Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra

Festival of Orissa

People in other parts of India, who might not be too familiar with Orissa, instantly have a reference point at the mention of "Jagannath – Puri". Famed as the abode of Lord Jagannath, the state of Orissa derives its identity from this presiding deity. Puri is one of the major pilgrimage centres of India, but is best known for the yearly chariot festival, popularly known as the Rath Yatra. It would, perhaps, not be wrong to call this the state festival because the nine-day festivities entail massive preparations with complex rituals and traditional ceremonies that have been strictly followed and practiced for centuries.

In the temple town of Puri, most objects relating to the deity are described with the adage 'bada', meaning big in Oriya. The Jagannath temple is locally referred to as 'bada deula' or big temple, the road in front of the temple, christened Grand Road, is called 'bada danda' and the Lord himself is referred to as 'Bada Thakura' or the big God. So, then, how can the chariot festival, which is the most important cultural occasion not only for Puri town but the entire state, be on a small scale? It is gigantic.

No compromises are made as far as the Lord and his rituals are concerned. Come what may, everything has to be done in strict adherence to the temple chronicle and almanac.

Festivities and rituals constitute an integral part of the Jagannath temple's existence and it is said that each day is a celebration in Jagannath 'dham'. Like the innumerable daily rituals that are observed throughout the year, the Rath Yatra celebrations are very complex and hence require the services of various kinds of servitors, several categories of priests, a number of religious institutions, many government departments and the temple administration.

Hundreds of traditional chariot builders such as carpenters and ironsmiths, and other skilled craftsmen who are associated with the temple's activities, offer their skills for minimal payment, thus rendering 'seva' to the Lord. Needless to say, most activities are carried out after receiving the sacred 'agyanmala' or divine command from the deities. Therefore, the behind-the-scenes preparations for the Rath Yatra are a mammoth exercise in event management with the prevailing belief that the Lord himself guides the entire programme.

Opulence has always marked the chariot festival and hence, as D-day approaches, the build-up acquires greater momentum, and all activities have a single focus. As for the cost, even way back in the 1800s, the expenses were a few thousand rupees. According to an 1805 report by Charles Grome, the first Collector of Puri, the expense of making the chariots was pegged at INR 6,822. Today, it has crossed over one-and-a-half crore rupees. Besides, there are many items that are received as offerings. The overwhelming frenzy that marks the meeting between the Lord and his devotees is the culmination of this months-long exercise. Like fans going berserk with the arrival of their favourite pop-star or sport icon onstage, millions of people thronging Grand Road dance in ecstasy upon sighting Lord Jagannath when He emerges from the temple doors to reach the chariot for the unique journey.

Labour Of Love

Preparations for the Rath Yatra begin almost six months in advance, when the logs for making the chariots are sourced from forests in Orissa. New chariots are built every year and the forest department supplies the logs for free. There have been many debates about conserving forests and reusing the chariots, but the religious dictates from the high priests have prevailed over practical suggestions. As many as a thousand logs are used, and about 125 temple carpenters, including assistants, work for nearly two months to build the chariots in accordance with the norms prescribed in the 'madala panji' or temple chronicle. Each chariot has 34 components such as subsidiary deities, door-keepers, the charioteer, horses and the presiding deity of the banner crest.

The ceremonial purification rituals of the logs take place in early spring—on Basant Panchami. The actual construction work commences on the auspicious day of Akshaya Tritiya, at the place designated as Rath Khala (workshop) on the Grand Road in front of the temple. Iron nails, clamps, brackets and other such materials are indigenously produced by local ironsmiths. The bright coloured cloth, again as per specifications, that cover the wooden frames is supplied by the Orissa Textile Mills and more than a thousand meters are used. The long, sturdy ropes used for pulling the chariots are provided by the Kerala Coir Board and the diameter and length are again specific.

Interestingly, every minute detail such as the colour combination of draping for each chariot, the height and number of wheels, the flags, the guards, the subsidiary deities, the decorations and figurines and son are all carefully executed. The chariot builders follow certain restrictions such as abstaining from non-vegetarian food while at work.

