The festival of Ratha Yatra is celebrated annually, around the mid-year i.e. the months of June-July, in the temple town of Puri, Odisha. It is celebrated by the Hindus, on the second day of Sukla Paksha, in the month of Ashadh. The time is considered to be ideal for the magnificent Yatra, amidst the summer and the monsoon months.
The Ratha Yatra is celebrated for a period of 15 days and it essentially commences on the occasion of Akshaya Tritiya, when the construction of the Ratha begins. The atmosphere is filled with devotion and passion and thousands of devotees flock the town to take part in the festivities.
The principal deities of Sri Mandira in Puri, Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balabhadra (Balarama) and Goddess Subhadra, are taken out on elaborately decorated chariots with a lot of pomp and fervor. The procession is carried up to the Gundicha Temple in the North. These elaborate arrangements make Ratha Yatra one of the grandest celebrations in the whole world. It is widely believed that the darshan or sight of the Vamana or chariot gives salvation to an individual.
Internal Meaning of the Ratha Yatra Festival
Lord Jagannatha is essentially the representation of Lord Krishna’s love and affection for Radharani. Lord Krishna was highly affected by the pain of separation from Radharani and other friends of Vrindavan when he was dwelling in Dwaraka. On one solar eclipse, he decided to visit Kurukshetra, along with his brother Balarama and sister Subhadra, on his chariot, to meet Radharani and other friends from Vrindavan. They met each other and the residents of Vrindavan wanted Lord Krishna to stay with them at Vrindavan. While returning, Lord Krishna was immersed in the overwhelming affection for Radharani and he went into a state of divine trance or Mahabhava. In this state, his eyes dilated like a fully bloomed lotus and his limbs retreated into the body. This form of the body of Lord Jagannatha is also known as Radha-Viraha-Vidhura. Thus, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s effort to carry Lord Jagannatha from the Sri Mandira to the Gundicha Temple essentially represents the eagerness of Lord Krishna to go to Vrindavan from Dwaraka.
Sanctity and Significance of Ratha Yatra
The festival of Ratha Yatra is also known by many names, such as Dasavatara Yatra, Ghosa Yatra, Navadina Yatra and Gundicha Yatra. It is widely believed that the darshan or sight of the Vamana or the chariot emancipates a devotee from the travails of the cycle of life and death. The Yatra or the journey of the chariot is performed in two ways i.e. one involving the shorter courses by circumambulating the temple and the other involving the travel to another temple. The journey is believed to be representative of deities in the temple, which is also known as Chalanti Pratima and Bije Pratima in Orissa, and Utsava Murti in Southern India.
Lord Jagannatha is believed to be the manifestation of Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna. He originally manifested himself in the form of a Nyagrodha Vriksha or a Banyan Tree. It is believed that the reach of Yama, the God of Death, is curtailed in this Sri Kshetra i.e. Puri. The Ratha Yatra is considered to be of utmost significance and even touching the rope, pulling the chariot, and the wheels, drawing the chariot, are considered to be of tremendous religious significance.
It is widely believed that merely the sight of the chariot frees a devotee from the cycle of life and death. Participation in the festivities helps in the upliftment of the soul. The mere glimpse of Lord Jagannatha is believed to instantly purify the soul and help in purging all the sins of the individual. One, who happens to pull the chariot, is believed to be blessed for his entire life.
Before the commencement of the actual Yatra, the Chandan Yatra is celebrated. During this occasion, the deities are pasted with sandalwood paste and fragrant water, 108 times a day. For fifteen consecutive days, various herbs and oils are applied on the idols and later the idol is repainted and retouched. Chosen priests, with special hereditary privileges are allowed to perform the daily rituals and they are on a special diet of only fruits, during this period. Special attires and ornaments are also used to adorn the deities, during the occasion of the Yatra. Buddhist, Tantric, Sanatan Dharma and Jain rites are incorporated in the Yatra rituals.
Ratha Yatra Day
Each of the three chariots are elaborately decorated and distinctly colored, to distinguish the deities in them. The King arrives in a special palanquin and after observing some religious rites, known as Chhera Pamhra, the Yatra begins. The chariot of Lord Balarama is followed by that of Goddess Subhadra. Finally, the chariot of Lord Jagannatha is drawn with a lot of pomp and fervor. The chariots are drawn by thousands of devotees, with the support of sturdy ropes. The chariots are pulled up to the Gundicha Temple. The deities are housed in the Gundicha Temple for a period of seven days, after which the return journey is initiated.
The services of different types of Sevaks are utilized during the Ratha Yatra. They are as follows:
o Daita Pati
o Puspa Laka
o Banati Players
Three Chariots i.e. of Lord Balarama, Goddess Subhadra and Lord Jagannatha, are involved in the performance of the Ratha Yatra. The chariots are made of wood from special trees such as Dhausa, Phassi etc. The woods are specially chosen by a team of expert carpenters, who have the hereditary privileges for the same, from the formerly princely state of Dasapalla. After the careful selection of the logs, they are set afloat in the River Mahanadi; they are later collected near Puri.
The three chariots are briefly described as follows:
o Lord Jagannatha’s Chariot- Also known as Nandighosa, the chariot of Lord Jagannatha has a height of forty-five feet and is uniquely yellow striped in the canopy.
o Lord Balarama’s Chariot- Also known as the Taladhwaja, it has Palm Tree on its flag and is covered in red and blue cloth.
o Goddess Subhadra’s Chariot- Also known as Darpadalana, the chariot is decorated with red and black cloth, representing Goddess Shakti.
Images of nine Parsvadevatas are painted on each of the chariots and the chariots are drawn by four horses. The charioteers are known as Sarathi.
