Type Religious Festival Time 11 Days In July   Location Puri, Odisha

Jai Jagannath! These two words cast a magic spell on any devout Oriya living anywhere in the world. Lord Jagannath (Lord of the Universe) shares a very special relationship with Oriyas. For them he is Jaga, Kalia, Chakadola, Chakanayana… where else would you find devotees addressing their god in endearments? No Oriya household celebrates an auspicious occasion without extending the first invitation to this deity. And the day of his Rath Yatra is considered the most auspicious in the Oriya calendar for weddings, house warmings and any inaugural event.

However, the unique aspect of the Rath Yatra (literally ‘chariot procession’) is that instead of devotees going to seek blessings from the deity, the gods themselves come out of their sanctum to mingle with all. The deities in question are the holy trinity comprising elder brother Lord Balabhadra, sister Subhadra and Lord Jagannath, a rare case of siblings being worshipped together. When Lord Jagannath, revered as patitapaban (saviour of the downtrodden), in a rare gesture of divinity comes out from the shrine to shower blessings on his devotees, the divine sight of him and his fellow deities redeems one from all sins.

Said to be the largest religious congregation after the Kumbh Mela, the Rath Yatra in Puri spreads over 11 days (from the Rath Yatra day to Niladri Vijaya when the deities are carried back into the temple). The largest draw of devotees is seen on the days the chariots are pulled: the actual Rath Yatra day and the Bahuda Yatra or ‘return car festival’. This is the only occasion when everybody has access to the deities (only Hindus are allowed to enter Jagannath Temple, thus excluding, for example, many foreign-born devotees, such as ISKCON members). No wonder they climb on the chariots, touch the idols and even try to embrace their Lord.

ORIENTATION

Bada Danda (also known as Grand Road), located in the heart of the pilgrimage town of Puri, is the central venue for the Rath Yatra celebrations. This wide arcade stretches from the towering Sri Jagannath Temple in the south to the Gundicha Ghar Temple in the north. Lined with small and large buildings on either side, the 2.5-km-long stretch presents an unusual combination of modern glass and concrete structures rising amidst old dilapidated monasteries and ashrams. Narrow alleys branch out from this main road, leading to residential colonies, known as sahis.

Grand Road is basically a commercial centre with shops, hotels, offices, banks and more. Some of the important landmarks are the lime-washed white façade of a palace built in 1918, the ornamental spires of the Sri Chaitanya Gaudiya Math, the town police station, the tiny Mausima Temple (which occupies a prominent place during the Bahuda Yatra) and the Municipal Hospital. While the road is slightly narrow towards the southern end, at the northern end it opens up to a vast sandy stretch almost 200m in width. Known as Saradha Bali, this  place is the venue of large gatherings and exhibitions.

Along the Bada Danda, there is much to keep tourists occupied during the festival – bhajan sessions, folk music and dance performances, arts and crafts exhibitions that go on until midnight. Besides, the beachfront has its own attractions like camel rides, surfing, melas (fairs) and sand art exhibits.

THE YATRA

Greeted by the metallic sound of cymbals and the melodious music of kirtan groups, I find myself slowly inching towards the Jagannath Temple. Even at the relatively early morning hour, the Bada Danda seems to be fast filling up with people. In the far distance, I can see the three colourful chariots, with their flags fluttering in joy, as if in anticipation of the divine journey. The towering temple spires and the clear blue sky present a perfect backdrop to the three chariots.

As the day advances, the crowd swells and by mid-morning the whole place is filled with people – packed like sardines on the road, balconies, rooftops, boundary walls, and even on the few trees nearby. While large groups of police personnel try to contain the swelling crowds, herding them towards barricades, volunteers can be seen providing assistance, like distributing water pouches. My attention is drawn to the variety of people assembled there, some in fancy dress outfits of mythological characters such as Hanumana, Krishna and Shiva. Why, it appears as if the gods themselves have descended on earth!

Groups of ochre-robed ISKCON devotees swing to the chants of ‘Hare Krishna’, while male Odissi dancers seem to be lost in their divine dance. A number of youngsters can be seen carrying miniature chariots atop their heads while some try to perform acrobatics. Everyone is out to draw attention, or perhaps, it is their way of displaying devotion. Priests can be found making their way to the chariots with heaps of garlands and large mounds of tulsi leaves packed in fresh banana leaves.

Sanjay Rawat
The entrance to the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha
The entrance to the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha

All eyes are focused on the temple entrance. The Pahandi – the ceremonial procession of the deities – is one of the main features of the festivities. The colossal wooden images, draped in new clothes and adorned with tahia (huge floral headgears) are carried by the priests from the shrine to the chariots. The swaying of the tahia, kind of dancing to the rhythmic movements of the ghantuas (those beating the gongs and cymbals), presents a picture of perfect harmony between the servitors and their Lord. Accompanied by the chanting of shlokas (hymns), the gods ascend the chariots – Balabhadra, followed by Subhadra and lastly, Jagannath.

Now it’s time for the royal ritual of Cherra Pamhara – the sweeping of the chariots. The erstwhile maharaja of Puri, said to be the first servitor of Lord Jagannath, is carried to the chariots in a gaily decorated palanquin. After offering obeisance to the deities, he sweeps the chariots with a golden broom. This service to the trinity is believed to be a symbolic gesture of intense humility before the lords.

