Few festivals in India are celebrated with such boisterous frenzy as the Car Festival of Puri. The Oriyas call it the Rath Yatra and consider it their most auspicious. This chariot ride of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Lady Subhadra down the main thoroughfare of Puri attracts devotees who throng the Bada Danda with the zeal of one possessed. This fare is not confined to the Hindus; the curious, the heathen, the agnostic, the Buddhist, the Jain, all commingle in bonhomie, bemused at the sway Lord Jagannath holds over people’s collective unconscious.
The history of Jagannath goes back to the hoary past when it was worshipped as a Brahmanical deity. Later it passed to the Savaras, and then to the Bhaumas from Assam, who carved three wooden images and installed them in a temple called Nilachala, after their own Kamaksya.
The present temple of Jagannath was built by Chodagangadeva of the Ganga dynasty in the first half of the 12th century A.D. The holiness of the shrine was enhanced by the Muslim invasion of India, when Orissa remained an independent Hindu kingdom up to 1568 A.D. The devout, harassed in other holy Hindu shrines, worshipped at Puri.
It was around this time that the cult of Jagannath assumed a composite character. The three sects of Hinduism – Saivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism – welded with earlier cults like the tribal and the Buddhist and Jain strains. This syncretism manifested itself in the art, sculpture, literature of the age evident in the worship of Saura shrine at Konark’s Sun Temple, and the Lingaraj – a mix of Vishnu and Shiva – at the temple in Bhubaneswar. It was catalyzed by visits of great saints to Puri: Sankara, Ramanand, Ramanuja, Madhava Tirtha, Narahari Tirtha, Kabir, Nanak, Chaitanya – each contributing to Jagannath’s catholicity.
Today Rath Yatra is celebrated on the second day of the bright fortnight of Ashadha. The chariots are like moveable temples where the deities sit and symbolically survey the universe and the people, as devotees pull at the ropes to surge the chariots ahead on its way to Gundicha Ghar, the Garden House. Jagannath’s chariot is called Nandighosh, Balabhadra’s Taladwaja, and Subhadra’s chariot – Devadalan.
Once the deities are offered the bhoga and brought to their respective chariots, it is time for cherapahanra. The Raja of Puri sweeps the platforms of the chariots with a gold-handled broom. Legend has it that King Purusottama was keen to marry the princess of Kanchi. But he was thwarted when the king of Kanchi was aghast to see Purusottama perform the ritual ‘cherapahanra’, refusing to give his daughter in marriage. An irate Purusottama vowed revenge swearing to seize the princess and marry her to a sweeper. But to no avail. Beaten back, he craved for Jagannath’s indulgence. Jagannath and Balabhadra cantered ahead of Purusottama in black and white chargers and beat back the king of Kanchi. Purusottama captured the princess and instructed his minister to find a sweeper as her bridegroom. The minister accompanied by the princess of Kanchi happened upon the king while the latter was performing cherapahanra, and urged the princess to garland the king. Purusottama though perplexed, meekly acquiesced.
Now the moment everyone anxiously waits for, arrives. The ropes are fastened and the rath dahuka (car caller) lets out obscenities to the devotees below to show their strength and tug at the chariots. Balabhadra’s chariot is pulled first followed by Subhadra’s, Jagannath’s coming last. As the chariots hurtle down the Bada Danda, the roar of its creaking wheels merges with the devotees’ loud frenzy. The crash of coconuts, mangoes, bananas flung at the deities and an assortment of money, jewellery, and valuables thrown by devotees bespeaks the blind devotion to the Lord and adds to the overall din.
Jagannath’s chariot, unlike the other two, stops at the mausi ma temple (the temple of mother’s sister) before proceeding to the Gundicha Temple. This temple – dedicated to King Indradyumna’s consort is built on the site where the king performed the ashwamedha sacrifice urging the Lord to reveal himself. The story goes that the log was found, but the king’s expert craftsmen failed to carve out the images – their tools breaking down at the touch of the log. The king despaired.
Ananta Maharana, an old carpenter volunteered on condition that he be holed up with the log for 21 days. But the Queen doubting Ananta’s expertise got the gates of the temple opened before the assigned day. The images lay in varying stages of progress – without hands and legs, and incomplete. The carpenter had vanished, and in this bizarre, half-complete state the triad came to be worshipped. It is believed that the carpenter was the divine craftsman Vishnu.
The mystique of Jagannath and the Rath Yatra seems to have rubbed off on the British as well. Baffled by the cult and the teeming multitude furiously pulling at the ropes to haul their Deity, they wrote of human sacrifice at the giant wheels, and adding the term “juggernaut” to the English lexicon. Later the cobweb of doubts was removed; they realized the devotees crushed under the wheels were the ones who accidentally slipped in the melee and inevitably run over.
Once, every twelve years, the wooden logs of the Deities are changed in an event called Naba Kalebara. A party of 20-odd temple servants sets off to Kakatpur, sixty kilometres away. They offer the ‘mahaprasad’ and worship Goddess Mangala in her temple. One of the brahmins is soon intimated by Mangala in a dream the location of the tree that provides the log for the Deities. Whereupon the party proceeds to trace the tree with distinctive signs of sankha (conch), chakra (disc), gada (mace), and padma (lotus) and located near an anthill/river/pond/cremation-ground and a Shiva temple.
The mystique stays undimmed – in the Lord’s righteousness that doesn’t admit of any social hierarchy and His timelessness where the conceptualization of time remains outside the ken of Hindu worldview.