Mutts Play A Part

Hundreds of 'mutts' or monasteries dot the temple town with many of them having age-old links with the Jagannath temple. Set-up by religious sub-sects, these institutions offer several kinds of services or 'seva' to the temple throughout the year. Some of the well-known 'mutts' are the Raghav Das Mutt, Gangamata Mutt, Emar Mutt, Bada Odiya Mutt, Radhakant Mutt and, of course, the Govardhan Mutt which is the seat of the Shankaracharya. Incidentally, after the deities are installed on the chariots for the festival, the Shankaracharya is one of the first persons to worship the deities.

During the Rath Yatra, their activities also get enhanced as the 'mutts' are entrusted with providing items such as as flowers, garlands, 'tulsi' leaves, sandalwood paste, and other such items used during the festival. The resplendent headgear that appears like a huge crown of flowers (known as 'tahiya') and adorns the deities every time they step out of the sanctum sanctorum is provided by the Raghav Das Mutt. Made of slender bamboo sticks, fresh flowers, 'tulsi' leaves and other decorations, 'tahiyas' require intricate craftsmanship. The Bada Odiya Mutt provides medicated oil ('phuluri tel') which is used for the secret rituals of the deities when they are said to be ailing. The Emar Mutt provides canopies and costumes while the Gangamata Mutt offers 'prasad'.

There is an interesting story related to offerings. In what is said to be an age-old tradition, the kings of Nepal used to provide 'Kasturi' (musk) for certain rituals, collected from musk deer in the Himalayan kingdom. In exchange, they enjoy the special privilege of personally worshipping the three deities from close quarters, a privilege otherwise enjoyed only by the king of Puri.

Sevayats Serve Endlessly

If one were to observe the daily rituals of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balbhadra and Devi Subhadra, they seem to lead a highly fascinating and grand lifestyle—no less than the king of the kings. Thousands of servitors render a multitude of services throughout the year. What makes it unique is the fact that the rituals for the deities are conducted as if for humans. The change in seasons, boat rides and outings, traditional festivals, ceremonial baths, sickness and well-being, food and medicines, everything seems to find a place in the temple rituals. And hence there are several types of servitors—as of today there are 119 categories and according to the Record of Rights each group is entrusted with specific tasks for the smooth conduct of these rituals.

It might seem strange to many people to learn that all servitors are not high-caste Brahmins, but in fact many belong to indigenous tribal communities. This is a symbolic link with the original tribal worshippers of Jagannath. For instance, when the Lords are said to be sick following the ritual bath on Snana Purnima, and are kept away from public view, it is only a particular class of servitors called Daitapatis who have access to the deities to conduct secret rituals to nurse them back to good health. During this two-week period, painted images of the deities ('patachitras') are worshipped instead. Again, these paintings are painted anew every year by certain designated artist families--- hereditary 'chitrakars'--- who are linked to the temple.

There are certain servitors who carry the images of the deities, others who dress them, yet others who offer incense, flowers and food, and groups of musicians who provide the sound and fury. Another category of 'sevayats' called 'dahukas' sit on the chariots during the festival, and are said to sing bawdy songs and urge the chariots to move. The only female 'sevayats' are the 'devadasis' (the tradition is now almost defunct) who sing for the deities while they are in the temple. However, after the conclusion of the chariot festival, when the deities return to the temple ('Niladri Bijay'), the 'devadasis' participate in what is said to be a lively repartee between Jagannath and his consort. Lakshmi, the female voice being rendered by a 'devadasi'. According to mythological belief, goddess Lakshmi is angry with Jagannath for not taking her on the trip and hence refuses him entry into the temple. Initially, she feigns anger but is soon won over. The king of Puri is believed to be the first servitor of Jagannath and, needless to say, he has many duties towards the Lords and play a unique role during the chariot festival. It is only after he has symbolically swept the chariots with a golden broom (known as 'cheera panhara') and cleansed the chariots with holy water, and paid obeisance to the deities that the festival can commence.

