Every year during the mid-summers, Lord Jagannath sets out on vacation with his elder brother Balabhadra and younger sister Subhadra from his temple in Puri to their garden place around the countryside. This Hinduism belief has given rise of the grandest religious festivals celebrated in India called Ratha Yatra. It is also the etymological origin for the English word “juggernaut”. The festival of Ratha Yatra, also known as Car Festival, Festival of Chariot, Gundicha Jatra, Ghosa Jatra, Dashavatar Yatra and Navadina Yatra is celebrated not only in India, but all over the world with great enthusiasm, happiness and joy. It is annually held on the 2nd day of bright fortnight of Ashad month (also known as Ashad Shukla Dwitiya).
The world famous Puri Ratha Yatra attracts more than a million pilgrims from different parts of the world every year. It is the only day of the year when devotees who aren’t allowed inside the temple can get an opportunity to see and worship the deities. The festival is observed as a symbol of integration and equality. The crowd buzzes with anticipation. People dance to musical notes and the rhythmic sounds of drums echo and fill the air with happiness. And from a distance, everyone witnesses a procession of chariots usually led by huge horses, while the deities make their journey to Gundicha temple, their aunt’s place.
A glimpse of the Lord on the chariot is considered to be really auspicious and poets, scriptures and saints have repeatedly glorified the religiousness and sanctity of this festival. Such is the sanctity of Ratha Yatra that even a simple touch on the ropes pulling the chariots is considered equal to the results of numerous pious deeds for ages. In fact, there is also a famous Odia song which says that on this particular occasion, the wheels, the grand avenue and the chariot all become one with the Lord himself.
Origin of Ratha Yatra:
Few mythical stories associated with the origin of Ratha Yatra reflect the socio religious beliefs and thinking of the region. Chief ones among them include:
- In order to kill Lord Krishna and his brother Balram, their maternal uncle, Kansa had invited them to Mathura. They sat on the chariot bought by Akrur and left for the place as asked. Devotes of Lord Krishna celebrate this day of his departure as Ratha Yatra.
- After defeating and killing the evil Kansa, Lord Krishna visited his devotees in a chariot with his elder brother in Mathura which later came to be observed as the Chariot festival.
- Dwarika devotees celebrate the day when Krishna, accompanied by Balram, took his sister Subhadra, for a ride on a chariot to witness the splendor of the city.
The Ratha Yatra tradition then became alive in various parts of India. A few months before the actual procession, there is this important job of preparing the chariots which are decorated with numerous kinds of materials. The real dazzling effect of these raths can be seen once the procession begins. The festival begins with the invoking ceremony or the Ratha Pratistha in the morning; however the most exciting part is chariot pulling or Ratha Tana which usually begins in the late afternoon when the chariots of the three deities start rolling.
Chariots of the Lords:
Every year the wooden chariots of the Lords are constructed anew in accordance to all religious specifications. Also the idols are made of wood which are religiously replaced after every 12 years. The Chariots of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Lady Subhadra are known as Nandighosh, Taladhvaja and Padmadhvaja respectively. As the processing starts, all devotes eagerly await their opportunities to pull the ropes used to pull the raths. This is undoubtedly a divine sight and one among the many colorful spiritual traditions in India.
- Nandighosh Rath: The Chariot of Lord Jagannath is about 45 feet high and has sixteen wheels. There is a wheel on the top of the chariot and the fabric of the roof is sported in red and yellow colors.
- Taladhvaja Rath: Being 44 feet high, the chariot of Lord Balabhadra stands tall on fourteen wheels. The fabric on the roof is in red and green and on the top of the chariot is a tala fruit.
- Padmadhvaja Rath: Lady Subhadra’s chariot is 43 feet high and consists of twelve wheels. The roof fabric is made is red and black colors.
On each of the chariots, there are side deities. Sudarshana sits by the side of Lady Subhadra, there are small deities of Lord Krishna and Rama in Balabhadra chariot whereas Madanmohana finds its place in Lord Jagannath’s chariot. Thus, a total of seven deities start their journey on the three chariots to Gundicha temple, about 3km far from the main temple.
Major ceremonies held:
Before the yatra begins, following are the few ceremonies held inside the main temple.
Held on “Jyesthapurnima”, this ceremony marks the day when the main deities are bough to snanamandapa (which is a platform for bathing) around mid-day and are bathed there. A hundred and eight water pots are poured over the deities. The watcher is fetched from a sacred well, dearest to Goddess Sitala. After the deities are bathed they are worn elephant masks, popularly called the Ganesha Vesha. They are then offered bhog and arathi and then taken back in a procession to the temple where they stay for fifteen days in retirement. The deities are kept in the hallway in a semi-horizontal position between inner and outer shrine. In this ceremony, it is possible for the general public to see the food offerings made to deities, which is not possible on any other time of the year.
After the Snana Yatra, Lord Jagannath falls sick and suffers from high fever. Thus, he is shifted to his private stay where he is offered drugs prepared from fruit juice. The servants of the Lord, also known as Dayitas take care of him. They stay there always and even sleep with the deity. This is the time when Lord Jagannath is not seen in his temple and the word Anavasara is used to describe it all.