The Sandalwood Paste Festival: Chandan Yatra
The Sandalwood Paste festival or the Chandan Yatra is celebrated on the day of Akshya Tritiya and continues for a period of three weeks. The presiding deities of the temple are taken out on a ceremonial boat ride to the Narendra Tank and taken inside a temple, located in the middle of the tank. In this temple, the deities are given a ritualistic bath in stone tubs, with sandalwood paste, flowers and scents. The festival culminates with the Snana Yatra or the Bathing Ritual.
Nava Jaubana Darshana (Renewal Of Youth)
The day preceding the ceremonial stepping out of the deities from the temple, a coat of fresh paint is applied on the deities. The painting of the eyes of the deity is known as Netrostava. Thus, the deities are recovered and the reappearance of the deities for public viewing is also known as Nava Jaubana Darshana, a celebration for the renewal of youth. Hundreds of ardent devotees throng the temple premises to get darshan of the deity.
The Festival Journey
On the Asadha Shukla Dwitiya, the presiding deities i.e. Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balarama and Goddess Subhadra come out of the sanctum of the temple, to mingle with thousands of devotees.
Pahandi, stepping out of the temple premises
Just before the commencement of the holy journey, an elaborate ritual called Pahandi is performed. Owing to the heavy weight of Lord Jagannatha and Lord Balarama, wooden cross and silken ropes are attached to the head of the deities. This is performed in a ritualistic manner known as Senapatalagi. Finally, the deities are placed one after another into the chariot i.e. firstly Sudarshan makes his appearance in the chariot of Goddess Subhadra, followed by Lord Balarama and Goddess Subhadra. Lastly, Lord Jagannatha is carried onto his chariot.
Chhera Pahanra – Emperor as Sweeper of the Chariots
The King of Puri, Gajapati Divya Singha Deva is informed about the deities having taken their place in the respective chariots. The King arrives at the Grand Avenue in a silver plated palanquin. He is led by a small procession and a caparisoned elephant. The king sweeps the floor of the surface of the chariot with a golden broom and offers flowers and fragrant water to the deities. This tradition started right from the time of King Anant Varman Chodaganga Deva, who had declared himself as a Rauta or a servant of the Lord. This elaborate, extensive and extremely colorful ritual is also known as Chhera Pahanra.
The penultimate part of the Ratha Yatra celebrations, is the pulling of the chariots. After the pulling of the chariot of Lord Balarama, the chariot of Subhadra follows. At last, the spectacular journey of the Nandighosha or the chariot of Lord Jagannatha starts. All the chariots are drawn towards the Gundicha Temple.
The deities are housed in the Adamandapa, Garden House, for a period of seven days. On the ninth day, the return journey of the chariots begins. In the middle of the return journey, exchange of greetings and Podapitha, a cake made of rice and cereals, takes place. After the enactment of some customary acts, the main deities are returned to the Ratnasinhasana, the bejeweled throne.
Food prepared in Ratha Yatra & Method of Preparation
A special chamber is allotted for the preparation of the Mahaprasad. Nine earthen pots, also called Kunduas, are placed on top of each other and then placed above the fire-grill chamber. The priest performs the Surya Namaskar and then starts the preparation, along with his helpers. The earthen pots contain rice, dal and various vegetables. After the preparation of the Mahaprasad is over, a portion is offered to the Lord at the Bhog Mandap and the rest is sold to the pilgrims. The prasad is prepared every day, except on the seven days, when the deities are taken to the Gundicha Temple.
The main ingredients of the Mahaprasad are as follows:
o Arhar Dal
Special care is taken to avoid the usage of cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, garlic and tomatoes in the Mahaprasad.
As per legend, Vidyapati, the Chief Minister of King Indradyumna of Avanti, dreamt of a temple amidst the deep jungle island of Swarn Deep, Udra Desi. Lord Nilamadhava himself beckoned him to the temple, in his dream. Upon learning about the dream, King Indradyumna immediately dispatched Vidyapati to the area. Upon arriving, to his dismay, Vidyapati found that the deity had vanished from the temple. Vidyapati decided to perform the Ashvamedha Yajna and during the performance of the Yajna, Lord Nilamadhava appeared and directed Vidyapati to search for a piece of log with divine markings. After the completion of the Yajna, Vidyapati, to his surprise, found a piece of Neem log with distinct divine markings on it.
Soon a carpenter arrived and stated that, he would be able to shape the wood if he is not disturbed for some time. Then, the carpenter went inside a room and started working upon the wood. After the passage of four days, the King got apprehensive and opened the door of the room. He found that, there was no one inside the room except the four unfinished idols, without hands and legs. Thus, the structure and the look of the idols in the Lord Jagannatha Temple, remains the same till date and Neem wood is still used to make the idols of the Lord. The new idols are only made in particular years, with two Ashaads, which occurs every twelve to nineteen years.
ayati jana-nivaso devaki-janma-vado
yadu-vara-parisat svair dorbhir asyann adharmam
vraja-pura-vanitanam vardhayan kama-devam
Atmanam rathinam viddhi shareeram Rathmeva tu
Buddhim tu sarathim viddhi manaha pragrahameva tu
Indriyani hayanyahur vishayansteshu gocharan
The atman is Rathi, owner of the ‘chariot’ – the body; the intellect is the Sarathi (driver); the mind is the rein; the senses are the horses; and the Panch Vishayas – material objects of the five senses – are the fields of pasture for the horses .i.e. the person whose Sarathi (intellect) is wise, whose mind fully controls the senses, can traverse Samsara (material world) to reach the desired goal – the Lord’s abode.
Since, no darshan of the deities are allowed during the fifteen days of the preparations, numerous devotees visit the Alarnath Temple at Brahmagiri, which is believed to be another manifestation of the Lord.