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Rath Yatra, Puri, Odisha
June 25, 2017

Every year in mid-summer, Lord Jagannath, with his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, goes on vacation, travelling on grand chariots, from his temple in Puri, to his aunt's place in the countryside. This belief of Hindus has given rise to one of the biggest religious congregations in India — the world-famous Puri Rath Yatra or the Chariot Festival. It is also an analogy of the journey of the jivatama (soul) along the grand trunk road of life in which it is helped by the mercy and compassion of the Lord.

The etymological origin of the English word 'juggernaut' which is used to refer to 'an unstoppable force' can be traced to Lord Jagannath's yatra. History has it that when the British first observed the Puri Rath Yatra in the 18th century, they were so amazed by its mind-boggling scale that they sent home vivid descriptions which gave rise to the term 'juggernaut'.

Jagannath, believed to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu, is the Lord of Puri — a temple town of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa, in the eastern coast of India. During the exuberant Rath Yatra, , Lord Jagannath, along with his siblings are taken out of their abode in the sanctum sanctorum of the famous Jagannath Puri temple in an elaborate ritual procession to their respective chariots to travel to their aunt's Gundicha Temple some distance away, where they remain for nine days before undertaking their return journey. The deities are bathed and dressed before being placed in their respective chariots The towering chariots in which the Gods are transported are made to resemble temples. Amidst the beating of drums and gongs, and the blowing of conch shells, the chariots or raths are pulled by thousands of devotees...Around one million pilgrims from all over India and the world throng Puri to witness this colourful spectacle, which is the oldest, biggest and most visited Rath Yatra in the world.

When the gods return after a nine-day sojourn at the country temple amidst festivities, they're adorned with ornaments of pure gold, before being placed back inside the Jagannath temple on the tenth day. An entertaining comic scene is enacted for onlookers, as part of the grand finale. In terms of splendor and fervent devotion, the Puri Rath Yatra is one of the world's most incredible spectacles. Vibrant with energy, drama, colour and devotional fervor, the rath yatra inspires awe among onlookers thereby making it an experience of a lifetime. This year, the Puri Rath Yatra commences on July 10 . The main festivities occur on the first day.

Intrestingly, the three idols are incomplete. They are fashioned only from the waist upwards. The hands of Jagannath and Balabhadra have not been completed and Subhadra has no hands at all. Legend has it that the idols were carved out of wood by a carpenter after the Lord came to the then Puri king in a dream, and instructed him to get them made. Apparently, the carpenter sought a period of 21 days to work in isolation and said if anyone saw the idols before they were s finished, the work would not progress any further. After two weeks, the king became impatient and on the prodding of his queen took a peek into the room where the idols were being made. The carpenter vanished into thin air. On realizing the gravity of his mistake, the king broke down and wept uncontrollably. But he was commanded by a divine voice to install the idols as they were.

What is most attention catching are the eyes and the outstretched arms of the great saviour. Many poems have been written about the glory of these eyes and arms. The two eyes are supposed to represent the sun and moon, the cosmic sources of light, life and energy. With only two eyes dominating the appearance of all three of them, the holy triad seems to be a symbol of That Being who sees the whole creation at one sweep and from whom nothing can be hidden in all the worlds.

The Rath Yatra is of great significance to the Hindus though many believe that the practice of putting idols on grand chariots and pulling them is of Buddhist origin. Fa Hien, the Chinese historian, who visited India in the 5th century AD, had written about the chariot of Buddha being pulled along public roads.

A glimpse of Lord Jagannatha on the chariot is considered to be very auspicious and saints, poets and scriptures have repeatedly glorified its sanctity. Even a touch of the chariots or the ropes with which these are pulled is considered enough to confer the results of several pious deeds or penance for ages. In fact, there is a famous Oriya song which says that on this occasion, the chariot, the wheels and the grand avenue on which the chariot is pulled all become one with Lord Jagannatha himself.

The festival begins with the Ratha Prathistha or invoking ceremony in the morning, but the Ratha Tana or chariot pulling is the most exciting part of the festival. It begins in the late afternoon when the chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhdra start rolling. Each of these carriages have different specifications: The chariot of Lord Jagannath is called Nandighosa. It has 18 wheels and is 23 cubits high while the chariot of Balabhadra, called Taladhvajahas , has 16 wheels and is 22 cubits high; Devadalana, the chariot of Subhadra has 14 wheels and is 21 cubits high.

Each year these wooden chariots are constructed anew in accordance with religious specifications. The idols of these three deities are also made of wood and they are religiously replaced by new ones every 12 years. However, each time, they are left incomplete just like the original idols. Many artists and artisans are engaged in building these three chariots, weaving the fabric covers that dress up the chariots, and painting them in the right shades and motifs to give them the best possible appearance.

Puri is known for its art and architecture. Major attractions near Puri include the Chilka Lake, renowned as the biggest inland salt-water lagoon, Puri beach, and the Chilika Wildlife Sanctuary. The famous Sun temple of Konark is just an hour's drive from Puri. The Biju Patnaik Airport at Bhubaneswar, about 56 km away, is the nearest airport.