Ratha Jatra, the Festival of Chariots of Lord Jagannatha is celebrated every year at Puri, the temple town in Orissa, on the east coast of India. The presiding deities of the main temple, Sri Mandira, Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, with the celestial wheel Sudarshana are taken out from the temple precincts in an elaborate ritual procession to their respective chariots.
The huge, colourfully decorated chariots, are drawn by hundreds and thousands of devotees on the bada danda, the grand avenue to the Gundicha temple, some two miles away to the North. After a stay for seven days, the deities return to their abode in Srimandira.
Ratha Jatra is perhaps the grandest festival on earth. Everything is on a scale befitting the great Lord. Full of spectacle, drama and colour, the festival is a typical Indian fair of huge proportions. It is also the living embodiment of the synthesis of the tribal, the folk, and the autochthonous with the classical, the elaborately formal and the sophisticated elements of the socio-cultural-religious ethos of the Indian civilization.
Sanctity and Significance of Ratha Jatra
The festival is also known as Gundicha Jatra, Ghosa Jatra, Navadina Jatra, Dasavatara Jatra and by a variety of other names. For the devoted and believers, it is considered the most auspicious occasion.
Rathe tu vamanam drishtwa punarjanmam na vidyate
“A glimpse of the Vamana, the dwarf form, an incarnation of Lord Jagannatha, is sure to ensure emancipation, release from the cycle of birth and death.”
Jatra is an essential part of the ritual of the Hindu system of worship. Jatra literally means travel or journey. Normally, it is the representative deities of temples more popularly known as Utsava Murti in south and Chalanti Pratima or Bije Pratima in Orissa, partake in these journeys. It is rarely that the presiding deities come out of the sanctum for such ritual journeys. The Jatra for the Ritual Journey take two forms – one involving the short circumambulation around the temple and other involving a longer journey from the temple to some other destination. The Jatra is considered as an important part of festivities and ceremonies of each temple and is considered as a special and sacred occasion.
Rath Jatra being unique among all Jatras is the grandest festival of the supreme divinity who has manifested himself in the Kali Yuga to emancipate humanity and to relieve them from their sufferings. Lord Jagannatha is identified fully with Vishnu and Krishna. In his original manifestation as Nilamadhaba, he was worshipped in a sacred Nyagrodha Briksha or banyan tree. The branches of the tree had spread for several miles and any one entering this area was instantly emancipated and was relieved of the travails of the birth and re-birth. In fact, the influence of Yama, the God of Death, is supposed to have been curtailed in the sacred city of Puri – Srikshetra on account of the presence of Lord Jagannatha and therefore it is also called the Yamanika Tirtha.
A glimpse of Lord Jagannatha on the chariot is considered to be very auspicious and saints, poets and scriptures have repeatedly glorified the sanctity of this special festival. The sanctity of the festival is such that even a touch of the chariot or even the ropes with which these are pulled is considered enough to confer the results of several pious deeds or penance for ages. In fact, there is a famous Oriya song which says that on this occasion, the chariot, the wheels, the grand avenue all become one with Lord Jagannatha himself.
The concept of the chariot has been explained in the Kathopanishada in the following words:
Atmanam rathinam viddhi sareeram rathamevatu
Buddhim tu saarathim viddhi marah pragrahameva cha.
“The body is the Chariot and the soul is the deity installed in the chariot. The wisdom acts as the charioteer to control the mind and thoughts.”
The Skanda Purana glorifies the sanctity of the Rath Jatra in the following words-
Gundicha mandapam namam yatrahamajanam pura
Ashwamedha sahasrasya mahabedi tadadvabat.
“Those who are fortunate to see the deities of the Srimandira in the Gundicha Temple, the final destination of the procession of the chariots, derive the benefits of a thousand horse sacrifices, an immensely pious deed.”
Kabi Samrat Upendra Bhanja in his famous Vaidehisa Vilasa mentions that the Lord comes out from his sanctum for participating in the Gundicha Jatra, another name of the Festival of Chariots, only for redeeming the fallen, the patita jana who get the opportunity to behold their dearest god at close quarters on this occasion. Similarly, saint poet Salabega waxes eloquent in praise of his dearest dark darling and says that the Lord swaying and moving like a wild elephant arrives at the Grand Avenue and rides his chariot and destroys in a flash all the sins of his devotees, even if these may be grave or unpardonable.
