India - Rath Yatra Festival

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

Rath Yatra Festival

One of the four most popular holy pilgrimages of the Hindus in India is the Jagannath Temple of Puri. The festival of Rath Yatra is celebrated here, and is world famous for the large crowd of devotees that gathers to witness Lord Jagannath's annual journey in his huge chariot. It is the only God to be brought out of the temple every year with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra.

Every year in July, the sacred coastal town of Puri comes alive to celebrate the Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath, one of the biggest festivals during the monsoon season. As the preparations for the march begin, all routine activity in the town comes to a standstill. Amidst the echoing clash of huge cymbals, and the thundering beats of drums, the three Gods, Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra leave their shrine, the Jagannath temple, to make a journey to the Gundicha Mandir which is three kilometers away. Millions of devotees gather to the town to watch the trinity ride in their grand chariots through the streets of Puri.

A day before the procession, three massive chariots are elegantly decorated and lined up outside the temple gates. Lord Jagannath's chariot is the biggest, about 45 feet in height with 16 gigantic wheels and a gold dome on top. The slightly smaller red and green chariot belongs to Balabhadra. The smallest chariot belongs to Subhadra, who travels between the chariots of her two brothers. The chariots are embellished and decorated with shiny dots and ancient accessories and each of the chariots has a large podium which is roofed with huge flower umbrellas.

On the morning the Yatra is to begin, the clang of huge metal gongs, constant blowing of enormous conch shells and trumpets along with the chanting of holy men fill the air as priests bring out the adorned idols to their raths. First Lord Jagannath makes his appearance, amidst thrilled cries of 'Jai Jagannath'. The overwhelmed crowds get into a state of devotional fervor, as if captivated by the large eyes of their beloved Lord.

Then, the king of Puri sweeps the chariots with a golden broom and sprinkles holy water on them. There is a noisy roar of cheer as the procession inches ahead. 50-metre long ropes are attached to their front to draw the chariots. Devotees rush forward for an opportunity to give a hand in pulling the ropes, as they believe that this will absolve them of all their sins and help them achieve salvation. People keep on dancing and rejoicing in front of the chariot. Then, the idols are placed on huge pandals where thousands of people come to seek blessings of the god.

Small children in Orissa or elsewhere buy small miniature chariots which are freely available in the market along with the idols. They are very small, almost toy like. The children decorate these chariots and take them out on the streets, enacting the Lord’s journey. It is a common sight in the states neighboring Orissa. Traditional horns are blown to announce the arrival of the Gods and the atmosphere resounds with the rhythmic drum beats.

The journey back, a week later, consists of another ritual, known as Phera Rath Yatra. Every year, the chariots are broken down, its wood sold as relics and a replica made. However the images of the deities are conserved. It is only when two Ashadha months occur one after the other that the images are changed. This happens once in 12 or 24 years. The people of Orissa eagerly look forward to this festival.


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