The 'Chariot festival' or Ratha Yatra literally means journey by chariot. This festival is observed across India with pomp and gaiety. Lord Vishnu's incarnations such as Lord Krishna or Jagannath or even Lord Ram's idol is placed on a chariot drawn by the 'dastus'. It is brought to different destinations like Goddess Lakshmi's temple, Radhika's temple or Sita Devi's. Eventually, it goes to Puri to Gundicha temple where the wooden idol of Lord Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra are made.
This Ratha Yatra starts on the second lunar day of bright fortnight in the month of Aashaadh (Sukla daitiya) and continues for eight days. Among all the chariot festivals, on this occasion the foremost festival is observed in Puri, one of the four greatest places of pilgrimage in India. Here three chariots, one each of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balaram and of their beloved sister Subhadra Devi are brought on the streets of Puri and drawn by thousands of devotees who converge on the occasion form all over the globe.
The most important characteristics of this festival of Puri is that people of all castes, right from Brahmin to Chandal have the right to draw the chariot. This chariot proceeds slowly in the morning after the performing the Puja and other rituals. The king of Puri, Gajapati, sweeps the street with a golden broom.
The chariots are covered with different colored clothes. They have different names - Lord Jagannath's hariot is named 'Nandighosh', Lord Balaram's 'Taladhwaj' and Subhadra Devi's chariot is called 'Darpadalana'. The Nandighosh's colour is red and yellow; the Taladhwaj's colour is red and green while the Darpadalana's colour is red and blue. Though Devi Subhadra is worshipped in Puri, but in Hindu mythology, she is not called a goddess. Only in Mahabharata we find that she is the beloved sister of his two loving elder brothers.
Another interesting feature of the idols of Puri is that unlike the idols of Gods and Goddesses of all the temples of India, they have more resemblance with tribal totems. The main temple of Puri was built in the 12th century during the reign of the king Anantavarman Chodganga. After that, another 120 temples were built later.
Before the journey begins, the chariots are placed in proper array - first Lord Balaram's chariot, which is 44 feet high, then Devi Subhadra's chariot, which is 43 feet high and at last Lord Jagannath's, which has a height of 45 feet. Throughout the day the chariots proceed slowly towards Gundicha temple and reach there in the evening.
The three deities rest there for eight days and on the ninth day, their return starts in the morning, after performing Puja and other rituals. On the day before the chariots are placed in right array by turning their faces towards the streets. This return journey is called in Oriya as 'Bahuda Jatra', which starts in the morning and terminates before the Jagannath temple. The deities are kept on the chariots and are worshipped till Ekadashi or eleventh lunar day, after which they are again placed in the temple in their respective places.
Another feature of Puri's Jagannath temple is that the world's largest kitchen is made outside the temple, where about 25,000 devotees take the Mahaprasad, or cooked food offered to God, daily and during the festival the number surpasses one lakh. 14,000 men work for proper manning the kitchen and other arrangements. And around 6,000 priests are engaged for worshipping etc. year after year without interruption. This is the national festival of Orissa spanning for 10 days in which lakhs of devotees congregate from every corner of the globe. Another most interesting feature of Puri's kitchen is that the Brahmins share food in the same 'thali' with people of any caste. The pundits on sociology say that it is the remnant of Buddhism, which negates any caste division and as the temple of Puri was once a Buddhist shrine. This feature is found nowhere in India and the priests say that in Sreekshetra, i.e. Puri, there is no caste bar and all his offspring are equal in the eye of Lord Jagannath.
Each year the three chariots are built with wood and there is not a single piece of iron used in it. The wood is collected on Vasant Panchami day and the work starts on Akshay Tritiya and the work of the three chariots is completed a few days before the Ratha Yatra.
The Jagannath temple is a piece of art and sculpture. The temple is 214 feet high and resembles the Shiva temple or Lingaraj temple of Bhubaneswar.
It is pertinent to note here that unlike the chariots, the building of idols of three deities does not take place every year but once in 8 to 19 years in the month of Aashaadh with extra days in the calendar. That year, the bodies of three idols are built and this occasion is called 'Navakalevar' meaning new body. And a festival is observed on this occasion and the old idols are buried at Koyli Baikuntha a place inside the temple boundary.
This year, the Ratha Yatra begins on 13th of July and concludes on 22nd July 2010. This period is one of the most auspicious periods to begin all auspicious functions and perform all auspicious rituals.
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The Ganeshaspeaks team