The three chariots of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannatha are newly constructed every year with wood of specified trees like phassi, dhausa, etc. customarily brought from the ex-princely state of Dasapalla, by a specialist team of carpenters who have hereditary rights and privilege for the same. The logs are traditionally set afloat as rafts in the river Mahanadi. These are collected near Puri and then transported by road.
The three chariots, newly constructed every year and decorated as per the unique scheme prescribed and followed for centuries stand on the Bada Danda, the Grand Avenue. Covered with a bright canopies made of stripes of red cloth combined with those of black, yellow and blue colours, the huge chariots are lined across the wide avenue right in front of the majestic temple close to its eastern entrance, also known as the Sinhadwara or the Lion’s Gate.
Lord Jagannatha’s Chariot is called Nandighosa. It is forty-five feet high and forty-five feet square at the wheel level. It has sixteen wheels, each of seven feet diameters, and is decked with a cover made of red and yellow cloth. Lord Jagannatha is identified with Krishna who is also known as Pitambara, the one attired in golden yellow robes and hence the distinguishing yellow stripes on the canopy of this chariot.
The Chariot of Lord Balabhadra, called the Taladhwaja, the one with the Palm Tree on its flag, has fourteen wheels, each of seven feet diameters and is covered with red and blue cloth. Its height is forty-four feet.
The Chariot of Subhadra, known as Darpadalana, literally ‘trampler of pride’, is forty-three feet high with twelve wheels, each of seven feet diameters. This Chariot is decked with a covering of red and black cloth, black being traditionally associated with Shakti and the Mother goddess.
Around each of the chariots are nine Parsva devatas, painted wooden images representing different deities on the chariots’ sides. Each of the chariots is attached with four horses. These are of different colours – white ones for Balabhadra, dark ones for Jagannatha and red ones for Subhadra. Each chariot has a charioteer called Sarathi. The three charioteers attached to the chariots of Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra respectively are Matali, Daruka and Arjuna.
Chandan Jatra, the Sandalwood Paste Festival
The construction of the chariots starts on Akshaya Trutiya, the third day of the bright fortnight of Vaisakha, with ritual fire worship. This takes place in front of the palace of the King of Puri and opposite the main office of the Puri temple. On this day, the new agricultural season starts and farmers start ploughing their fields. This day also marks the beginning of the summer festival of the deities, also known as the sandalwood festival or Chandan Jatra, which lasts for three weeks. In this festival, the representative images of the presiding deities are taken out in colourful processions and given a ceremonial boat ride in the Narendra tank everyday. In an interesting demonstration of the assimilative character of the Jagannatha cult, Madanmohana and Rama Krishna, representing Jagannatha & Balabhadra partake in the festival with the representatives’ images of the presiding deities of five main Shiva temples of Puri. These are curiously known as Pancha Pandava, the five brothers of the Mahabharata story. Later the deities have a ritual bath in a small temple in the middle of the tank, in stone tubs filled with water, sandalwood paste, scents and flowers.
This sandalwood festival culminates in the Snana Jatra, the Bathing Festival on the full moon day of the month of Jestha. On this day, the presiding deities descend from their seats on an elevated platform in the sanctum sanctorum, the bejewelled throne. They are bathed in 108 pots of water brought from the suna kua, the golden well and assume the elephant form on the special bathing platform, close to the Eastern boundary wall of the temple. From that day the deities remain in symbolic and ritual convalescence for about two weeks. They are barred from view of the ordinary devotees. Only three special patta chitras, traditional Orissan paintings of natural colours on cloth stiffened with starch, known as Anasara Pattis, are strung on a bamboo screen hiding the deities from public view, can be seen by the public. During this period, the deities are given only roots, leaves, berries and fruits to cure them from their indisposition. This ritual is a reminder of the strong tribal elements in the genesis and evolution of the Jagannatha cult. The progeny of Lalita, daughter of the original tribal worshipper Biswabasu, chieftain of hunters, and the Brahmin priest Vidyapati, are known as daitapatis or daitas. They have almost exclusive privilege of serving the Lord during the convalescence and through the entire period of Ratha Jatra or the Festival of Chariots.
