|Puri Rath Yatra. All photographs copyrighted to Nila Tamaraa|
So, a few months back when I was invited to witness the Rath Yatra or Chariot Festival in Orissa, India, which attracts humongous crowds from all over the world, I didn't think twice before packing my bags.
The festival is held every year in Puri, Orissa at the world renowned 12th century temple known
as Puri Jagannath Temple.
|Jagannath Temple, Puri. The 12th century black monolith of a temple rises proudly in the far horizon.|
A one-hour flight from Bangalore landed me in Bhuvaneshwar airport. Puri is 60 kms away from the airport. The best way to travel to the place is by cab. A 20-minute drive from the airport takes you to the Hare Krishna Temple -- that's where I had stopped for lunch. (If you are driven by a manic driver like mine it would be a 10-minute drive). There's a 'hotel' attached to the temple that serves delicious vegetarian food till 3 pm everyday. It's a no-strings attached eatery -- simple food served in a clean environment filled with delicious aromas wafting in the air. But, I was a little taken aback when asked to leave my footwear at the door before entering the restaurant -- they have a a no-footwear policy. Ahem....will I be travelling to Puri with a full-stomach and barefoot? I was assured that my newly bought suede sandals would be safe. And it was. It does take a little getting used to though -- it's not everyday that one walks around barefoot in a restaurant. But soon, the food takes over. A hearty meal of puris, chapattis, rice and other vegetarian accouterments on a large stainless steel plate makes you impervious to minor discomforts like shoeless-feet. If you happen to find yourself here in the future, try the sweet and sour mango chutney and wheat rasagulla -- you will thank me for it.
Back on the road. Orissa is a naturally beautiful place -- lush and green especially during the monsoons. But, it's the street art -- on every wall and underpass -- that captures one's attention. It's a state that is popular for native art and extremely proud of it too. And rightly so!
|Mini chariots are a common sight during the festival|
|Devotees from far and near|
The narrow lanes over-flowed with saffron clad, dread-locked, ash-smeared, god-men and also devotees of Lord Jagannath (that's what Lord Vishnu is called in Puri). Rich and poor -- mostly poor -- throng the town days in advance. I am told that some people save for years to pay for a trip to Puri because it is said that those who "visit Puri" have an easy ride to heaven than the rest. That settles my ride then! Eat your hearts out :)
If you ask the devout they will tell you that the iconic temple of Lord Jagannath in Puri has been around from Satya Yuga -- meaning it's been around from the beginning of time. However, science and archaeology places the temple at a more modest 12th century.
The temple is set in 10.7 acres of land. Enclosed by two 20' high walls built between the 15 to 16th century. The outer wall is called Meghanada Prachira and the inner one is known as Kurma Bheda. There are 30 smaller temples surrounding the main temple -- a black monolith rising majestically into the sky.
|The Chariot Festival sees much dancing and singing. Here's a group of dancers|
|On the day of the Rath Yatra the 2km Grand Road is filled with devotees singing and dancing|
|Lord Jagannath, Shubadra and Balarama|
The story goes... King Indradyumna commissioned carpenter Vishwakarma to chisel a statue of Lord Vishnu out of a log that came floating on the sea from nowhere. Vishwkarma -- who is in fact Vishnu himself in disguise -- agreed to the task. But he had a request: "The door to my workshop should remain closed and should not be opened for 21 days," he demanded. The king agreed. However, after a few days, the king began to worry since he did not hear even a pipsqueak from inside the locked workshop. His ministers only added to his woes with their own worries -- "What if the carpenter is hurt?" "What if he needs help but cannot ask for it?" "Worse still, what if he is dead?"...and so they went on. Finally, the king could take it no more, so he smashed open the door before the stipulated 21 days. The room was empty. The carpenter had vanished leaving behind 3 unfinished idols of Lord Vishnu and his two siblings. The king was heartbroken. But then the God appeared before the King (yeah, those days there was frequent traffic between heaven and earth) and told him that he had nothing to worry about it. "This is the form that I want people to worship me," said Lord Vishnu. What He was trying to tell was..."It's ok if you don't fit a stereotype of tall, fair and handsome. You are still worth it. Look at me, I have no hands and eyes bigger than my head. That doesn't make me any less of a God".... you get the drift.
