rathajatra in Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal and other East Indian states, particularly the chariot festival fof Puri that involves a public procession with a chariot with deities Jagannath, an avatar of Lord Vishhnu, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra, along with his weapon, the Sudarshana Chakra on a ratha, a wooden deula-shaped chariot. The rath yatra attracts over a million Hindu pilgrims who join the procession each year.

According to Knut Jacobsen, a Rathayatra has religious origins and meaning, but the events have a major community heritage, social sharing and cultural significance to the organisers and participants. Ratha Yatra processions have been historically common in Vishnu-related traditions in Hinduism across India, as well as in Shiva-related traditions, and amongst the Thirtankars in Jainism and the saints and goddesses in Nepal plus the tribal folk religions found in the eastern states of India.

Derived from two Sanskrit words, Ratha meaning chariot or carriage and yatra which means a journey or pilgrimage, the word Ratha Yatra means a pilgrimage which the deity will undertake in a chariot, accompanied by the public. The term appears in the medieval texts of India as the Puranas, which mention the Rathayatra of Surya or the Sun god, of Devi or the Mother Goddess, and of Vishnu. These chariot journeys have elaborate celebrations where the individuals or the deities come out of a temple accompanied by the public journeying with them through the Kshetra which refers to the region, city or even the local streets to another temple or to the river or the sea. Sometimes the festivities include returning to the sacrosanctum of the temple.

The Jagannath Ratha Yatra also called the Car or Chariot Festival is the oldest Ratha Yatra descriptions can be found in Brahma Purana, Padma Purana, Skanda Purana and Kapila Samhita. This annual festival is celebrated on Ashadha Shukla Paksha Dwitiya or the second day in bright fortnight of Ashadha month. This year it was on 23 June 2020. The festival commemorates Lord Jagannath’s annual visit to the Gundicha Temple via the Mausi Maa or the maternal aunt’s Temple near Saradha Bali in Puri.

As part of the Ratha Yatra, the deities Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and younger sister Devi Subhadra, along with the Sudarshan Chakra, are taken out in a procession out of the main shrine of Jagannath Temple and placed in the Ratha or Chariot which are ready in front of the Temple in a process called ‘Pahandi’. The procession starts with ‘Madan Mohan’ then ‘Sudarshana’ Balabhadra, Subhadra, and Jagannath Deva.

After that, Gajapati Maharaja, the king of Puri, who is also known as the first servitor of the Lords, does the ‘Chhera Pahanra’ ritual or the holy cleaning of the chariots in which the king wears the outfit of a sweeper and sweeps all around the deities and the chariots. The Gajapati King cleanses the road before the chariots with a gold-handled broom and sprinkles sandalwood water and powder with utmost devotion. This ritual signified that under the lordship of Jagannath, there is no distinction between the powerful sovereign Gajapati King and the most humble devotee. After this ritual, finally the devotees pull the chariots up to the Gundicha Temple, which is also known as the birthplace of the Lords.

Once the deities reach the Gundicha temple, in the onward car festival, they are taken in the Pahandi and installed on the holy platform, called the Ratna Simhasan. The Lords remain at the Gundicha Temple for nine days. After that, the process of taking back the deities to the Main temple is observed. The return journey or return car festival of Puri Jagannath Ratha Jatra is known as Bahuda Yatra or Punar Yatra.

Three richly decorated chariots, resembling temple structures, are pulled through the streets of Puri called Badadanda. This commemorates the annual journey of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, and their sister Devi Subhadra to their aunt’s temple, the Gundicha Temple which is situated at a distance of over 3 km from the main temple. The chariots are richly decorated with painted flower petals and other designs on the wheels, the wood-carved charioteer and horses, and the inverted lotuses on the wall behind the throne by local artists and painters. The huge chariots of Jagannath pulled during Rath Jatra is the etymological origin of the English word Juggernaut. The Ratha-Jatra is also termed as the Shri Gundicha jatra.This is the only time when devotees who are not allowed in the temple premises, such as non-Hindus and foreigners, get a glimpse of the deities.