Rituals Of Antiquity

Among the many fascinating rituals is the stopping of Jagannath's chariot at his aunt's house during the return journey. Mid-way between the Jagannath temple and the Gundicha temple is a small, inconspicuous temple of Goddess Ardhansani, popularly known as the Mausima temple. Here, an aunt's affection is displayed in the symbolic offering of 'padapitha' ( a kind of sweet rice cake, said to be a favourite of Jagannath) to the deity.

Another halt for Nandighosh--- the chariot of Jagannath--- on the return journey is at the shrine of Salebega, an ardent devotee of Jagannath who has composed numerous poems in praise of the deity. According to legends, Salebega, being a Muslim, could not enter the temple and always looked forward to the Rath Yatra in order to see Jagannath. It so happened that once Salebega was on a pilgrimage and was delayed. He prayed fervently and, to the amazement of all, Jagannath's chariot stopped before Salebega's 'ashrama' and all attempts to move it proved futile. It was only after Salebega came and pulled the chariot that it moved. Thereafter, it has become customary for the chariot to halt at the saint's shrine during the return journey.

On the 5th day of Rath Yatra, when the deities are residing in the Gundicha temple, Herra Panchami is observed. A forlorn Mahalakshmi, weary of the absence of her Lord, visits the Gundicha temple, only to have the doors shut on her. Angry and disconsolate, she returns and on the way back in a fit of rage breaks a part of Nandighosh. These enactments are carried out by priests with a representative deity. Delicious food is an integral part of the Jagannath culture as no other god is served such a mindboggling variety of food. It is a well known fact that the temple kitchen can feed thousands. On the chariots, the deities are offered dry food, sweetmeats and savouries, and fruit. However, when in the temple, they are offered cooked food, said to be prepared by Goddess Mahalakshmi. On the Rath Yatra days, when the deities begin their journey, a special 'prasad of khichadi' (rice and pulses) is offered to the deities so that they leave home with a full stomach for the trip. And, like ordinary mortals, their clothes and other necessities are packed in big chests and placed in the chariotto be carried to the Ghundicha temple. On the day after the return journey, huge containers of refreshing drinks known as 'adharpana' are placed as offerings before the deities to provide relief after the strenuous journey. It is well known that the chariots have names--- Taladhwaja, Darpadalana and Nandighosh (the vehicles of Lord Balbhadra, Devi Subhadra and Lord Jagannath, respectively). The horses, charioteers and even ropes also have specific names, and each single object is highly venerated, including the flags atop the chariots. Not only the deities, the chariots too are worshipped and when moved, a strict code of protocol and rituals is observed. Many devotees try to snatch a bit of the fibre from the thick chariot ropes to keep as a token for good luck.

Foot Soldiers & Fairs

Apart from the servitors assigned specific tasks relating to the preparations for the Rath Yatra, there are hundreds of others--- devotees who have generally taken a vow ('manasika')--- who come forwards voluntarily to assist in the work. They come to Puri at their own expense and help in various activities, either during preparations or during the actual nine-day celebrations. 'Ghatua sevaks' are the people who play the brass gongs during the Rath Yatra. While some are attached to the temple, voluntary groups also join the festival. Drums and cymbals are the other instruments that are generally heard along with 'sankirtan' groups from various religious sects that throng Grand Road during the festival. While some groups precede the 'pahandi' (the ceremonial accession of the deities from the temple to the chariots, when they are moved in rhythmic swaying motion), others lead the chariots.

There is a special group of people called 'kala behias', said to be professional chariot-pullers, that is assigned different chariots. However, to control the crowds and avert mishaps, police personnel also form a substantial part of the chariot-pullers. Besides, atop each chariot, there is a sort of security guard who waves a red flag when the brakes of the vehicle need to be engaged to stop it. Over the years, new attractions such as fairs, exhibitions and similar marketing exercises have been added to the traditional festivities. Several state government departments put up handlooms and handicrafts exhibitions and so do private organizations that make full use of the large number of people who throng the town at the time. Invaluable service is also provided by social and charitable organizations that lend a helping hand in providing amenities to pilgrims. All in all, it is the devotees' strenuous efforts along with government support and divine intervention perhaps that make this a truly unique festival.



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