The twin advantages – merit-making by offering prayers to Lord Jagannath and a beach holiday – make Puri one of the most visited places in Odisha. Along with neighbouring Bhubaneswar (the state capital) and Konark (home to the Konark Sun Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Puri is the third arm of the Golden Triangle of Odisha. With the beach and the main temple lying in close proximity, this is the most crowded corner of the town. The road in front of the temple is known as Bada Danda or the Grand Road, across which trundles the giant chariots during the annual Rathayatra festival. This year, the annual Rathayatra of Puri, is on July 4.
Popularly known as the Jagannath Temple, the 12th century temple is home to the eponymous deity and his siblings, elder brother Balabhadra and younger sister Subhadra. There are many other shrines within the temple complex, which is guarded by a high wall. There are four gates – Elephant Gate (north), Horse Gate (south), Tiger Gate (west) and the Lion Gate (east). The main entry is through the eastern gate before which stands the Arun Stambha (a pillar that was once part of the Konark Sun Temple). The temple follows numerous rituals and has a packed calendar of festivals. The annual Rathayatra or the Chariot Festival, held in June-July is the most popular of them all.
Details of the origin of the cult of Jagannath and the unique physical appearance can be found in religious texts and legends.
It is said that a chieftain of the Shabar tribe, Visvavasu, was a devotee of Nilmadhava, an incarnation of Vishnu. But he worshipped the idol in secret. King Indradyumna of Malwa, also a devotee of Vishnu, wanted to see the idol. He sent his courtier Vidyapati to look for it. Initially, Vidyapati was unsuccessful. He married the chieftain’s daughter, found out the secret location and passed on the information to Indradyumna. But when the king arrived from Malwa, he found the idol had vanished. Instead, he was told to locate a log that would float up from the sea and then have it carved in the manner described in a divine dream. It was decreed that while the idols were being constructed, nobody should look inside the workshop. The king could not contain his curiosity and peeped inside. The divine carpenter vanished, leaving behind the incomplete idols. That is how we see the three idols today, sans limbs.
The gigantic chariots are made afresh every year. If you happen to visit Puri before the actual festival, you can see the carpenters and other artists at work.
The tallest of the three chariots, which seats Lord Jagannatha, is called Nandighosa. The 45-feet tall chariot runs on 16 wheels and is draped in red and yellow fabric. At 44 feet, the second tallest chariot seats Lord Balabhadra. It is called Taladhwaja, draped in red and green fabric and runs on 4 wheels. Goddess Subhadra’s chariot, called Darpadalan, is 43-feet tall, draped with red and black fabric and runs on 12 wheels.
The decorations on the chariots are also representative of some of Odisha’s traditional arts, viz. applique art of Pipili and wood carvings.
The annual Rathayatra or the Chariot Festival is held in June-July. The idols are brought out of the main temple and placed on their individual chariots. They travel along the Grand Road to reach the Gundicha Temple at the other end. Here they stay until it is time to return home.
Although the festival is spread over nine to ten days, the first day is considered to be the most auspicious. According to popular belief, on this day, a sight of Lord Jagannath on his chariot absolves one of rebirth. In the old days, people would throw themselves at the wheels of the chariot (a practice subsequently banned by the British rulers) believing a death under the wheels would transport them straight to Baikuntha or heaven.
Even if you are not religious, a visit during this time is bound to leave you amazed. The sea of people, the rituals, the frenzy to pull the chariot ropes, and the whole-hearted submission of the devotees before their god is a heady experience. Besides, it is probably the only Hindu festival conducted by the non-Brahmin ‘daitapati’ community, and is a lesson in humility (refer to the ‘chhenra panhara’ ritual later in the article).
Preparations for the Rathayatra festival begin a fortnight ahead with the holding of the ‘snanyatra’ or the bathing ritual. The idols are given a bath after which they fall sick and go into seclusion. The main temple remains closed to visitors. As the chariots get their final touches, the idols are also spruced up.
On the day of the Rathayatra, numerous rituals are performed until the chariots begin to roll.
One of the popular rituals is ‘pahandi’ when the idols are carried by the servitors from the temple to the chariots. The idols are decorated with floral headgear. One group of servitors push the idols from behind while another group pulls it from the front. The procession is accompanied by musicians and greeted with chants of Jai Jagannath by the crowd. It is not an easy task to seat the heavy wooden idols in the chariots and can take hours.
Another popular ritual is ‘chhenra panhara’, which marks the sentiment that everyone is equal in the eyes of the gods. Gajapati Divya Singha Deva of the former royal family of Puri carries out this ritual which requires that the king must sweep the chariot with a broom. While the servitors sprinkle water and flower petals, the king humbly sweeps them with a golden broom.
While the rituals are taking place, the crowd keeps swelling in numbers and the air is rent with chanting and singing. Members of various Vaishnav institutions sing, dance or hold acrobatic performances to please the gods.
Finally, the sign to pull the chariots is given. The devotees join the security personnel in pulling the chariots which trundle like a giant ship through the sea of people.
The chariots have to arrive at the Gundicha Temple before dark, which they usually do. If for some reason, the chariots cannot finish the journey on time, they are left on the road and complete the journey the next day.
Interestingly, during the festival, devotees look upon Lord Jagannath as one of them and not as a divine form only. During ‘pahandi’ there is a great rush to touch the idols, which is banned at other times. If for some reason, the servitors find it difficult to make the idols ascend the ramp of the chariot, they speak to him as if talking to a child. When patience breaks down, they are not loathe to scolding him or calling him names. On the day of Hera Panchami, it is believed that Lord Jagannath’s consort Goddess Lakshmi creeps to the chariot and breaks a part off out of anger as Jagannath is spending time with his siblings and aunt and not attending to her.
The day after the return journey, also known as Bahudayatra, it is time to decorate the idols (still in the chariots) in a profusion of ornaments, including crowns, hands and legs made of solid gold. This is known as Sunabesh.
Finally, when Lord Jagannath is ready to enter the main temple, he finds Goddess Lakshmi has bolted the doors. After many verbal exchanges, entreaties from Jagannath, and offering of sweets, the goddess is appeased. The idols return to the divine throne (‘ratna simhasana’) inside the temple and devotees return home, eagerly awaiting for a re-run a year later.
Information: The nearest airport to Puri is Bhubaneswar, about 65km by road. Puri is connected by train to major cities of India.
Since the town draws a huge crowd, it is impossible to get rooms in hotels unless booked months ahead. However, you may stay in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack or Konark and travel by road to Puri. But the journey has to be made early in the morning as all roads to the temple square are blocked to traffic and you will have to walk down. While mingling with the crowd is the best way to get a feel of the festival, you may buy tickets to the galleries set up along the Grand Road. The buildings on either side of the road usually allow a limited number of visitors to their balconies or terraces, for a fee. The weather remains unpredictable, hot and sunny to raining and humid. So be armed with drinking water and rain gear.
For more details, check with Odisha Tourism