On June 19, Puri in Orissa will witness the annual rath yatra at the world-famous Jagannath Temple. Puri was once Paloura, a famous port that carried on a flourishing maritime trade with East Asia.
Today Puri is a seaside resort with the longest beach in the state. It is one of the four holiest places of pilgrimage in India for Hindus (the other three are Badri-Kedarnath, Rameswaram and Dwaraka).
The majestic temple of Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, stands on an elevated platform in the heart of Puri. It was built in the 12th century A.D. by King Chodaganga to commemorate the shifting of his capital from south to central Orissa. Lord Jagannath is worshipped here as Lord Krishna along with his sister, Subhadra and elder brother, Balabhadra.
According to legend, the idols were made by the divine architect Vishwakarma on the orders of Vishnu himself. Vishwakarma agreed on condition that no one would disturb him. When an impatient Vishnu broke into the room, the idols were still incomplete and remained thus.
Another story relates that a voice from the heavens told the King Indradyumna that he would find the lord’s idol in the form of a log. Soon such a log appeared floating on the sea. The king had it brought ashore. The lord then appeared before the king as an old carpenter and offered to chisel an image in 21 days, provided nobody watched him at work. The king promised, but driven by curiosity, he peeped into the room before the stipulated period was over. All that the king saw in the room were three wooden idols without arms. The old carpenter was never seen again.
The statues are replaced with new ones every 12 years.
The wood for making the idols is cut only from the trunks of those neem trees seen by certain daitas or worshippers in their dreams. A mysterious object (which many scholars claim to be the sacred tooth of the Buddha) is taken out of the old idol and placed in the new one by a blindfolded priest, whose hands are wrapped in cloth so that he cannot examine the contours of the object. This takes place at the Nau Kalebara festival just before the Rath Yatra.
The Rath Yatra or the Chariot Festival commemorates the journey of Lord Krishna from Gokul to Mathura. Two weeks before the Yatra, the three idols are given a ceremonial bath. Since they become discoloured, only the chief priest can see them till they are re-painted! Before they are taken out in three enormous, wooden chariots to Gundicha Bari or the Garden House of Jagannath, the King of Puri arrives to sweep the chariots with a golden broom. Nandighosa, or Chakradhwaja, the 16-wheeled chariot of Jagannath, is the largest of the chariots. It is 14 m high and 11 m wide. 832 pieces of wood go into its making. Balabhadra’s chariot is called Taladhwaja and Subhadra’s chariot, Darpadalana.
Although the jouney is just a mile long, it takes the procession an entire day’s travelling on the Bada-Danda or grand road, to reach Gundicha Bari. Thousands of people come to watch the spectacular event and even participate in pulling the chariot. There is a frenzy to touch the idol of Jagannath for it is believed that a single touch on this particular day can free one from the cycle of birth and death.
The images of the gods are ceremoniously brought back to the main temple after 7 days. The procession is called Bahuda Yatra.
Jagannath stops for a while at the Mausi Ma mandir or the temple of his aunt. He is offered his favourite food here, a rice cake called poda pitha. The chariot then stops near the palace of the King of Puri, the Adisevaka or foremost servant of the Lord. Here the Goddess Lakshmi steals a glimpse of her Lord from a distance and is offered a garland, before she retires to her own shrine. After reaching the temple, the deities remain in the chariots for a day. The next day, Ekadashi, they are dressed in golden costumes and re-enter the temple, in a ceremony called Niladri Vijay, the grand finale of the Rath Yatra.