It’s one of the grandest of all temple celebrations spanning over eight days. Participated by thousands of devotees who visit Orissa especially to be a part of this spectacular celebrations, the Rath Yatra coming up next month is a festival like none other, celebrated in honor of Lord Jagannath the town’s presiding deity, where magnificent chariots resembling temple structures containing images / deities of Jagannath, or Lord Krishna, his brother Balabhadra or Balrama and sister Subhadra, are paraded through the streets of Puri, the temple town of Orissa.

Would you like to know more about the  Rath Yatra that’s held annually in June-July? …What started this event that’s today the town’s most awaited festivals? … Or the rituals that follow? Then read up.

While there are many legends behind this popular chariot festival, according to some, it is said that the Yatra as we know it today originated as Lord Jagannatha is said to have expressed his wish to visit his birthplace every year for a week. Others claim that it was Subhadra who wanted to visit Dwarka, her parent’s home and it was her brothers who took her there on this day. The Yatra is a remembrance of that visit.

Placed on massive chariots, the Rath Yatra is the annual journey,undertaken by  these idols from Gundicha Ghar, a distance of 2 kms away from their temple, where they remain for a week before returning to the temple. The journey  is accompanied by huge processions of people, celebrating and chanting bhajans (hymns).

Celebrated since ancient times, a week after ‘Ashadha Sukla Dasami’, the 10th day of the bright fortnight of Ashadha (June-July), preparations for the yatra begin as early as April when the construction of these grand chariots begin.

A Chariot Festival, each chariot is a work of art with each deity having its own massive chariot, which are replicas of the temple, made out of wood of specific trees such as phassi, dhausa, etc. that are normally brought from the ex-princely state of Dasapalla by a specialist group of carpenters.  While Nandighosha – Jagannatha’s chariot, is a massive 45 feet yellow chariot, having 16 wheels with each wheel measuring 7 feet in diameter, Balabhadra’s blue chariot i.e. Taladhvaja, is a bit smaller having 14 wheels, where as the smallest chariot called Deviratha belongs to Subhadra and has 12 wheels.

Legend has it that after Krishna was killed and cremated and the holy relics were placed in a box, Indradyumna, approached the divine artisan, Vishvakarma, to mould an image of these relics. Vishvakarma agreed to do so, on condition he be left undisturbed till its completion. Several years later, eager to know how the work was progressing, Indradyumna broke his word and went to the site. However this made Vishvakarma furious and  left the work incomplete. As Indradyumna had ordered a temple to be constructed to house the statue, he requested his chariot to transport the statue, as it was, to the temple, thus starting this chariot festival.

A time of great grandeur, the chariots are kept in front of the Puri temple, where the King of Puri brings the deities to their respective chariots. To show that in the eyes of God, all men are equal; heirs of the King sweep the chariot platforms with a gold-handled broom and sprinkle scented water upon it. As per custom, only the King of Puri and the King of Nepal are allowed to touch the idols as they belong to the Chandravanshi dynasty, the same as Krishna.

Once the idols are lowered into the chariots, they are pulled by pilgrims, with as many as 4,000 odd devotees being needed to draw the chariot dedicated to Lord Jagannath. After a week at the summerhouse, the journey back, also known as the Phera Rath Yatra takes place. While the idols are preserved, the chariots are broken down, its wood sold as relics and a replica made. However every 12/ 24 years, when two Ashadha months occur one after the other  the images are changed, and a ceremony Naba Kalebar is performed where the old images are buried inside the temple. It is believed in during that time, everything in the universe changes form, and so Lord Jagannatha also receives equal treatment.

Making this festival even more special is the fact that the Jagannath Mandir in Puri is one of the four most sacred temples in the Indian sub-continent, others being Rameshwar in South, Dwarka in West and Badrinath in the Himalayas. Also making this temple special is the fact that this temple is the only temple in the world to house idols of deities who are siblings – Lord Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra.

A day when millions of devotees gather together to get a glance of the idol of Lord Jagannatha as it is said to catch a glimpse of the Lord means attaining salvation, this day has been declared as a public holiday in Orissa with not only men but women and children also taking part in it.

Falling during the monsoons, this festival is also a time to give thanks for the bounty the almighty has provided. From decorating houses and place of work with rangoli and flowers, to preparing special dishes and purchasing miniature chariots with tiny idols in them for children, this day is one that is not only looked forward to the people of the state but by devotes across the country!