Nava Jaubana – the Renewal of Youth
The day immediately preceding the ceremonial stepping out of the temple precincts by the deities marks the formal ending of the period of sickness. The deities are given a fresh coat of paint and finally, as per the traditions for preparing of divine icons, the eyes are painted in a ritual called netrostava. The deities are now fully recovered, and their reappearance for public viewing is known as the Nava Jaubana Darshana, a celebration of the renewal of youth. Hundreds of thousands of devotees deprived of the sight of their dearest dark darling throng the temple to participate in this festival, which typically begins in the afternoon and lasts late into the night.
The Festival and The Journey
At last the appointed day for the great Festival of chariots arrives. It is Asadha Shukla Dwitiya, the second day in the bright fortnight of the first monsoon month of the Indian seasonal calendar. It is typically in late June in normal years but every few years, after adjustment of the solar and lunar calendars, with a double Baisakha, this occurs in July. The presiding deities of the temple Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, in a unique reversal of roles of the seeker and the sought, set out from within the sanctum of the temple to mingle with millions of their devotees.
Pahandi, Stepping out of the temple precincts
The journey of the deities to the world outside, starts with an elaborate royal ritual called Pahandi – literally, going forward in a step by step movement to the accompaniment of several devotees beating the ghanta, kahali and telingi baja.
The ghanta is a type of a gong, shaped like a flattish hollow bowl, and is made of kamsa, bell metal, an alloy of brass and zinc. A small baton like stick made of a hard but flexible piece of cane is used to beat the simple musical instrument. The ghanta is made by traditional artisan groups – kansaris, who live in villages not far from Puri. Kahali is a type of trumpet while the telingi baja is a simple drum, a percussion instrument played on both sides with canes.
The famous saint poet Salabega has immortalised the feelings of the devotees as they wait every year for fulfillment of their desire to see their dear dark darling, Kalia Dhana seated on his resplendent Chariot – Nandi Ghosa. Salabega had gone on pilgrimage and had fallen sick. He couldn’t return in time to see his darling Lord on the chariots and cried out in anguish from 750 miles away. He prayed to the Lord to tarry a while on the bada danda, the Grand Avenue till he could reach back to see the Lord. The compassionate Lord stayed on his chariot which could not be moved an inch forward till Salabega reached Puri and joined the devotees in prayer.
As Lord Jagannatha and Lord Balabhadra are quite heavy, a wooden cross is fixed to their backs and thick silken ropes are tied round their heads and waists for their ceremonial procession – a ritual known as Senapata lagi. The deities during the anasara period are actually placed in the audience hall – Jagamohana and not in the sanctum – or deul on the elevated platform, their normal seat. From there the deities are moved first on to the sata pahacha or seven steps, outside the northern door of the natamandapa or the dancing hall. During the outward movement from the temple to the chariots, the procession of the deities is in a row and is known as dhadi pahandi or a group movement. All the deities move simultaneously. At first Sudarshana, the celestial wheel of Krishna-Vishnu, is brought out and placed in the chariot of Subhadra followed by Balabhadra, Subhadra and finally Jagannatha.
The blowing of kahali, the clang of the ghanta, and the beating of the telingi baja in a unique rhythmic movement slowly rising to a crescendo herald the beginning of their movement.
The two brothers, Balabhadra and Jagannatha are decorated with large, elaborate floral decorations called tahia. These are like huge crowns or tiara but are fixed at the back of their heads. These are made of a variety of white, orange and lotus flowers, leaves and pieces of cork fixed to a semi – circular heart shaped bamboo frame. The two brothers decorated with the tahias are carried forward in a slow, swaying movement, giving the illusion of a huge elephant gracefully and gently stepping out. The privilege of providing these tahias is with the Raghavadasa matha- a monastery associated with the temple. Hundreds and thousands of devotees eagerly await a glimpse of the deities. As the deities step out of the main entrance of the temple, the Sinhadwara – Lion’s Gate, the teeming devotees, bhaktas go wild with ecstasy, chanting the name of the Lord in a loud chorus. The chant ‘Haribol’ – literally means to utter the name of Hari, the Lord.
