Residing in the 12thcentury temple in the heart of Puri, a beach town in Odisha, are three huge wooden idols – Jagannath (Lord of the Universe) and his siblings, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra. Every year, they make a trip to their aunt’s house, the Gundicha Temple, riding in their giant decorated chariots, pulled by thousands of devotees. This is known as the ‘Rathayatra’ or the Chariot Festival. Even though the festival lasts for 10 days, the first day, when the chariots trundle down the road, attracts the largest number of devotees.

But what sets apart this festival from others is its unique context. While the idols are ministered to by Brahmin priests when they reside in the temple, the rites and rituals during the Rathayatra are conducted by a special class of priests called ‘Daitapati’, who claim to be the descendants of a tribal king. During this particular festival, devotees – irrespective of caste or creed – can even touch the idols, which is impossible inside the temple. Because it is believed that during Rathayatra, the gods come down from their divine pedestal to mingle with the people.

There are many legends associated with the cult of Jagannath, who is otherwise known as an incarnation of Vishnu, and is part of the Dasavatara list. According to a legend, it was Neelmadhav, worshipped by a local tribal king, who disappeared to reappear as Jagannath. Other tales explain why he is worshipped with his siblings, why they idols are made of wood and why they are incomplete – the idols are without limbs, etc. Usually every 12 to 14 years, the old idols are replaced with new ones.

Preparations for the Rathayatra begin months ahead as the wooden chariots are made anew every year, draped with patchwork embroidered cloth, and fitted with decorative figures. A fortnight before the Rathayatra, there is a special event called Snan Yatra or the Bathing Festival. The wooden idols are taken to a special corner inside the temple premises and given a bath. Then they retire to a secluded chamber. The temple remains closed during this period of seclusion. Meanwhile, the idols are spruced up and painted for their grand appearance on the day of Rathayatra.

The Rathayatra in Puri is a massive celebration
The Rathayatra in Puri is a massive celebration

There are many rites and rituals associated with the festival. One of the main rituals involves carrying the heavy wooden idols from the temple to the chariot. This uninterrupted journey, called pahandi, is made through a sea of people who make a rush to touch the idols. The chariots are lined up in front of the temple. On the eve of the festival, coils of thick rope are tied to the chariot and tested by the security personnel as devotees will use these ropes to pull the chariots. Do not be surprised if you find foreign media gearing up to live telecast the first day proceedings.

As the idols are carried to their individual chariots, the temple square and the road in front is flush with people. While devotees chant ‘Jai Jagannath’, members of various Vaishnava institutions and cultural organisations sing and dance and even perform acrobatic moves to appease the gods. After the gods are seated, other rituals take place. Meanwhile, the Gajapati ruler of Odisha arrive in his royal palanquin. He offers prayers to the deities and then takes up a gold broom. It is his duty to sweep the platforms of the three chariots before they start their journey. The ritual, known as Chhera Pahanra, indicates everyone is equal in the eyes of the gods.

Finally, the signal to pull the chariots is given. The chariot of Balabhadra is the first to leave, next comes sister Subhadra and finally Jagannath himself. As cries of Jai Jagannath rent the air, the assembled mass of people begin to tug at the ropes. The giant wheels wake up to life and begin to roll. In the earlier days, it was believed that a sight of Lord Jagannath on his chariot and death by the wheels will not only prevent rebirth but also assure a seat in heaven. It was the British rulers who finally put a stop to the ritual of throwing oneself at the wheels.

The chariots are scheduled to reach the Gundicha temple by sunset. The gods stay in this temple for seven days. The return journey is known as Bahuda Yatra. After reaching the main temple, the idols stay in the chariot for the ‘Sunabesh’ festival – the idols are decked up in gold ornaments. However, it is not easy for the gods to enter the temple, Goddess Lakshmi – the consort of Jagananth – is angry with her husband and blames him of neglecting her. She refuses to allow him to enter the temple. The attendants of each deity enter into verbal duels on behalf of their gods, until Jagannath apologises and peace is restored. As devotees begin to depart, the tired gods take their place on the ‘ratnabedi’ (pedestal) inside the sanctum sanctorum.

Information about the festival

The Rathayatra is held during monsoon. So be prepared for showers as well as hot and humid climate. Fire engines often hose the crowd with water if the temperature is very high. There are two ways to enjoy the first day. You may play it safe and buy a ticket for a seat in the galleries that are constructed near starting point. Or simply lose yourself in the sea of people travelling along the Bada Danda or the Grand Road along which the chariots travel. Always carry drinking water with you. The local administration keeps arrangements for first aid and other medical help ready, including ambulances.

A little extra! 

Taladhwaja: Chariot of Lord Balabhadra. Draped in red and blue cloth. Height: 44 feet. Wheels: 14. Pieces of wood used to make chariot: 763. Horses: White.

Darpadalan/Devadalan: Chariot of Goddess Subhadra. Draped in red and black cloth. Height: 43 feet. Wheels: 12. Pieces of wood used: 593. Horses: Red.

Nandighosa: Chariot of Lord Jagannath. Draped in red and yellow cloth. Height: 45 feet. Wheels: 16 (seven feet in diameter). Pieces of wood used: 832. Horses: Dark.