RATHA JATRA – A Complete Handbook on the World Famous Car Festival at Puri, Odisha

Ratha Jatra (commonly referred to as Rath Yatra or Car Festival or Chariot Festival) is one of the most awaited Hindu festivals, which is celebrated every year on the 2nd day of the Shukla Paksha in the month of ‘Asadh’ – the 3rd month according to the lunar calendar of India. This year, it commences on the 14th of July, 2018 and ends on 26th of July, 2018.

The most unique aspect is that this Hindu festival is eagerly awaited not only by visitors from the state or the country, but also tourists from abroad. Puri Ratha Jatra has always been popular among tourists due to its religious connotation. They visit Puri every year and participate in the celebrations with full enthusiasm. The Puri Rath Yatra festival (locally called Ratha Jatra) is based around the worship of Lord Jagannath, a reincarnation of lords Vishnu and Krishna.

The foremost epicentre for this festival is the Puri Jagannath temple, one of the four major Hindu shrines, which is situated in the state of Odisha, India.

About The Festival

The festival honours the visit of Lord Jagannath along with his siblings to the temple of Queen Gundicha. The chariot of Lord Jagannath stops at their maternal aunt’s place (on the way) – Mausi Maa temple – to take the meal of sweet pancakes (popularly called ‘Pitha’), which is believed to be Lord Jagannath’s favorite dish. During his journey, Lord Jagannath is also accompanied by the celestial wheel called Sudarshan Chakra. It basically commemorates Lord Jagannath’s annual visit to his birthplace, Gundicha Temple, and aunt’s home along with his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra.

The Puri Jagannath temple is called “Yamanika Tirtha”. According to popular Hindu belief, the power of ‘Yama’, the god of death has been nullified in Puri due to the presence of Lord Jagannath, popularly known as Lord Krishna, and his siblings – lord Balbhadra and deity Subhadra – in the Puri Jagannath temple. Every year, three new splendid chariots are created for the Puri Ratha Jatra (the journey) of the Gods – Lord Jagannath and his siblings. The carpenters, having rights for this job by heredity, follow century old styles, written in the holy Hindu text, for building and decorating the chariots.

On the auspicious day of Ratha Jatra, these 45-feet high chariots are pulled by millions of devotees who come down to Puri, from all over the world. The act of pulling the Ratha (read : chariot) by the ropes during Ratha Jatra is believed to be an extremely religious act. This sole belief attracts millions of tourists to Puri from all over the world.

What makes this festival ‘unique’?

  • The day of the Ratha Jatra in Puri is the only day in the whole year when the non Hindu devotees can have an opportunity to see the Gods and Goddess of the Jagannath Puri temple.
  • Though it is a Hindu shrine but this chariot festival is not associated with any particular denomination of Hinduism entirely, even though there are several common aspects with Vaishnavaism, Saivism, Shaktism, Buddhism and Jainism.
  • Jagannath Ratha Jatra is more than 5000 years old and the most spiritual aspect is that  the celebration follows all the same rituals from the beginning. There have been NO changes in the rituals of this festival.
  • The Ratha Jatra festival is the only occasion when non-Hindu devotees, who are not allowed inside the temple, can get their glimpse of the deities. A mere glimpse of Lord Jagannath on the chariot, or even to touch the chariot, is considered to be very auspicious.
  • It is popular belief that Lord Jagannath comes out of the temple to specifically meet devotees, irrespective of caste, creed, sex or religion – a clear indication of focusing on humanity above all.

Spiritual Significance

According to Katha Upanishad – The festival symbolises the human body as ‘Ratha’ (read : chariot in Odia) and ‘Sarathi’ (read : driver in Odia) as God, who drives the chariot of body on the ‘jatra’ (read : journey in Odia) to material existence or ‘Bhavasagar’. Classically it is mentioned as – the soul resides within the Ratha of the human body, which has the intellect and total devotion to God, the driver of the Ratha towards the material existence. The wheels are the true symbols of valour. The horses symbolise persistence. The horses are considered to be synonymous to vigour, self discipline, tolerance, charity and discrimination, whereas pity, equanimity and forgiveness are the reins of horses.

About the Chariots of Ratha Jatra

Every year, three huge brand new chariots are made for the idols to be transported on during the festival. It’s a very detailed process that takes place in public in front of the Royal Palace, near the Jagannath Temple. The chariots used during Ratha Jatra are freshly built every year. Carpenters begin the construction of chariots on the day of Akshaya Tritiya. In 2018, this ceremony commenced on April 18. The chariots are painted with vibrant colours and the chariot tops are covered with red, black, yellow, or green canopies. Lord Jagannath uses red and yellow, Lord Balabhadra uses red and green, while Goddess Subhadra uses red and black. All the chariots have separate features that clearly distinguish one from the other.

  • Lord Jagannath’s chariot is called as Chakradhwaja or Nandhighosa, which means tumultuous and blissful sound.

Specific features : 45 feet tall, 16 wheels, 65 tons weight, ‘Garuda’ on its crest along with four white wooden horses.

  • Lord Balaram’s cart is called Taladhwaja, which means the sound of significantly powerful rhythm.

Specific features : It has 14 wheels, about 45.6 feet tall and is drawn by four black wooden horses. It carries ‘Hanuman’ on its crest.

  • Goddess Subhadra’s cart is called Padmadhwaja or Darpadalan, which means destroyer of pride.

Specific Features : It has a lotus on its crest, about 44.6 feet tall, uses 12 wheels, and is drawn by four red wooden horses.

How is ‘Ratha Jatra’ celebrated?