First comes Sudarshana who takes its place on the chariot of Subhadra. He is followed by Lord Balabhadra. Much smaller, Subhadra, the yellow-golden coloured younger sister of Jagannatha and Balabhadra, follows soon after. Short and slim, in contrast to her two brothers and much lighter, the lady is carried on the shoulders in a supine state. Her movement is much faster and the daitas carrying her almost rush through the process in a running movement. At last comes Lord Jagannatha, darling of the devotees, in a regal procession. Dancers perform traditional Odissi dance to the accompaniment of mardala and mridanga, traditional Orissan percussion instruments, as the procession moves forward. Devotees also perform sankirtan, ritual group chanting of the names of Lords with rhythmic jumping movements.
Chhera Pahanra – Emperor as Sweeper of the Chariots
The second phase of the festival is an equally colourful and elaborate ritual is known as Chhera Pahanra. The Raja, King of Puri, Gajapati Divya Singha Deva is informed of the deities having taken their places on the chariots through a messenger specially deputed by the temple officials. The young, handsome King, clad in spotless white, carried in a silver plated palanquin leaves his palace and comes in a small procession on the grand avenue led by a caparisoned elephant. He climbs the chariots one by one. He first offers his prayers to the deity seated on the chariot. He then cleans the platforms with a golden broom, sprinkling flowers and fragrant water on the surface of the chariot.
The ritual goes back several hundred years and is a symbol of the subjugation of the temporal to the spiritual. The emperors of Orissa, beginning with the valiant Anantvarman Chodagangadeva in the 12th century, had declared themselves to be the rauta, servant of Lord Jagannatha and ruled the land as His representative. The ritual is also a public demonstration of the unique philosophy of integration and unity symbolised by Lord Jagannatha. There is no distinction of caste, creed or any other barrier during the entire festivities. After cleansing of the chariots by the Raja and his departure to the palace, the wooden horses, brown, black and white, are fixed to the three chariots. Thick ropes made of coconut fibre and 250 feet long are tied to the individual chariots.
The Pulling of Chariots
The final ritual in the celebration is the pulling of the chariots. The chariot of Lord Balabhadra is pulled first followed by that of goddess Subhadra. At last the grand moment and the climax of the day’s celebration is reached when the chariot of Lord Jagannatha, Nandighosha starts its spectacular journey to the Gundicha temple. Thousands of devotees who patiently wait the whole day for this blessed moment are ecstatic with joy and pull the chariots with a sense of fulfillment.
In ancient times, the Ratha Yatra of Puri employed six chariots as compared to the three at present times. A river once flowed between the Gundicha House and the Jagannatha temple. Three chariots stayed in readiness on the other side of the river to receive the deities from the three chariots that transported them from the main temple.
Bahuda, the Return Festival
There, in their Garden House, adapa mandapa, also known as their place of birth, the deities stay for seven days. On the ninth day of the festival, Bahuda Jatra, the grand return journey takes place. On the way back they stop for a short while and partake of poda pitha, a type of cake made of rice, lentils, jaggery and coconut, offered by their aunt, mausima. On reaching back the main temple, the deities, on their chariots, don the golden attire or the suna besa, with hands, arms and crown made of solid gold. They are also offered sweet drinks, adhara pana, on huge cylindrical earthen pots reaching up to their lips. They are taken down from the chariots in a ritual descent to enter the temple.
The temple gate is however shut upon Lord Jagannatha by his celestial consort Laxmi. Her anger, jealousy and frustration is articulated by her companions, represented by a group of servitors from inside. Another group representing Lord Jagannatha respond with entreaties and endearments. After re-enacting this drama of daily domestic tiffs of mere mortals, the celestial couple finally make up, and the temple door is opened and the deities return to their bejeweled throne, the ratna sinhasana.