The three chariots of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannatha are newly constructed every year with wood of specified trees. They are customarily brought from the ex-princely state of Dasapalla by a specialist team of carpenters who have hereditary rights and privileges for the same. The logs are traditionally set afloat as rafts in the river Mahanadi. These are collected near Puri and then transported by road. The three chariots are decorated as per the unique scheme prescribed and followed for centuries. Covered with bright canopies made of stripes of red cloth and combined with those of black, yellow and green colours, the huge chariots are lined across the wide avenue in front of the majestic temple close to its eastern entrance, which is also known as the Sinhadwara or the Lion’s Gate.

Lord Jagannatha’s chariot is called Nandighosa. It is forty-five feet high and forty-five feet square at the wheel level. It has sixteen wheels, each of seven-foot diameter, and is decked with a cover made of red and yellow cloth. Lord Jagannatha is identified with Krishna, who is also known as Pitambara, the one attired in golden yellow robes and hence the distinguishing yellow stripes on the canopy of this chariot. The chariot of Lord Balarama, called the Taladhwaja, is the one with the Palm Tree on its flag. It has fourteen wheels, each of seven-foot diameter and is covered with red and green cloth. Its height is forty-four feet. The chariot of Subhadra, known as Dwarpadalana, literally “trampler of pride,” is forty-three feet high with twelve wheels, each of seven-foot diameter. This chariot is decked with a covering of red and black cloth – black being traditionally associated with Shakti and the Mother Goddess.

Around each of the chariots are nine Parsva devatas, painted wooden images representing different deities on the chariots’ sides. Each of the chariots is attached to four horses. These are of different colours – dark ones for Balarama, white ones for Jagannatha, and red ones for Subhadra. Each chariot has a charioteer called Sarathi. The three charioteers attached to the chariots of Jagannatha, Balarama and Subhadra respectively are Daruka, Matali and Arjuna.

During the annual event, devotees from all over the world throng to Puri with an earnest desire to help pulling the Lords’ chariots. They consider this as an auspicious act. The huge processions accompanying the chariots play devotional songs with drums, sounding plates of bell metal, cymbals, etc. The Ratha carts themselves are approximately 45 feet high and 35 feet square and it takes about 2 months to construct the chariots which are pulled by the thousands of pilgrims who turn up for the event; the chariots are built anew each year only from the Neem tree and the wood of no other tree is used.

There are 6 events which are considered as the key activities of this annual spectacular event:

  1. The ‘Snana Yatra’ is the one where the Deities take bath and then fall sick for almost 2 weeks. They are thus treated with ayurvedic medicines and a set of traditional practices.
  2. On ‘Sri Gundicha’, the Deities are taken in the onward car festival from the main shrine to the Gundicha Temple.
  3. On the Bahuda Yatra, the return car festival, the Lords are brought back to the main Temple.
  4. The Suna Besha or Golden Attire is the event when the Deities wear golden ornaments and give darshan from the chariots, to the devotees.
  5. The ‘Adhara Pana’ is an important event during Ratha Yatra. On this day sweet drink is offered to the invisible spirits and souls, who would have visited the celestial event of the Lords, as believed by the Hindu tradition.
  6. And finally the Deities are taken back inside the main shrine i.e. the Jagannath Temple and installed on the Ratna Simhasan, on the last day of the Ratha Yatra activity which is called as ‘Niladri Bije’.

This year, because of the coronavirus panademic and the Covid-19 situation in India and especially in the state of Odisha, with many states under lockdown, uncertainty looms large over the conduct of the annual Rath Yatra for the first time in 284 years. The festival even took place during the great famine of 1766 which was believed to have killed millions and during the cholera epidemic. The festival which took place in Puri this year, was just a token festival which was shorn of all the guander and pomp and pageantry it usually has. The rituals leading to the festival which usually takes place outside took place inside the temple and the festival was short of its usual pomp and splendor without devotes in a historic first, a day after the Supreme Court of India allowed the state to hold the seven-day chariot festival in a restricted fashion amid the coronavirus.

I hope in the near future, when things are more normal, I can make it to Puri to witness this grand spectacle. If you want to read more about the state of Odisha, which I have written in detail, please read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

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