|Sadhus are very much a part of Puri|
|Khaja, the sweet dish is one of the favourites during this festival|
|Sweet offerings or prasad unique to this festival|
The festival begins on Akshya Tritiya (which falls in May- June) when the king of Puri issues the royal order to collect sal wood from the nearby state of Dasapally, by a team of carpenters (who by the way have been doing this job for generations and only they have the rights to bring the wood). The wood will be used to build the three chariots -- the main showpiece of the festival. Construction of the three chariots are overseen by three Chief Carpenters. For the number-lovers: Around 10,800 cubic feet of wood is used. Logs are cut into 2188 pieces. 832 pieces of wood are used for Lord Jagannath's chariot (called Nandighost), 763 pieces for Balarama's chariot caled Taladhwaja and 593 pieces of wood are used for Subhadra's chariot known as Debadlana. Each chariot has 34 components -- from wheels to the flag.
Lord Jagannath's chariot is 45.6 ft high and has 16 wheels of 7ft diameter each. It is yellow and red in colour. And it is drawn by four white wooden horses.
Lord Balarama's chariot is 45 ft tall and has 14 wheels of 6ft diameter each. It is drawn by four black wooden horses.
Goddess Subhadra's chariot is 44.6 ft high and has 12 wheels; it's drawn by four grey/brown horses.
77 carpenters and 80 artisans work on the chariots
Numbers are important. Because these numbers are considered sacred and have been in use for eons.
Even as the chariots are being made. The gods get ready for the festival. For them, it begins, again on a full-moon day, with the ritualistic bathing festival known as Snana Yatra. The deities are carried out from the sanctum sanctorum into the bathing arena (snana mandap) inside the temple for a divine bath. They are bathed with 108 pots of water.
|No alcohol or non-vegetarian food is allowed or served in the vicinity during the festival. Though here the devotees seem drunk in devotion|
On the 16th day, which is a new moon day, the gods emerge -- renewed and rejuvenated. They then decide to visit the Gundicha Temple, which is at the other end of the road -- the Grand road -- and it's a 2 km stretch. So they dress up and they are brought out of the temple in a procession called Pahandi -- the heavy idols, adorned with flowers are pulled, pushed and dragged in rhythmic movements, down the steps of the temple to the beat of cymbals, drums and chanting of mantras -- to their respective chariots, which are kept waiting outside the temple gate.
|The chariots are beautifully carved and decorated. The servitors and priests can be seen inside the chariot|
|Humongous crowds throng to get a glimpse of their Lord. Ambulances are a common sight in the crowd|
|Some devotees dress up as Shiva and Hanuman|
|Members of the Hare Krishna community dancing and singing praises of their Lord|
|The sun usually beats down harshly. Add to it a sea of people. To keep everyone cool and prevent sunstroke, water tankers are pressed into service.|
|Joy knows no bound even as the devotees wait for the chariots to make their way down the road|
|A selfie with 'Hanuman'|
So next year, if you get a chance to witness this festival...go for it! It's a once in a life-time experience. Not to be missed.
Some more scenes from the Puri Rath Yatra...
|Volunteers help to keep the devotees cool by 'fanning'|
|Stories from mythology are enacted on the roadside during the festival|
|Grand Road on the morning of the Chariot Festival|
|The night before. Puri wears a festive look|
|Devotees from all over the world converge in Puri during this festival. She is from Japan|
|The festival is also a time for the unfortunate to make ends meet|
|Dread-locked sadhus are a common sight|
|It is also the best time for vendors of all sizes and ages|
|Cops getting ready for their job of maintaining law and order in the morning of the festival|
|All dressed up to go to see the gods and goddess in their chariots|
|Flower-sellers make a quick buck|
|...and so do others selling anything and everything.|
|The have and the have-not -- the common factor is faith in Jagannath|
|The poser -- coconut vendor|
|...and seller of other knick-knacks|
|Volunteers offer free food to devotees|
|For the tribal people from nearby areas this is a major festival|
|More volunteers 'dishing' out food|
|Devotion in song and dance|
|...and in fancy dress|
|Group of devotees making their way to the temple on the morning of the chariot festival|
|Some prefer making their way dancing|
|While some are forced to sit and watch --- irony of life|
|A family afflicted by ailments making their way to the temple hoping for a miracle|
|Where there's a festival there's...|
|Little volunteers at the festival|
|Lord Jagannath's chariot making its way down the 2km Grand Road|
|...and He is accompanied by hordes of devotees, both inside and outside the chariot|