They have no manuals, architectural drawings or modern machines, but a group of craftsmen make gigantic and identical chariots for Lord Jagannath and his two siblings in Puri every year, using only traditional knowledge. During the annual Rath Yatra festival in the pilgrim town, three chariots famed for their majestic structure and brilliant craftsmanship start from the 12th century Jagannath Temple and reach the Gundicha Temple.
“The chariots are constructed afresh every year. There is no deviation in their heights, widths and other key parameters for centuries. However, new features are added to the chariots to make them more colourful and attractive,” Asit Mohanty, a researcher in the Jagannath culture, told PTI.The carpenters engaged in chariot construction do not have any formal training. They only have knowledge and techniques that have been trickled down from their forefathers, Mohanty pointed out.
The chariots are constructed from over 4,000 pieces of wood by a few families who have the hereditary rights to make them.”I have been engaged in chariot making for about four decades. I was trained by my father Lingaraj Mohapatra and he received training from my grandfather Ananta Mohapatra. It is a tradition and we are privileged to get the opportunity to serve the Lord,” said Bijay Mohapatra, the chief ‘Biswakarma’ (carpenter) of Lord Jagannath’s ‘Nandighosh’ chariot having 16 wheels.
Only traditional equipment like chisel are used in the construction of the chariots, he said.“Our measurements are in the units of ‘haat’ (hand size) and ‘Anguli’ (finger size). There are no such units like feet or inches,” Mohapatra said. Asked how the “Haat” size remain the same over centuries as the lengths of the hands of different carpenters are not similar, Mohapatra said: “My father has given me a stick. This stick is considered as one ‘Haat’. It is equivalent to 20 inches. Twenty-five ‘Angulis’ make a ‘Haat’. We use these measures to calibrate the height and width of the chariots.” The carpenters start constructing chariots from the day of Akshaya Tritiya and take around 57 days to complete them.
The children of the carpenters accompany their fathers to assist them in making the chariots of Lord Jagannath, Devi Subhadra and Lord Balabhadra, so that the traditional knowledge is passed on to the future generation.“Though our children live outside Puri for a living, all of them come for two months and help their fathers in chariot making. It is considered to be a pious work for all of us,” he said.
Not only carpenters but also a group of artisans and blacksmiths are involved in the work for generations.While the ‘Bishwakarma Sevaks’ look after the main construction of chariots, ‘Pahi Maharanas’ fix the wheels of the chariots. There are others like ‘Ojha Maharanas’ (blacksmiths) who prepare nails, pins, clamps, and iron rings.This apart, various wooden sculptures such as ‘Ashta Manjari’ (eight women) are fitted on the chariots. Covers, canopies, and flags made of cloth are prepared by tailors.
“As many as 150 traditional craftsmen are engaged in chariot making for 57 days,” an official of the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration said.Another researcher Bhaskar Mishra said that Lord Jagannath’s chariot, covered by red and yellow cloths, is constructed with 832 pieces of wood while Lord Balabhdra’s chariot, ‘Tajadwaja’, having 14 wheels, is draped in red and green cloths.Similarly Devi Subhadra’s chariot ‘Darpadalan’ having 12 wheels is covered with red and black cloth.
The works department of the Odisha government gives fitness certificates to the chariots before they are pulled during the festival which attracts lakhs of people from across the country and abroad. A team of engineers from the works department and the railways are kept ready for any repair work in the event of a breakdown of the chariots. After the completion of the festival, the chariots are dismantled and major portions of them are auctioned. The remaining wood is sent to the temple kitchen.