With thousands in attendance, the two-week-long Ratha Yatra festival in Puri is one of the most spectacular in the world, says Subas Pani
Ratha Yatra, the festival of chariots of Lord Jagannatha, is celebrated annually in Puri, Odisha, in the month of Asadha (June–July). In this grand ceremony, the presiding deities of the main temple (Sri Mandira) – Lord Jagannatha, along with his siblings Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, and his celestial wheel Sudarshana – come out from the temple for an annual sojourn to their birthplace. The deities ride colourfully decorated chariots drawn by devotees on the Bada Danda, the wide avenue of the temple town, and travel to the Gundicha temple two-and-a-half miles to the northeast.
Full of colour, the festival is of huge proportions. It is also a living embodiment of the synthesis of the tribal, the folk, the autochthonous, the classical, and the elaborately formal and sophisticated elements of Indian civilisation. It is also a veritable showcase of the rich and varied performing arts of Odisha, its unique traditions of crafts, textiles, music, dance, myths and legends, and also of its eventful history. It straddles an entire range of living and vibrant traditions of a millennium, a microcosmic representation of the ancient civilisation and the grand intangible heritage of India.
Every year, the three chariots are constructed anew and decorated by a large number of carpenters, ironsmiths, tailors, sculptors, painters and skilled labourers. The chariots of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, called Nandighosa, Taladhvaja and Devadalana, have 16, 14 and 12 wheels respectively, and are over 40 ft tall. Their decorations include several painted wood carvings, including nine Parsva Devatas and a sarathi or charioteer each, applique patterns, flat metal shapes and a profusion of garlands. The chariots have canopies of different coloured cloth. Resplendently decorated, they stand on the Bada Danda in front of the eastern entrance of the Sri Mandira, ready for their divine riders.
The main festival of Ratha Yatra is held on Asadha shukla dvitiya, the second day in the bright fortnight of the first monsoon month. The ceremonial journey takes place in three phases. In the first phase, called pahandi, the deities come out of the temple sanctum in a step-by-step movement. The two brothers, Lord Jagannatha and Lord Balabhadra, are fitted with large, elaborate floral tiaras called tahia fixed to a heartshaped bamboo frame and are carried forward in slow, swaying movements, giving the illusion of huge elephants gracefully and gently moving forward. Similar but smaller floral decorations are attached to the idols of Goddess Subhadra, and Sudarshana. The electric atmosphere of pahandi is ushered in by the blowing of kahali, or the trumpet, the ringing of bells, the clanging of cymbals and the beating of drums like the mardala in rhythmic and cyclical movements, gradually rising in tempo to a crescendo and then slowing, almost like ocean waves.
After the deities complete their pahandi and take their seats in their chariots, the Gajapati king of Puri sweeps the floor of each chariot with a golden broom and sprinkles flowers and fragrant water on the surface. Known as chhera pahanra, the ritual goes back several centuries and is a demonstration of the surrender of the temporal authority to the divine.
The final phase of the Ratha Yatra is the pulling of the chariots after the wooden horses are tethered and ropes are tied to each. The chariot of Lord Balabhadra is pulled first, then of Goddess Subhadra and last, of Lord Jagannatha. A sea of humanity fills every inch of the grand avenue of Puri and the crowd surges towards the extended ropes to pull or even get a mere touch of the same.
The destination of the chariots is the Gundicha temple, considered the place of birth of the deities and their garden house. The open ground in front of the Gundicha temple is known as Saradha Bali, literally the sands of love and faith. The deities are carried into the Gundicha temple the next evening. After a stay of a week, they ride their chariots back to the Sri Mandira in the Bahuda Yatra. On the way back, Lord Jagannatha stops for a while at the Ardhasini temple and is fed poda pitha, a traditional cake made of rice, Both images are from the author’s book Ratha Yatra, the Chariot Festival of Sri Jagannatha in Puri (Publisher: Niyogi Books) lentils, jaggery and coconut by his mausima or aunt. On the day following the return journey, the deities don the suna besa (golden attire) on the chariot, with hands, arms and crown made of solid gold. Almost a million devotees and tourists flock for a glimpse of the deities’ dazzling golden appearance. The next day, the deities are offered sweet drinks in huge cylindrical earthen pots reaching up to their lips in a ritual known as adhara pana. The following evening, the deities are offered rasagolla, balls of fresh cottage cheese soaked in sugar syrup. Then, in a grand ceremony, called niladri bije, they return to the Ratna Simhasana (bejewelled throne) in the temple sanctum, ending the two-week-long spectacular festival.
The author is a scholar and researcher on Indian heritage with a focus on Odisha, Lord Jagannatha and Geetagovinda, and the views expressed in this article are his own