The Rath Yatra is the biggest festival celebrated each year in Puri – one of India’s holiest cities located on the eastern coast in the state of Orissa. The word rath means ‘chariot’ while yatra means ‘pilgrimage’ or ‘journey’. Every year, Lord Jagannath makes the journey along with his brother Lord Balabhadra and his sister Devi Subhadra, from their home at the Jagannath temple to the Gundicha temple three kilometres away where they visit their aunt for nine days.
Elaborate preparations start months before the festival day. 150 carpenters work for a two-month period on building the three huge chariots – one for each of the three deities. 20 sculptors then create the intricate wood carvings which decorate the chariots. The chariots are painted in bright colours and decorated with appliqué work. A whopping 8 million rupees (145,000EUR / 210,000CAD / 198,000USD) are spent on the preparations for the event.
The giant painted wheels of the Jagannath chariot.
This year 700,000 devotees from all over India and different parts of the world came to Puri on July 16th to witness the Rath Yatra. This is the only time of the year that non-Hindus have the chance to catch a glimpse of Lord Jagannath (as they’re not allowed into his temple – see previous article). As Jagannath is a manifestation of Lord Krishna, this is a particularly important event for Hare Krishna devotees.
On the morning of the Rath Yatra, Puri beach was crowded with pilgrims who were taking an early morning dip in the Bay of Bengal.
Grand Road, the wide thoroughfare in front of the Jagannath temple where the three chariots were standing ready for the journey, was already crowded with devotees by early morning. There were long lines at stalls offering breakfast and prasad (blessed food).
There was a festive air as devotees sang and danced, playing drums and cymbals, chanting ‘Jai Jagannath!’ or ‘Hare Krishna’.
A series of elaborate rituals prepared the deities for their journey. The idols were fed 20 dishes specially prepared for them by cooks, dressed in elaborate and colourful clothes and decorations, and swayed rhythmically as they were carried out of the temple by priests and placed in their respective chariots. The police, dressed in their distinctive khaki uniforms and wielding extra-long lathis (wooden sticks), maintained crowd control and kept Jagannath fans from getting too close to the idols.
The 200-foot long ropes attached to the chariots are pulled by devotees and mostly police officers, who try to maintain security as thousands surge forward and try to pull or at least touch the ropes which are believed to wash away sins and bring good fortune.
Balabhadra’s chariot is the first to make the trip, followed by Devi Subhadra’s chariot and then Lord Jagannath. They stay at their aunt’s place for nine days before making the trip back to their home in the Jagannath temple.