Well past mid-noon, the crowd and frenzy has reached its peak. The temporary steps are withdrawn and giant wooden horses are yoked to the chariots, which are already so crowded with priests and police personnel that the deities are almost hidden. Thick ropes are tied and long queues of devotees and police form before the chariots. When the red flag is waved as a signal with a loud thundering of ‘Haribol’, the chariots of the deities are pulled along the prescribed route, according to ancient protocol – Balabhadra, then Subhadra and lastly Jagannath. The decorated chariots appear as gigantic temples bobbing in a sea of humanity. All along the way, throngs of devotees touch the ropes in passing, others raise their arms in surrender, some throw flowers and some watch with folded hands.

Swapan Nayak
Puppets of the three gods
Puppets of the three gods

By sunset, the chariots have reached halfway, poised at different places in the 2.5-km-long route of the procession. They will be pulled to their destination the next day. While the deities reside in Gundicha Ghar for a week, specific rituals are observed, and now it is this temple that becomes the centre of attraction. The return journey of the Lord to his abode, observed on the ninth day, is again a grand occasion. The additional feature is that the chariots stop midway at the Mausima Temple (maternal aunt’s house!), where a special offering of rice cakes is made to the deities. For the uninitiated, this entire medley of people, noise and overwhelming religiosity may seem disconcerting, but it is indeed an experience to savour, at least once in one’s life.

WHERE TO STAY

Puri has a wide range of stay options – from modest dharamshalas to fancy hotels. If you want to stay right in the centre of the Yatra venue, choose from the hotels located on Grand Road. There are many options near the beach (2km) as well. You can also stay in Bhubaneswar, though that would mean missing out on the ambience of the festival.

Close to the Yatra venue, your best option is the Neelachal Bhakt Nivas (Tel: 06752-222053, 224561-62, Cell: 09437284108; Tariff: 600–1,240) on Grand Road; the facility is run by the Jagannath Temple administration. Hotel Sreehari Grand (Cell: 09583002981-82; Tariff: 2,000–3,300), also on Grand Road, is a comfortable option. It has a restaurant and Internet facility.

A stone’s throw away from the Chakratirth Road, which runs along the beach, is Mayfair Heritage (Tel: 227800, 224242, 660660; Tariff: 13,000–25,000), a luxury hotel with aesthetic landscaping and soothing interiors. They have a great restaurant, a swimming pool and an exclusive beach. The quaint, atmospheric, Rajera Chanakya BNR Hotel (Tel: 222063, 223006, Cell: 09778373373; Tariff: 3,000–4,500) on CT Road has huge rooms overlooking the sea. Other options include the landmark Puri Hotel (Tel: 222114, 223809, Cell: 0820259999; Tariff: 700–4,000) on Beach Road and OTDC’s Panthaniwas (Tel: 222562, 222740; Tariff:2,200–4,000).

Those who wish to make a day trip from Bhubaneswar to see the pulling of the chariots can opt for the Rath Yatra Package offered by the Odisha Tourism Development Corporation (Tel: 0674-2431515, 2433515; Tariff: 3,999 per person in 2015).

WHERE TO EAT

The Oriya obsession with food perhaps derives its origin from the ruling deity. Lord Jagannath’s fondness for delicacies is best symbolised by the Chhappan Bhog or 56 types of food that are offered to the deities. The offering, called the Mahaprasad, is of two kinds – the dry one consisting of sweets and ladoos that have a longer shelf life and is generally carried back home by pilgrims. The cooked prasad comprises several varieties of rice, lentils, vegetables and greens, steamed in earthen pots with hardly any oil or spices. However, the aroma and the taste are simply divine. Cooked prasad, offered for lunch, is available during the afternoon and evening.

As per custom, the Mahaprasad is served on banana leaves and eaten while seated on the floor. It is often served during auspicious occasions such as marriages and thread ceremonies. During the Rath Yatra, preparation of prasad at the Jagannath Temple is discontinued because the deities are away. Instead, Maha-prasad is cooked and served at Gundicha Ghar. The dishes and cooking procedures are identical to those at the Jagannath Temple.

Restaurants and Marwari Bhojanalayas around the temple on Grand Road serve simple vegetarian thalis. Grand Restaurant serves snacks, thalis and à la carte vegetarian fare.

For exotic fare, head to the hotels near the beach. If you are looking for a four-course Continental meal, opt for the Chanakya BNR Hotel. For Chinese, Chung Wah on VIP Road is excellent – the prawn delicacies here are recommended. Seafood at Wild Grass on VIP Road is good value for money. For Bengali food, try Puri Hotel. Dakshin, on CT Road, has a delectable spread of south Indian dishes. Make sure to sample the fish, prawn and crab dishes sold by vendors along the beach.

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Bhubaneswar (56km/ 1.5hrs). Taxis to Puri cost 1,200–2,400

Rail Puri Railway Station, part of the East Coast Railway, is connected by direct trains to New Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Guwahati, Jodhpur and Haridwar. Those approaching from the south will find it easier to get down at Bhubaneswar and proceed to Puri by road

Road There are direct buses from Kolkata to Puri, usually an overnight trip of about 12hrs. From Bhubaneswar, there are buses every 30min. It is a pleasant drive through green paddy fields, coconut groves and small villages, most notably Pipli, the hamlet renowned for its colourful applique work

FAST FACTS

Tourist offices

Director, Dept of Tourism, Govt of Odisha

Paryatan Bhavan, Museum Complex

Bhubaneswar

Tel: 0674-2432177

W orissatourism.gov.in

OTDC

Panthaniwas, Lewis Road

Bhubaneswar

Tel: 2432382, 2430764

W otdc.in

STD code 06752

Tip Ensure that you have reserved your hotel and rail/ air tickets well in advance as Puri gets completely booked out during the Rath Yatra