Jagannath Rath Yatra, Puri: Here’s everything you need to know about the famous chariot festival

July 11, 2021 10:41 AM

Preparations for the Ratha Yatra start early, with the making of new chariots every year, the construction of which starts from the auspicious day of the Akshay Tritiya.

The Jagannath Temple celebrates 148 festivals annually, which includes 12 yatras, 28 upayatras and 108 ritualistic festivals. (File image)

By Monidipa Dey,

“He is the eye of all eyes, the nose of all noses, the ear of all ears. – He is the Lord of ever changing cosmos. The Lord of the universe or jagat, is Jagannath.” ~ Prajnanananda Paramahansa.

The Jagannath Temple at Puri is among the most revered Vaishnava sites in India. While the sacred site maintains a long history of religious and cultural antiquity, the current temple was built by Anantavarman of the Chodaganga dynasty in the 12th century. The deities in the sanctum are associated with King Indrayumna of the Iksvaku dynasty, who was the nephew of Lord Ram.

The Jagannath Temple celebrates 148 festivals annually, which includes 12 yatras, 28 upayatras and 108 ritualistic festivals. Among these the Ratha Yatra festival of Jagannath deva celebrated in the month of Asadha (June-July) is the most well-known one, attracting innumerable devotees from across the world every year. This annual Ratha Yatra is a special occasion when the general public, especially the old and sick ones who cannot visit the shrine, get an opportunity to have a darshan of their revered deities. Besides that, as per local beliefs and scriptures (Harita Smurti. ch vi, sloka16), such open religious celebrations allay the fears of calamities and deaths.

Besides the various mentions of this ratha yatra in the Puranas, the earliest literary evidence in Odisha of the ratha yatra at Puri is from a 10th-11th century CE drama written during the rule of the Somavamshi dynasty, which talks of the yatra of lord Purusottama (Jagannatha) near the sea shore. The earliest iconographical evidence of this ratha yatra is from the Ganga dynasty era (13th-14th century CE), where a frieze from a temple at Dhanmandal in north Odisha depicts the three rathas, each drawn by many devotees. The frieze rathas show 12 wheels without spokes, with mandapas having the typical toranas, while the ratha roofs are pyramidal ending with kalasas (clearly Pidha type temples). The frieze also shows two chattras and two standards (trasa) that depict the royal status of the deities, which are still carried.

The Yatra Rituals

Currently the three rathas, which are designed as Rekha deul type temples, are distinguished by their size, colour, and number of wheels. Jagannatha’s ratha (known as Nandighosa) has 16 wheels and bears red and yellow clothing covers. The charioteer of this ratha is Daruka, while Sankhachuda serves as the ratha rope, and the four white wooden horses attached to this ratha are named as Sankha, Balahaka, Sweta and Haridaswa. Balabhadra’s ratha (known as Taladhvaja), carries red and green cloth covers, and is supported on 14 wheels. Vasuli is the ratha rope for Balabhadra, while Matali is his charioteer, and the four black wooden horses attached to this ratha are named as Tibra, Ghora, Dirghasrama and Swarnanabha. Subhadra’s ratha (known as Darpadalana or Deviratha) is covered with red and black clothes, has 12 wheels, and her ratha’s charioteer is Arjun. The four wooden horses attached to her ratha are red in colour and their names are Rochika, Mochika, Jita and Aparajita. Her ratha rope is formed by Swarnachuda.

Preparations for the Ratha Yatra start early, with the making of new chariots every year, the construction of which starts from the auspicious day of the Akshay Tritiya. The charioteers, horses, temple kalasas, and parsha devatas are however made only at the time of the Navakalebara (new deity making ritual). On Sri Gundicha day after the Ratha Pratistha puja is done by the Deul Purohit the procession starts from the Jagananth temple sanctum to the rathas, a ritual known as Pahandi. First Sudarsana is taken to the ratha of Subhadra, followed by Balabhadra in a procession. Next Subhadra is taken to her ratha, and finally at the end Jagannath is taken to his ratha by the Daitapatis and other sevakas. Then Madanmohan is carried to the rathas by the Mahajan Sevakas, and after that Gajapati Maharaja (king of Puri) performs the Chhera Pahamra. In this ritual the king is attired like that of a sweeper and he performs the duty of sweeping (chhera) and cleaning (pahamra) all around the rathas, using a gold handled broom while sprinkling sandalwood powder and water. This association of the Odishan kings with the Jagannath deva became close-knit after king Anangabhima III made Sri Jagannatha as the state deity of Odisha in 1230 CE, and the kings became representative rulers (mudarasta) under the supreme over-lordship of the deity. This grand Chhera Pahamra ceremony still remains the most important “royal duty” and is known as the Gajapati Maharaja Seva, making the “Maharaja” of Puri an integral part of the festival even now, despite monarchy now long gone redundant. Chhera Pahamra is held twice, on start of the Ratha Yatra, and again on the last day of the yatra, when the deities are brought back to the Jagannath Mandir. After Chhera Pahamra the rathas start their journey and are pulled by numerous devotees to the Gundicha Temple, which is located at around 3 km away, and the deities stay in this temple for nine days. On the last day the deities are taken back in their respective rathas to Jagannath Mandir in bahuda Jatra (ulta ratha yatra). On the way back, the three chariots stop at the Mausi Maa Temple where they are offered Poda Pitha as bhog.

Ratha Yatra as Life’s long journey to Moksha

Interestingly this Ratha Yatra is also seen as the journey of life undertaken to achieve Moksha. In the Katha Upanishad (1:3:3:4) ratha is a symbolical representation of a body, and the yatra is the path undertaken in every birth. The body (shareera) undertakes the yatra (journey) in its every birth to reach the final destination (moksha); and the yatra is known as Rath Yatra.

atmanam rathinam viddhi sariram rathameva tu

buddhim tu sarathim viddhi manh pragrahameva cha

indrayani hayarmahur visayam stenu gocharan

atmendriaya monoyuktam bhoktetyahur manasinah.

(Translation: Body is the chariot, soul is the charioteer. Senses are horses. Mind is the bridle. All the sensory objects constitute the root for the horses. The co-ordination among the soul, senses and mind will finally bring Moksha).

(The author is a well-known travel, heritage and history writer. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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