Thousands of people surrounding three beautifully adorned colossal chariots. Loud chants and prayers amid the reverberating sounds of gongs, conch shells and bells. Huge processions playing religious songs with trumpets, tambourines and drums. Devotees desperately trying to get hold of the ropes that pull the chariots. Little children lining the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the deities when the chariots pass by. This is the colorful tableaux you can see at almost every Rath Yatra in Puri.
Puri’s Rath Yatra is the oldest in the world, and is vividly described in the Skanda Purana, Padma Purana, Brahma Purana, and Kapila Samhita. Devotees from all over India and outside throng Puri to attend this auspicious occasion which commences in June or July. The Festival of Chariots or Rath Yatra has been celebrated with great fervor for over five thousand years, and to this day, all the rituals have remained unchanged. This festival commemorates the journey of Lord Jagannath, Devi Subhadra, and Lord Balabhadra to their aunt’s abode in Sree Gundicha Temple.
Traditions and Rituals
Early in the morning, deities are carefully carried out of the Jagannath Temple to their respective chariots, Nandighosa, Dwarpadalana, and Taladhwaja, draped in colorful clothes and decked up in ornate finery. Every year, 14 meter high chariots constructed in wood are brought from Dasapalla by a privileged team of carpenters. In keeping with the customs, these logs are set afloat in the Mahanadi, and are gathered near Puri to be taken to the temple by road.
The festival begins with the King of Gajapati of Puri performing the usual ritual of ‘Chhera Panhara’, where he sprinkles sandalwood water on the road and cleans it with a golden-handled broom. As the people pound the mridangams and drums, the rituals of Mangala Arati and Mailam are performed next. The priests then begin pulling the chariots with thousands of people leaping forward to help.
The Katha Upanishad considers the chariots to be human bodies inside which are instilled the souls, driven by the deities. They are said to take the chariots to the journey to ‘Bhavasagar’ or material existence. It signifies the return of Jagannath, along with his brother Balabhadra and sister, Subhadra return to their shrine after staying at their aunt’s house for a week. After the chariots bring the deities back to the main temple, the priests adorn them with gold ornaments and worship them.
Without fail dedicated devotees travel to Puri each year to witness this festival and take part in the rope-pulling since it is believed to help them find the way to heaven after death. Irregardless of whether you are a devotee or not, this mesmerizing festival is one that must be experienced at least once.
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