Every year, in the 3rd month of the Lunar calendar, July, the lesser talked state of Odisha holds a historical procession of their guardian deities in the small pilgrimage town of Puri, the Rath Yatra.
Many of you may not have even heard of Rath Yatra but for pilgrims and devotees around the world, it is a festival they eagerly wait for every year. The stories and traditions that it revolves around are what makes it interesting.
After being away from home, Lord Krishna is said to have heard the callings of his devotees longing to meet him. As he heard more of their love-plight situation, he retreated into himself and felt the deep longing to go back home.
The festival celebrates Lord Jagannath’s (an incarnation of Lord Krishna) return along with his elder brother and sister, to his home, Vrindavan from Dwarka. The rituals and traditions are such that they are said to recreate the events from the original story of Krishna’s return home from Mahabharata.
Hindu festival, you say?
Rath Yatra is a symbol of “unity in diversity” that India stands for where it takes its traditions from Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. It is a festival and journey of love that brings out the beautiful relation of the common folks and their faith.
Rath Yatra is not a single day event but goes on for a period of over 9 days with each day bringing in a new divine wonder. Well, that said let us give you an insight into what really happens during the 9 days story of the three gods’ journey to their home and back.
1. Snana Purnima
A month before Rath Yatra starts, the three lords are brought out of the temple for the first time in the year to prepare them for their journey and are given a ritualistic bath with 108 pitchers of water from traditional earthen pitchers. The water used is continuously drawn from the northern well situated inside the temple. Devotees from around India flock in to watch this holy shower and to catch a glimpse of their beloved lord. After the bath, the three lords are dressed up in beautiful black and white elephant forms known as Hati Vesa or Ganesha Vesa.
As the legend goes, when a few pilgrims came to visit the Lord a long time ago but refused to pray to anyone else but Lord Ganesha, then Lord Jagannath who is an incarnation of God Vishnu and Lord Balabadra who is an incarnation of God Shiva transformed themselves into two faces of Lord Ganesha to prove to them that they were all the same with different names. Hence, every year after their ritualistic bath, the lords take on the magnificent elephant forms.
As the original story goes, after the ritualistic bath, the lords do not return to the temple since they catch a fever and hence, the views of the deities is barred to the public. I guess, too much is not good even for the gods.
During this time, the main temple door remains shut and Patti paintings (a traditional form of Odia painting) of the three lords are placed instead. During the sick leave of our deities, they are fed with roots, leaves, berries, and fruits to nurse them back to health.
15 days after the special care that they receive, the three lords come back with a bang. Wouldn’t you enjoy being gorgeously dressed and going back to our loved ones after days of absolute shut down? Well, the Gods are no different.
3. Nava Yauvana Vesa
After Ansara, adorned with new costumes and majestically decorated, the three lords finally appear in front of the waiting eyes and their guise is named Nava Yauvana Vesa. The joy of the devotees when they finally greet their Gods is surely heartwarming.
The lords finally begin their journey back home to the Gundicha temple through the grand avenue, Bada Danda surrounded by an unimaginable crowd of loyal devotees.
4. Rath Yatra
The actual Rath Yatra kicks off after the Nava Yauvana Vesa, an event eagerly awaited by the pilgrims for over a year.
The chariot festival features three intricately built chariots for the three deities with symbolic colours for each. The chariot for Lord Jagannath is named Nandighosha which is covered with yellow and red coloured applique cloth, Lord Balabhadra’s chariot is named Taladhwaja which is covered in red and green applique cloth while Goddess Subhadra ’s chariot, Devadalana is covered with red and black coloured applique cloth. Each chariot is accompanied by nine different deities from the temple.
It takes 2 months of hard work for the chariots to be built and once it is done, the lords are all set to make their journey.
– The splendour of the decorated Lords being carried one by one to the chariots by their devotees is what leaves you awestruck. This ritual is called Goti Pahandi. The Sudarshan Chakra being the protector of the lords is taken first up the chariot of Goddess Subhadra. Balabhadra, Subhadra and last but definitely not the least, Lord Jagannath, soon follow the procession on to their respective chariots.
– Goti Pahandi is followed by the King Of Puri himself sweeping the lords’ chariots with a gold ended broom. The ritual is named Chera Pahanra by the locals and is an auspicious sign of a kingdom devoting itself to their Lord.
– As the lords take their seats up in their respective chariots, their chariots are then pulled by the pilgrims and devotees for 2 miles till Gundicha temple. Seems like an easy job? Well, it isn’t! The chariots carry not only all the deities present inside but also the weight of hundreds of wooden pieces used, wooden horses placed in front of the chariots along with people who are atop the chariot with the Gods. Lord Jagannath’s chariot, Nandighosha is as high as 42 feet! Cutting through the crowds of million and pulling the chariots along with it is a feat to achieve.
It takes a day or sometimes over two days to cross those 2 miles!
– Once they reach the Gundicha temple, the lords stay at their home land for 7 days.
– According to legend, on the 5th day into their stay, Goddess Lakshmi is known to visit Lord Jagannath in Gundicha accompanied by her attendants. The local tale spins itself into a humorous tale of Goddess Lakshmi being angry at her husband, Lord Jagannath for not taking her along or informing her about his journey. As the ritual goes, while leaving for the main temple the Goddess breaks one of the wooden pieces from Jagannath’s chariot in anger. The ritual is known as Hera Panchami.
-Not wanting to anger the Goddess further, the three lords’ take leave from Gundicha and prepare to return to their temple where Goddess Lakshmi awaits. The procession back to the temple is called Bahuda Yatra. The lords’ undergo Dhadi Pahandi as they are carried out by their devotees in a line out of the temple and are carried back to their respective chariots.
– It is said that on their way back, they make a stop at their aunt’s place where they are served with a delicious sweet dish called Poda Pitha which is also an exquisite Odia sweet dish.
– Upon reaching the main temple, the lords stay on their chariots for another day. The next day after their return, the three lords are adorned with gold with the tradition being named Suna Vesa.
In olden days, all the gold that the kingdom won was devoted to Lord Jagannath, and so to celebrate the might of the kingdom, the Suna Vesa is still continued till date during Rath Yatra.
-The day after, the three lords are served with a special sherbet locally known as Adhara Pana. After the lords are fed, the utensils are thrown and broken upon the chariots’ ground. It is said that the food is then dedicated to our ancestors or spirits for their salvation.
– The next day, the three lords are carried back into the temple where the attendants of Goddess Lakshmi close the main door to the temple preventing them from entering. Lord Jagannath then wins her heart back by feeding her Rasagolla after which the main door opens and welcomes the three lords back home.
With that, the nine days of Rath Yatra comes to an end!
The grandeur of the spectacle is worth watching!
Although this year’s Rath Yatra is nearing its end, you can always take a trip to Puri next year. What will grasp your heart and sight isn’t the divinity but what that divinity means to the people who have devoted themselves to their God. Let us tell you this, although unless you are a Hindu you may not be allowed inside the temple, however, Rath Yatra is for everyone, it is an occasion which brings the faith of people together. A journey of love and devotion, Rath Yatra.
The amalgamation of the feelings attached to the festival is rather an experience in itself.
Comment on the blog sharing your own Rath Yatra experiences if you have any or if you plan to experience it soon (because we do hope you do get the chance to experience it)