Ratha Jatra, the Festival of Chariots of Lord Jagannatha, is celebrated every year in the temple town of Puri, in the east coast state of Odisha or Orissa in India. The Jagannatha Temple is one of the four most sacred temples in the four directions of India — the others being: Rameshwaram in South, Dwarka in West and Badrinath in the Himalayas. Also, Jagannath Puri is the world’s only temple dedicated to the siblings, Krishna, Balarama and their sister Subhadra.
In this 7-days festival, the presiding deities of the main temple or the Sri Mandira, i.e. Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, with the celestial wheel Sudarshana are taken out from the temple precincts in an elaborate ritual procession to their respective chariots. The huge, colorfully decorated chariots, are drawn by hundreds and thousands of devotees on the bada danda, the grand avenue to the Gundicha temple, some two miles away to the North. After a stay for seven days, the deities return to their abode in Sri Mandira.
“Ratha Jatra is perhaps the grandest festival on earth. Everything is on a scale befitting the great Lord. Full of spectacle, drama and color, the festival is a typical Indian fair of huge proportions. It is also the living embodiment of the synthesis of the tribal, the folk, and the autochthonous with the classical, the elaborately formal and the sophisticated elements of the socio-cultural-religious ethos of Bharatavarsha.”1
Significance of Ratha Jatra
The festival is known by several names – Gundicha Jatra, Ghosa Jatra, Navadina Jatra, Dasavatara Jatra, to mention a few. For the devoted it is the most auspicious occasion.
Rathe tu vamanam drishtwa punarjanmam na vidyate
Meaning: A glimpse of the Vamana, the dwarf form, an incarnation of Lord Jagannatha, is sure to ensure emancipation, release from the cycle of birth and death.
Jatra is an essential part of the ritual of the Hindu system of worship. Jatra or Yatra literally means travel or journey. Normally, it is the representative deities of temples, more popularly known as Utsava Murti in south and Chalanti Pratima or Bije Pratima in Orissa, partake in these journeys. It is rarely that the presiding deities come out of the sanctum for such ritual journeys.
The Jatra for the Ritual Journey take two forms – one involving the short circumambulation around the temple and other involving a longer journey from the temple to some other destination. The Jatra is an important part of festivities and ceremonies of many temples in India and is a very special and sacred occasion.
The concept of the chariot has been explained in the Kathopanishad in the following words:
Atmanam rathinam viddhi sareeram rathamevatu
Buddhim tu saarathim viddhi marah pragrahameva cha.
The body is the chariot and the soul is the deity installed in the chariot. The wisdom acts as the charioteer to control the mind and thoughts.
Origin of the Jatra
There are many stories to this unique chariot festival, which attracts millions of tourists and pilgrims from all over the world.2 But the one that best explains the reason for the ½ finished wooden statues of the temple of Sri Mandira that are taken out in this Jatra is the one relating to the mortal remains (asthi) of Sri Krishna and how it came to be in Puri.
When Shri Krishna was being cremated in Dwaraka, Balarama, much saddened with the development, rushed out to drown himself into the ocean with Krishna’s partially cremated body, followed by Subhadra. At the same time, on the eastern shore of India, King Indradyumna of Jagannath Puri dreamt that the Lord’s body would float up to the Puri’s shores. For this, he should build a massive statue in the city and sanctify the wooden statues of Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra. The bones (asthi) of Lord Krishna’s body should be put in the hollow in the statue’s back.
The dream came true. The king found the splinters of bones (asthi) and took them. But the question was who would carve the statues. For this, the divine architect, Vishwakarma, arrived as an old carpenter. He made it clear that while carving the statues nobody should disturb him, and in case anybody did, he would vanish leaving the work unfinished.
Some months passed. The impatient king opened the door of Vishwakarma’s room. Per warning, Vishwakarma disappeared immediately. Disappointed though, and despite the unfinished statues, the king sanctified them; placing Lord Krishna’s asthi in the hollow of the statue and installed them in the temple.
The tradition of the unfinished deities are continued to this day – the statues are changed every 12 years, but are left incomplete in obeisance of a very ancient tradition at Puri.
Significance of Ratha Jatra
Ratha Jatra is unique among all Jatras, is the grandest festival of the supreme divinity. Lord Jagannatha is identified fully with Vishnu and Krishna. In his original manifestation as Nilamadhaba, he was worshipped in a sacred Nyagrodha Briksha or banyan tree. The branches of the tree had spread for several miles and anyone entering this area would instantly attain moksha, releasing him/her from the cycle of rebirths. Puri is the sacred city where even the Lord of Death Yama cannot enter due to the presence of Lord Jagannatha, and is therefore also called Yamanika Tirtha.
A glimpse of Lord Jagannatha on the chariot is considered to be very auspicious and saints, poets and scriptures have repeatedly glorified the sanctity of this special festival. The sanctity of the festival is such that even a touch of the chariot or even the ropes with which these are pulled is considered enough to confer the results of several pious deeds or penance for ages. As per a famous Oriya song, on this occasion, the chariot, the wheels, the grand avenue all become one with Lord Jagannatha himself.
The Skanda Purana glorifies the sanctity of the Rath Jatra in the following words:
Gundicha mandapam namam yatrahamajanam pura
Ashwamedha sahasrasya mahabedi tadadvabat.
Meaning: Those who are fortunate to see the procession of the deities from Sri Mandira to the Gundicha Temple, derive the benefits of a thousand horse sacrifices, an immensely pious deed.
The late 17th century Oriya poet, Kabi Samrat Upendra Bhanja,3 in his famous Vaidehisa Vilasa mentions that the Lord comes out from his sanctum for participating in the Gundicha Jatra, only for redeeming the patita jana, the fallen, who get the opportunity to behold their dearest god at close quarters on this occasion. Similarly, poet saint Salabega (early 17th century CE)4 in praise of his dearest dark Lord Jagannatha says that the Lord swaying and moving like a wild elephant arrives at the Grand Avenue and rides his chariot and destroys in a flash all the sins of his devotees, even if these were grave or unpardonable.