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Puri Festivals in India

More than six lakh devotees gathered in Puri to watch the giant rath of Lord Jagannath roll. The procession captured people’s faith and fervour

As the wooden idol of Lord Jagannath slides down the sloping platform, the attendants rain blows on it, beat it with sticks and shower it with profanity. Their efforts to seat it on the chariot have come to naught and they are angry. Normally such a scenario would have been unthinkable. But then the day is special both for the Lord and the pilgrims. Today and for the next eight days, Lord Jagannath will descend from his pedestal and mingle with his devotees. There will be no barrier between him and his worshippers. The blows and the abuse are proof that the people are more than willing to accept him as one of their own. The eight days constitute the annual Rathyatra of Puri in Orissa, a centuries-old phenomenon that is the quintessential reiteration of faith and fantasy.

The pushing and shoving to seat Lord Jagannath on his chariot continues for hours. The god it seems is testing the perseverance of his devotees. The devotees in turn are not the ones to give up easily. They coax, cajole, they promise sweetmeats and other delicacies, when all this fails they call the Lord names, all the while the surging crowd chants, sings and dances.

Jagannath’s tantrums are holding up the procession, his brother Lord Balabhadra and sister Goddess Subhadra are already safely ensconced in their chariots. A sharp shower does little to dampen the enthusiasm of the faithful. Then just as everybody is beginning to despair, the Lord quietly goes up the platform and is settled in his chariot amidst loud cheers. The annual rath yatra begins on Asad shukla dwitiya or the second day of the bright fortnight in the month of Asad, which usually falls in June-July.

On this special day, Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra leave the temple at Puri seated atop their chariots. The three chariots are pulled by the pious over a distance of nearly five kilometres to the Gundicha Bari temple. Here the gods will reside for the next seven days. On the ninth day of the festival, they will begin the return journey, known as bahuda or ultaratha. The stretch of road on which the chariots travel is known as badadanda or the grand road.

The faithful believe that a glimpse of Lord Jagannath seated on his chariot ensures salvation, so they throng to Puri for the rath yatra. The town turns into a veritable sea of people—they come crammed into every sort of vehicle. Prices of rooms in hotels skyrocket and most are booked months in advance, devotees unable to find a room camp on the sea beach; so don’t even think of a sand and surf holiday in Puri during this period. Also, coverage in the international media has ensured that more and more foreigners are coming to the town for the festivities. All the pilgrims have to battle the sultry weather—the scorching sun beats down, punctuated by sharp showers—but it is only a privileged few who manage a seat on the terrace of the Raghunandan Library and the handful of buildings located next to the temple complex.

Preparations for the Rathyatra begin months ahead. The three chariots are built every year and the collection of wood begins on Vasant Panchami (February/ March). The wood is collected from the forests of Dasapalla. Earlier the local royal family donated the wood, now it is the prerogative of the forest department. However, efforts are on to create a small forest near Puri that in future will supply the wood. The construction of the chariots begins on another auspicious day, Akshay tritiya (April). The carpenters who work on making of the chariots have been doing the task for generations. It is on a stretch of road next to the temple complex that the chariots are made. Shortly before the rath yatra, the idols are given a bath or snan-yatra, after which they go into seclusion for a week. During this period the temple remains closed to pilgrims. In earlier times, folk artists gathered near the temple to paint patachitras for pilgrims who were unable to see the idols and wished to take back a souvenir. Sadly, the popularity of printed material has forced the folk painters out of business and patachitras are a lost art. At the end of the seclusion, the idols are repainted and attain nava-yauvan or youth. Every 12 to 18 years, the old idols are buried with much fanfare and new ones made. The occasion called nava-kalebar or getting a new body, follows specific rules laid down in the almanacs.

A day before the festival, the chariots are lined up along side the Arun Stambha, an 18th century pillar made of chlorite, which is situated in front of the temple. The red and green chariot of Balabhadra, the Taladhvaja, is the eastern-most of the chariots. At the other end is the red and gold chariot of Jagannath, the Nandighosa, while the chariot of Subhadra, the Devdalan or Darpadalan, stands in the centre and is distinguished by its red and black colours.

To the axles of the chariot wheels are tied thick ropes which are pulled by the attendants and the crowd. Unlike the chariots of Balabhadra and Subhadra that move smoothly, the chariot of Lord Jagan-nath frequently breaks down along the way. The hitch is said to be caused by a mistake in the ceremonial procedure or the result of a devout follower being wronged. The chief priest arrives to appease the Lord through elaborate rituals. Most years, the chariot reaches the Gundicha temple by nightfall, in rare cases it may fail to reach its destination by the time darkness descends, it then stays where it is until sunrise. However, delays in the journey are considered inauspicious and so meticulous preparations are made to ensure a smooth journey.

On the day of the Rathyatra, the innumerable ceremonies and rituals begin at dawn, of these pahandi and chherapnhara are popular. Interestingly, the cult of Jagannath dates back to the pre-Aryan days when the Shabar tribals lived in this area. Forest-dwellers, they were essentially nature worshippers and believed in animism. It was their chieftain who worshiped the deity of Nilmadhav. King Indradumnya of Puri acquired the wooden idol through chieftain Biswabasu and installed it as Lord Jagannath of Puri. There are various legends regarding the incomplete form and the functions of the deities.

Ceremonies and festivals connected with the Rathyatra are conducted by a special group of attendants called daitapatis who are said to have descended from Biswabasu. After the routine morning ceremonies, the gods are served food and dressed in special clothes. Then the daitapatis take over and unfasten the idol. The Sudarshan Chakra comes down first and as it reaches the stairs of the temple, the images are brought down one after another. Then begins the pahandi when the images are lifted in one continuous motion, hugged and carried over to the chariots. On the way, the idols are adorned with specially decorated headgear (now made of thermocol). Then begins the arduous task of putting the images in the chariots.

After the gods are safely settled (with a cushion at their back), the Gajapati ruler of Puri arrives in a palanquin, amidst much fanfare. He conducts many rituals, the chief of which is sweeping the chariots with a gold broom. A lesson in humility, the event symbolises the belief that before Lord Jagannath everybody is a servant. This event is known as the chherapanhara.

Other guardian deities, the wooden charioteers and horses are put in their designated places. Two trunks containing the dresses and other items of daily use for the gods are placed in the chariot of Lord Jagannath. Lastly, the images are adorned with fresh headgear and floral arrangements and the procession begins. Attendants, members of other maths and institutions, walk with the chariots to the accompaniment of assorted musical instruments and songs. The crowd, now swelling by the minute, surges forward to tug at the ropes and the police have a hard time trying to keep them at bay, to prevent accidents. In days gone by, people threw themselves under the giant wheels because dying this way meant a berth in heaven. The ritual is now dead, but in any case the district administration and local volunteers keep arrangements for first aid and emergencies. The crowd runs along with the chariots, some right up to the Gundicha temple.

At the Gundicha temple too various ceremonies take place, the most important being the sandhya darshan or the evening audition. On the day of the return, the chariot of Lord Jagannath stops near the palace to meet consort Goddess Lakshmi. After arriving at the Puri temple, the images remain on the chariot for a day. The following day, they are attired in special clothes of gold—known as the sunabesh or golden attire. Special food and drinks are served to the gods before they retire to the temple, probably as tired and happy as the devotees.