This spectacular chariot festival celebrated for 8 days is held at the famous Jagannath Temple at Puri (Orissa). Thousands of devotees flock to Puri during the occasion, as they believe that a glimpse of Lord Jagannath in his chariot gives salvation. Images of Lord Jagannath - the Lord of the Universe, his sister Subhadra and brother Balbhadra are taken out in a procession in three immense chariots. The main chariot is 14 meters high and 10 meters square with 16 wheels.
Thousands of devotees pull these chariots to Gundicha Mandir, a temple 3 km away. After a week, on 'Ashadha Sukla Dasami', the 10th day of the bright fortnight of Ashadha (June-July), return journey or 'Bahuda Yatra' of the deities commences in the same manner from Gundicha temple to the main temple like Rath Yatra.When two months of Ashadha fall in one year, Rath Yatra is observed as the festival of 'Nabakalebar' the old deities are buried within the temple premises ('Koilibaikuntha') and are replaced by new deities, carved out of Margosa trees for which there are set procedures. Double Ashadha occurs at intervals of 8 to 19 years. Construction of the chariots begin as early as April.
Jagannath Rath Yatra or the' chariot journey of Lord Jagannatha', observed in the month of Ashadha (June-July), is a festival that celebrates the annual visit of the God to his birthplace. The Jagannath Temple at Puri, Orissa is the venue for all celebrations. Several lakh people converge at Puri for this festival. An atmosphere of almost hysterical devotion prevails on this day and in earlier years; devotees were known to have thrown themselves under the wheels of the rath in the hope of obtaining instant salvation.
Images of Jagannath, as Lord Krishna is known, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, are taken in giant chariots to Gundicha Ghar. They stay there for a week and then return to the temple. On their journeys they are accompanied by a huge procession of people, singing and celebrating.
The Legends behind the Yatra The festival has been celebrated since ancient times. According to a legend about its origin, Jagannatha is said to have expressed his desire to visit his birthplace every year for a week. Accordingly, the deities are taken to the Gundicha Mandir every year.
According to another legend, Subhadra wanted to visit Dwarka, her parent's home, and her brothers took her there on this day. The Yatra is a commemoration of that visit.
According to the Bhagavad Purana, it is believed that it was on this day that Krishna and Balarama went to Mathura to participate in a wrestling competition, at Kansa's invitation.
Some Hindus believe that Jagannatha is an incarnation of Vishnu. Since Vishnu has four arms, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana represent Vishnu's four arms. Each deity has its own massive chariot, which are replicas of the temple. Jagannatha's chariot, Nandighosha, is yellow in color, 45 ft high and has 16 wheels, each one seven feet in diameter. About 4,200 devotees draw the chariot. Balabhadra's chariot is called Taladhvaja, is blue in color and has 14 wheels. Subhadra's chariot is the smallest, with 12 wheels and is called Deviratha.
Origin of the chariot rideAccording to a legend, when a poisonous arrow accidentally killed Krishna, his body was left under a tree. Later, someone cremated him and placed the ashes in a box. Directed by Vishnu, Indradyumna requested the divine artisan Vishvakarma to mould an image from the holy relics. Vishvakarma agreed to undertake the task, provided that he was left undisturbed till its completion. When several years passed, Indradyumna became impatient and went to see how work was progressing. Enraged, Vishvakarma left the image incomplete. Indradyumna had ordered the construction of a temple to house the statue. So he ordered his chariot to transport the statue, as it was, to the temple. There, Brahma breathed life into the image.
The Rituals On the day of the journey, people get up early and offer prayers to Jagannatha. The chariots are lined up in front of the Puri temple. The King of Puri with great pomp and ceremony then brings the deities to their respective chariots. Devotees offer prayers to the deities. Descendants of the King, heralded by gaily-caparisoned elephants sweep the chariot platforms with a gold-handled broom and sprinkle scented water to demonstrate that in the eyes of God, all men are equal. Devotees also hurl obscenities and profane abuses at the God.
Locals believe that there existed an incestuous relationship between Jagannatha and his sister Subhadra, which provoked abuses when the images were out in public. The entire yatra is a symbolic humanization of God and an attempt to bring God down from his pedestal of glory to a more human level.
Only the King of Puri and the King of Nepal are allowed to touch the idols as they belong to the Chandravanshi dynasty, the same as Krishna. Then the teeming pilgrims line up and pull the chariot.
When the chariots reach the summerhouse, the idols are installed. 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 preserved. 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 ceremony, Naba Kalebar, consists of burying the old images inside the temple. Then new images are created. This practice stems from the belief that in such a year, everything in the universe changes form, and therefore Jagannatha receives the same treatment.
This day is a public holiday in the state. Children are seen on the streets carrying miniature versions of the chariots with tiny idols installed on them. Shops and houses are decorated with flowers, lights and rangoli. Special dishes and sweets are prepared. Most people refrain from eating non-vegetarian food. As this festival falls during the monsoon season, people also thank the Gods for their mercy and bounty, by participating in the procession. Nowhere else is a deity, once consecrated, taken out of the temple. The Jagannatha Temple at Puri is the sole exception to this general rule. In fact during the Ratha Yatra, the chariots become mobile temples, which sanctify the city.