Carrying the huge, heavy idol of Lord Jagannatha up the make-shift ramp to his chariot is quite an ordeal, as hundreds of devotees lunge at him and his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra, in an attempt to touch the divine idol or manage to get a floral souvenir from his crown. I stood watching as this chaotic scene was worsened by the fact that the Lord had got stuck at an odd angle half way up the ramp. However, on a day like this, with the surge of humanity all around, there was no time for divine dignity. It was more important to seat him in the chariot and get him ready for other rituals. The servitors were thus in no mood to relent. They pushed and pulled mercilessly at the idol as niceties were set aside and brute force was applied. Then suddenly, amid loud cheers of ‘Jai Jagannath,’ the idol came unstuck and went up the ramp smoothly. That was quite a sight to begin my sojourn at Puri, for the annual Ratha Yatra festival.
There are two ways to see the festival. You could play it safe and buy a ticket for a seat in the galleries that are constructed near the gate of the imposing 12th century Jagannatha Temple, the starting point of the chariots’ journey. Or simply lose yourself in the sea of people travelling along the Bada Danda or the Grand Road, alongside the slow progress of the three chariots as they trundle with their divine passengers to their aunt’s house at the Gundicha Temple. I chose the latter.
Around me, the crowd swirled like a river in space. Pilgrims surged ahead, their hands thrown to the sky and chanting the Lord’s name, while members of the local Vaishnava mutts sang kirtans and costumed Odissi dancers and acrobats gave impromptu performances. Photographers dodged through the crowd, rushing everywhere for the perfect shot. Suddenly, there was a shout and the crowd parted just a wee bit to allow civic volunteers to carry away an old lady who had fainted. The humidity was intense and fire brigade vans sprayed us with jets of cold water every now and then. However, despite the massive crowd, it was a well-mannered one. No one was jostling, nor were people trying to push past.
The concept of the Ratha Yatra is quite unique. The three idols of Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra are attended to by Brahmin priests for the time that they reside in the temple. But once they leave for the 10-day-long Ratha Yatra festival, the rituals are performed by a caste of non-Brahmin servitors called Dalbitapatis, who claim to be descendants of a Sabara tribal king. While the idols cannot be touched when they are inside the temple, during the Yatra, there is no such restriction. Even though Jagannatha is seen as the Lord of the Universe, other than legendary sources, there is no way of knowing why the idols are bereft of limbs. Some say this is a remnant of an old tribal worship where idols would be represented by wooden shafts hewn from trees. Although nobody knows for sure when and how the chariot festival began, some claim that the idea was borrowed from Buddhism, which once flourished in the region. Apparently, Buddhists used to hold a chariot festival where the Buddha’s tooth relic would be carried in a casket for all to pay their homage.
There are innumerable rituals associated with the Yatra, but the one that draws the most attention is the Chhera Pahanra, a lesson in humility. Based on the concept that everyone is equal in the eyes of the lord, the titular King of Puri sweeps the three chariots as well as the road they will traverse with a golden broom before the rathas set out on their journey.
The three chariots are built anew every year. On the eve of the festival, the chariots are lined next to the Arun Stambha in front of the Singha Dwar (Lion Gate) of the Jaggannatha Temple, with coils of stout ropes tied to the axles. Pilgrims will use these ropes to pull the chariots on their 3-km-long journey on the day of the Ratha Yatra. The first chariot to commence the journey is the Taladhvaja belonging to Balabhadra. The chariot is draped in red and green cloth and has 14 wheels. Next goes the chariot Darpadalan belonging to Subhadra. This one is covered in red and black cloth and has 12 wheels. Finally, it’s the turn of the Nandighosh, the chariot of Lord Jagannatha.
Draped in red and yellow, it is 45 feet high, with 16 wheels. It is this grand chariot, rolling on its massive wheels, pulled by the pilgrims, that appeared so grand to the British that they coined the word ‘juggernaut’ to mean unstoppable power. I had read and heard about the cult of Jagannatha and the frenzy of the Ratha Yatra. But I was totally taken aback by the eruption of mass euphoria as the signal was given to start pulling the Nandighosh.
Cries of ‘Jai Jagananth’ rent the air as the crowd took up the long rope and began to pull. And the wheels of the giant chariot only creaked in response. Then as the people tugged with renewed energy, it began to trundle forward. And then there was no stopping. Knowing I would be no match for that swirling crowd, I decided to run alongside the chariot like many others who could not get their hands on the ropes.
The Gundicha Temple lies at the end of the chariot run, where the deities reside, until the day of Bahuda Yatra, when it is time to return. Prior to Bahuda Yatra, there is another interesting ritual that takes place called Hera Panchami. As Jagannatha is an incarnation of Vishnu, his wife is Lakshmi, who resides in the royal palace. Miffed by the fact that Jagannatha was neglecting her and spending time at his aunt’s house, Lakshmi would creep up to his chariot and break a piece of the wheel.
The idols ride back to the temple on the eighth day of the festival. They’re not taken inside immediately but left on the chariots. The next day, the idols are adorned with gold ornaments in a ritual called Sunabesh. Finally, the following day, the gods are served a glass each of Adharpana, a cooling drink, and enter the temple, bringing the festival to a close.
Getting There: Bhubaneswar, 60km by road from Puri, is the nearest airport. Puri is also a major railhead and is linked to most major cities including Kolkata, New Delhi and Mumbai.
Where to Stay: There are plenty of options in Puri, but book well in advance. You can opt for Panthanivas Puri (from Rs2200 doubles; 06752-222562 / 222740; www.panthanivas.com). Other options include Hotel Lucky India Royal Heritage (Rs3500 doubles; 095839-99199), Puri Hotel (Rs2800 doubles; www.purihotel.in), Mayfair Hotels (from Rs11, 000; 06752-660660; www.mayfairhotels.com), Chanakya (formerly BNR Hotel; 06752-223006; www.chanakyabnrpuri.com), Hotel the Hans Coco Palms (www.hanshotels.com) and Fort Mahodadhi (www.fortmahodadhi.in).