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Rath Yatra – The Chariot Festival

The Rath yatra, or the chariot festival as it is popularly known as, is celebrated in the month of June-July every year. As per the Hindu calendar, it is celebrated during the Ashadh, or the rainy season. The Jagannath Rath yatra is an important festival celebrated with pomp and glory in the eastern states of India, especially in Odisha.  

Rath yatra is celebrated as a symbol of love and peace. Lord Jagannath is considered one of Lord Vishnu’s reincarnations in Hindu mythology and is worshipped as a living god in Odisha. Even though the Rath yatra is celebrated every year, new idols of the three deities are only made every 12 years and are in the same incomplete form in which they were originally made.

As the deities are considered living beings, the rituals are also relatable to humans. Like the Snana Purnima, which is a long luxurious bath that the deities perform to get away from the scorching heat of the summer, and then go into isolation for a fortnight to protect themselves from the summer heat.

Or their desire to step out to visit their aunt at Gundicha temple once the heat subsides after the first rains. This journey of the siblings is celebrated as the Rath yatra when they leave on their individual chariots from the main temple to the Gundhicha temple. After an indulgent and restful stay for nine days, they begin the return journey on the ninth day.

On the way back to the temple, they stop en route at the Mausi Maa temple. Here they get to savour the offering of their favourite sweet Poda Peetha, a traditional steamed sweet made from milk and flour. Thus, Lord Jagannath, the lord of the universe, is a divine human indulging himself along with his siblings.

Stories from the mythologies

Hindu mythology has many stories about the origins of the chariot festival. One of them is that one day mother Rohini was narrating the colourful Ras Lilas of Lord Krishna to the women in the palace when the three siblings, Subhadra, Krishna and Balarama, walk-in. They get so engrossed in the narrative that they stand still listening to the tales of Lord Krishna’s Ras Lilas. At that moment, Lord Narada enters and on seeing the siblings standing together in such a manner, blesses them that they should always grant darshan to their devotees in this manner. Hence, every year the three siblings go out together on the Rath yatra to grace their devotees with their presence.

Another story (as narrated by my grandfather) is of King Indradyumna of Puri who once wanted to get idols of the gods made for the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. One day a poor carpenter approached the king offering his services. His only condition was that he not be disturbed until his work is completed or else he would leave. The King agreed readily, and the carpenter closed the door of the temple to begin his work.

Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath

Months passed and there was no news from the carpenter. The King’s curiosity got better of him, and he opened the doors of the temple. Inside he saw the incomplete idols and a voice informed him that as he had broken his word, the idols have been left incomplete and he must install them in their present state with proper ceremony. The carpenter was none other than Lord Vishwakarma, the divine craftsman of the universe. Thus, the incomplete idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra were presented to the people in that state. 

The three chariots in the Rath Yatra

In short, …

The idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are taken out every year in a grand ceremony on three gigantic and elaborately decorated chariots. Devotees throng the main temple route, called Bada Danda, to be able to participate in the pulling of these chariots. The chariots head to the Gundicha temple where they stay for 9 days. On the ninth day, they return to their original temple thus ending the Rath yatra. This return journey is called the Bahuda yatra and is equally exciting with the devotees thronging the Bada Danda to get a chance to pull the chariots.  

This year, the Rath yatra began on 01 Jul and the Bahuda yatra is scheduled on 9 Jul, 2022.

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