Every year, the Ratha Jatra festival begins with the idols of Lord Jagannath, along with his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, being taken out of their abode in the Jagannath Temple. The three of them travel to Gundicha Temple, which is located a few kilometers away from the Jagannath Temple. They stay there for seven days before returning via Mausi Maa Temple, the abode of Lord Jagannath’s aunt. The idols are transported on towering chariots, which have been made to resemble temples, giving the festival its name of Rath Yatra – the Chariot Festival. The three chariots, which are the highlights of the entire festival of Ratha Jatra, are pulled by thick rope strings by numerous devotees and volunteers upto the Gundicha Temple.

Around one million pilgrims usually visit Puri, to witness this great festival every year.

About NabaKalebara

Once in every 19 years, when the month of Ashadha is followed by another month of Ashadha (known as “double-Ashadha”), a rare and special Nabakalebar ritual takes place. The word ‘Nabakalebara’ means “new body”. Nabakalebara is when the wooden temple idols are replaced with new ones. It is popular belief that the Lords attain new avatar after nineteen years. The creation of new idols and destruction of the old idols symbolizes reincarnation.

In the last century, the ritual was performed in 1912, 1931, 1950, 1969, 1977, 1996, and 2015.

Making of New Idols

Since the idols of Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra are made from wood, they’re subjected to decay over time and need to be replaced. The new idols are crafted from neem wood. However, not all neem trees are suitable for making the new idols of the Jagannath Temple.

According to scriptures, the trees need to have certain qualities (such as specific number of branches, color, and location) for each of the idols. On the year when the idols are due to be replaced, a contingent of priests, servants, and carpenters set out from the Jagannath Temple to find the appropriate neem trees (locally known as ‘Daru Brahma’) in a procession called the Banajag Yatra.

The priests walk bare-footed to the temple of Goddess Mangala at Kakatpur, around 50 kilometers from Puri. There, as per popular belief, the Goddess appears in a dream and guides the priests as to where the trees can be found. Once the trees are located, they’re secretly brought back to the temple in wooden carts, and the new idols are carved by a special team of carpenters. The carving takes place in a special enclosure inside the temple, known as Koili Baikuntha, near the North Gate of Jagannath Temple. Lord Krishna is believed to have appeared to Radha in the form of a cuckoo bird there.

Most Popular Rituals During Ratha Jatra

  • Devotional songs and prayers from the Vedas are chanted continuously outside the area where the new idols are being carved from the neem wood. Once they’re completed, the new idols are carried inside the inner sanctum of the temple and placed facing the old idols. The supreme power (Brahma) is then transferred from the old to the new idols, in a ritual known as Brahma Paribartana (meaning – Changing the Soul). This ritual is carried out in complete privacy. The priest performing the ritual is blindfolded, and his hands and feet are wrapped in thick layers of cloth, so that he can’t see or feel the transfer.
  • Once the ritual is complete, the new idols are seated on their throne. The old idols are taken to Koili Baikuntha and buried there in a sacred ceremony before dawn. It’s popular believed that if anybody sees this ceremony, apart from the priests who perform it, they will die.
  • As a result, the Odisha State Government orders a full blackout of lights in Puri on the night the ceremony is performed. After this ceremony, the temple rituals recommence as usual. Flowers and new garments are given to the deities, food is offered, and pujas (worship) are performed.
  • About 18 days before the Ratha Jatra festival starts, the three idols are given a ceremonial bath with 108 pitchers of water. This is known as Snana Jatra and it takes place on the full moon day in the Hindu lunar month of Jyeshtha (known as Jyeshtha Purnima). In 2018, this ceremony was conducted on June 28.
  • It is believed that the deities will get a fever after the bath. Hence, they’re kept out of public view until they appear, renewed, on the new moon in Ashadha (known as Ashadha Amavasya). In 2018, it falls on July 12. The occasion is called Navajouban Darshan.
  • The Ratha Jatra is a community festival wherein people do not worship in their houses or fast.
  • When the gods return from their journey, they’re decorated and adorned with ornaments of pure gold and given a nourishing drink, before being placed back inside the Jagannath Temple.
  • An entertaining comic scene is enacted for onlookers, as part of the grand finale. Goddess Lakshmi is angry that her husband, Lord Jagannath, has stayed away for so long without inviting or informing her. She closes the doors of the temple on him, locking him out. Finally, he manages to placate her with sweets, and she relents and lets him enter.

Important Ratha Jatra Ritual Dates for 2018

July 14 —> Sri Gundicha

On this day, deities are placed in the chariots and commences the journey to Gundicha Temple. The first chariot to move is that of Lord Balabhadra. Next is Goddess Subhadra, and last chariot to move is Lord Jagannath’s.

July 17 —> Hera Panchami

Goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Lord Jagannath, gets concerned because he hasn’t come back. Irritated, she goes to Gundicha Temple to find him and see what’s going on.

July 22 —> Bahuda Jatra

The grand return journey to the Lion’s Gate entrance of Jagannath Temple. The chariots are drawn in reverse order.

July 23 —> Suna Besha

Decoration of the deities in gold ornaments. (This is particularly a very popular ritual).

July 24 —> Adhara Pana

Offering the deities a healthy drink, post their journey back to the temple.

July 26 —> Niladri Bijaya

Deities are placed back inside Jagannath Temple.

The Ratha Jatra in Puri is undoubtedly, one of the most famous festivals, which attracts tourists and devotees from all over the world. The ISKCON foundation gets the credit for taking this grand celebration to an international level. No matter what, you will definitely feel the divine force and power of humanity as a whole, on this auspicious occasion. It should definitely be experienced at least once in a lifetime. 

Signing off with a hope and silent prayer that you get to have this surreal experience of pulling the huge chariots of the Lord and feel the Divine Power at least once in your entire lifetime. Jai Jagannatha!

Happy Travelling!

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