Where divinity dwells

Puri is an ancient city with timeless traditions and a vibrant living heritage. Subas Pani visits it in the early monsoon, when the famous Ratha Yatra festival is held

The sky was a flat monsoon grey and vestiges of last night’s rain were still visible in the fresh puddles in the lawn. From my hotel window, at early dawn, the holy city of Puri seemed mystical, the skyline a little blurry in the rain-triggered mist. In the distance, the temple of Lord Jagannath spiralled up towards the sky, as if guarding the city itself. Standing on a promontory, surrounded by lush green coconut palms, the Srimandira, the temple abode of Lord Jagannath, is one of the finest specimens of the Kalinga style of architecture. Soaring 200 feet from the ground, it dominates the skyline of the city.

This ancient town on the east coast of India has attracted the pious and the devout for millennia. The Mahabharata narrates how the Pandava brothers offered prayers on the sacred platform here. During the British era, it became a hub for travellers seeking leisure. And once the railway tracks were extended to Puri, tourists, both Indians and Europeans, started arriving here in hordes. The iconic beach-front BNR Hotel, run by the erstwhile Bengal Nagpur Railway company, was a favourite haunt of affluent visitors. Its sprawling campus, spacious rooms and wide balconies overlooking the sea were as legendary as its liveried bearers and gourmet spreads.

While Puri is an all-season destination, it attracts hundreds during the monsoon months, when the famous Ratha Yatra festival takes place. Besides 12 major annual festivals, more than a 100 others are celebrated in the temple town. But the most colourful, elaborate and attractive among them is the Ratha Yatra, the Festival of Chariots. This annual festival is celebrated on the second day of the bright fortnight of Asadha, the first month of the Indian monsoon. It is a fortnightlong event, during which the idols of Lord Jagannath and his siblings, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, are taken out of the temple sanctum and transported to the Gundicha temple, considered to be Lord Jagannath’s garden house and birthplace, in elaborately decorated chariots. Three huge wooden chariots are constructed every year for this ritual sojourn. Covered with colourful canopies, these are decorated with paintings, small statuettes, carvings, brass engravings and a profusion of garlands.

The deities are taken to the chariots in a regal procession with much pomp and joy. Servitors carry three circular ceremonial umbrellas, one for each sibling, and large fans with applique work fixed to long poles, while others fan the deities with similar small hand fans and fly whisks. As the deities are carried forward, the air reverberates with trumpet calls, the clashing of cymbals and the beating of drums. Dancers and acrobats perform, as loud chanting by a sea of devotees fills the air. Decorated with large heart-shaped floral crowns called tahia, the deities are taken to their charoits in a slow step-by-step movement known as pahandi. After they are placed in their respective chariots, the Gajapati king of Puri offers prayers, and sweeps and cleans each chariot in a ceremony known as chhera pahanra.

Finally, the chariots are pulled by devotees along Puri’s grand avenue or Bada Danda. The chariots cover a distance of three kilometres to the Gundicha temple, the journey taking almost half a day, as hundreds of thousands jostle for a
chance to pull the chariots and offer prayers. After a week, the deities ride their chariots back in a journey known as Bahuda Yatra. On the way back, Lord Jagannath is ceremonially offered poda pitha, a traditional dessert, by Goddess Ardhasini, popularly believed to be His mausi, or aunt.

On the day following the Bahuda Yatra, the deities give audience in the Suna Vesha or golden appearance on their chariots, a glittering spectacle witnessed by millions. The next day, in the adhara pana ritual, a sweet drink, or pana, is offered to them in large cylindrical pots. Finally, the deities return to the sanctum in the last ceremony known as Niladri Bije. On this day, Lord Jagannath ceremonially offers another traditional dessert, rasagola to Goddess Mahalaksmi, his celestial spouse. Rasagola, also known as rosogolla in neighbouring state West Bengal, a succulent sweet made of fresh cottage cheese, is one of Puri’s must-have delicacies. One should also try the temple food or mahaprasada, a true cornucopia of vegetarian delicacies from the state. Puri is also a hub of sweet treats such as gaja, khaja, poda pitha and malpua.

The monsoon months also mark the Jhulana Yatra festival, typically held in early August. The festival is celebrated in an elaborate way in the mathas or monasteries around the temple. During this festival, idols of Radha and Krishna are placed on a ceremonial swing. The large swings, decorated with colourful paper designs, white cork flowers and papier mâché masks, are gently pulled by devotees, celebrating the eternal love play of the divine couple. Many of these mathas also organise gotipua dance performances. In this dance form, which is a variant of Odissi, young boys – often dressed as girls – present bandha nrutya, displaying acrobatic postures following the beat of traditional Odissi songs.

The author is a scholar and researcher on Indian heritage with a focus on Odisha and Lord Jagannath and the views expressed in this article are his own

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