The period of resting and renovation of fifteen days is called Nibritha. Lord Jagannath lives in privacy and enjoys Svakiya Rasa, while honoring the isolation of Goddess Laxmi, his wife. After taking her permission, Lord Jagannath then comes out for the Rath Yatra ceremony.
Nava Yavana Festival:
This festival is held for renovating the body of Lord Jagannath. After his body is washed, it required repainting and this work is done by Daityas, which usually takes about two weeks for completion. This marks the complete restoration of the deities to their youth.
The ceremony takes place in the inner shrine when the deities are placed in a semi-horizontal position, and they have been completely painted, except for their eyes. Netrotsava ceremony is where the eyes of deities are painted by respective pujaries and the puja starts.
After the above mentioned ceremonies are completed, the deities are taken out of the temple and placed on their respective chariots on the day of Rath Yatra, the most colorful aspect of this festival. The Chariots are bought and placed at the front of Simha Dwara, facing north. Going by the traditional ceremonial manner, Sudarshana is first bought and put onto the Lady Subhadra chariot, followed by elder brother Balabhadra, Lady Subhadra and finally Lord Jagannath. While the deities of Balabhadra and Lord Jagannath are bought out of the temple, they are swung in a forward and backward manner called “Pahandi”. When the main deities arrive on their respective chariots, they are refreshed and then offered fresh garlands. The king of Puri then arrives at this time and sweeps the street with a golden handled broom stick and sprinkles fragrant waters on the ground.
Once the rituals are done, the Ratha Yatra begins with the elder brother leading the procession. Then follow the chariots of Subhadra and Lord Jagannath. Lady Subhadra and Balabhadra directly reach the Gundicha temple, whereas Lord Jagannath stops at his aunt, Goddess Ardhamsini’s temple where he is offered Poda Pitha. The chariot of Lord Jagannath then proceeds towards Gundicha temple, but usually makes the distance on the next day. The deities take rest for another day on their chariots after reaching and then they are taken inside the sanctum of Gundicha temple. They stay in the place for seven days and receive all routine rituals as that is offered to them in the main temple.
On the fortnight of Ashada or the 10th day, the deities are placed on their respective chariots following which they start their journey back to the main temple, called the Bahuda Yatra. Again while returning, Lord Jagannath visits his aunt’s temple to receive bhog. From there, he proceeds to the Kings’ palace where he meets Goddess Laxmi and then continues on his yatra to main temple. The deities spend the night on the raths till morning. On the next morning of Bada Ekadasi is the Suna Vesha, where the deities are dressed and decorated with golden ornaments and gold crowns. This is the most auspicious day of the entire festival. The devotees move around the chariots and make Pradhakshina of the rath. Some hours later, the ornaments are removed and the deities are bought back to the temple in a traditional procession.
Ratha Yatra celebrations around the world:
As we know by now, Ratha Yatra is a celebration of Hindu religion where people take their gods and goddesses out on the chariots for a ride. However, surprisingly not only these celebrations are observed in India and not just by Indians, but by a large number of people from various casts and creeds around the world. Ratha Yatra is now celebrated and held in over a hundred cities across the globe. Let us trace some of the best celebrations from around the world that are worth visiting on the religious occasion.
Ratha Yatra, San Francisco:
If you are a great devotee of Lord Krishna and living abroad and coming to India on Ratha Yatra is not an option, then just take a flight to San Francisco. Yes, you may not savor the same grandeur, celebration and taste as that of India, but the chariot festival here is simply one of the bests held abroad. Iskon organizes the entire program in their trademark procession style and devotees irrespective of religion, caste and creed pull chariots like one huge family singing, dancing and merry making all throughout the way. It is definitely an event to witness and a sight to behold.
Festival of Chariots, Venice:
Venice is known to be one of the most romantic places over, but during this time of the year, it dons the religious garbs and observes Ratha Yatra festival in a grand, fun, jovial and pious way. In 1977, the first ever chariot festival was held in Venice and elephants used to pull the giant 40 feet tall chariots. However, these days, due to safety reasons, elephants are now replaced with large ropes which are pulled by thousands of people in and around Venice. The chariot pulling is accompanied by religious “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna” rhythmic chants, unlimited fun and free food. After the celebration, the chariots are placed alongside the beach at a nearby garden. A small fair takes place where traditional Odishi dance and other Indian events are observed.
Saranagati Ratha Yatra:
The pristine valleys and hills serving as the backdrop of Sarangati Ratha Yatra in Vancouver is indeed a one of its kind chariot festival, that not only provides inner peace, but rejuvenates the body and mind greatly. Even though the celebration is held on a much smaller scale as compared to the Venice and San Francisco ones, Saranagati Ratha Yatra dedicates an entire day to seminars and kirtans accompanied by a grand feast. Do visit the place if you are in for a complete re juvenescence of your body, mind and soul.
Ratha Yatra, Mayapur:
Iskon has its headquarters in this place, a quaint and small town across Nabadwip. Sri Chaitanya, who is a devotee of Lord Krishna and believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu was born here. So, it suffices to say that Ratha Yatra is the main festival celebrated here with much pomp and show. You can witness almost similar chariots as of Puri but somewhat smaller made for deities. Women are dressed alike in colorful dresses and men wear dhoti kurta. The rhythmic religious chants will definitely sweep the devotees off their feet. The magical environment here brings in the vibe amongst both devotees and non-devotees alike.