The world famous Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath was held in the pilgrim town of Odisha today with religious fervour and enthusiasm amid tight security.
Undeterred by rains, lakhs of devotees from across the country and abroad descended on the seaside town to witness the nine-day journey of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra to the Gundicha Temple and back to their abode.
Devotees from all walks of life made a beeline to the seaside town to have a glimpse of the presiding deities of the 12th century shrine of Lord Jagannath as the trinity mingled with the sea of humanity during the annual festival of chariots.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Odisha Chief minister Naveen Patnaik, BJP president Amit Shah, Union Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan and other dignitaries greeted the people on Lord Jagannath's annual car festival.
Enthusiasm and excitement ran high among devotees as the deities remained indoors since 'Snana Purnima' on June 9. 'Naba Jaubana Darshan' of the deities was performed yesterday as they remained confined to "Anasara Pindi" (recovery chamber) after the grand bath on 'Snana Purnima'.
Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) has put a ban on climbing the chariots and touching deities. "Climbing the chariots and touching the deities during the Rath Yatra is not permissible as per the order of the Orissa High Court," said SJTA Chief Administrator P K Jena.
With millions thronging the holy town, police made elaborate security arrangements by deploying 127 platoons of force (one platoon has around 30 personnel) besides putting air and coast surveillance in place.
A multi-layer security net was built to ensure smooth conduct of the festival while CCTVs were installed at various locations, according to Director General of Police (DGP), K B Singh.
Security was tightened outside the temple, around the three chariots and the Grand road, sea beach, railway station and the bus stand, he said, adding that patrolling was strengthened.
"We are well prepared to face any situation. Steps have also been taken to avoid any stampede-like situation," said a police official.
Besides three companies of the newly raised Odisha Swift Action Force (OSAF), personnel of Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS), Rapid Action Force (RAF) and sharp shooters were deployed at vital points while the Coast Guard kept a vigil on the sea.
Devotees poured into the seaside town to watch the grand ceremony and pull the three majestic and colourful chariots on the 'bada danda', the grand avenue.
Before the presiding deities - Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and their sister Devi Subhadra - set out from the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, a number of special rituals like 'Mangla Arati' and 'Mailam' were held.
Descending from the 'Ratna Sinhasana', the bejewelled throne, the three deities were taken out of the temple down the 22 steps known as "Baisi Pahacha" through the Lion's gate in an elaborate royal ritual called "Pahandi" as devotees and sevayats jostled to have a glimpse and touch them.
In a rhythmic style, the deities moved forward step by step to the accompaniment of beating of 'ghantas' and 'kahalis' and blowing of konch shells.
The trinity proceeded majestically in rhythmic movement in their journey to the world outside during 'Pahandi'.
At first Sudarshana, the celestial wheel of Krishna Vishnu, was taken out and placed in the chariot of Devi Subhadra followed by Lord Balabhadra and finally Lord Jagannath.
Ready to carry the deities for their annual nine-day sojourn to the Gundicha temple, about two km away, the three majestic wooden chariots waited outside draped in layers of red, black, green and yellow cloth.
The 45-feet high 'Nandighosh,' the chariot of Lord Jagannath stood with 16 huge wooden wheels, while the 44-feet high 'Taladhawaja' with 14 wheels is for Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra's 'Darpadalan' was 43-feet high with 12 wheels.
The Shankaracharya of Puri Govardhana peeth Swami Nischalananda Saraswati had a darshan of the deities on the chariots along with his disciples.
Thereafter, the Gajapati King of Puri Divyasingh Dev proceeded to the chariots to perform the 'Chhera Panhara' ritual by sweeping the platform with golden broom.
The proceedings were watched by millions including a host of VVIPs and dignitaries, while buildings on both sides of the grand avenue were occupied by thousands of people vying for a proper view.
The administration made arrangements for convenience of pilgrims. Parking lots have been built for vehicles. Arrangements were also made for facilities like health service, drinking water and sanitation.
The visitors were provided with guidance and assistance by police and other personnel deployed on the occasion.
Earlier, visitors were also given information about traffic management through social media and Puri police administration website, a police officer said.
East Coast Railway (ECoR) is running special trains to clear the extra rush of passengers for the car festival.
A large number of cameras were installed across the city with an integrated surveillance control room near the Jagannath Temple as a special step.