Tuesday, 25 November 2014


Puri Rath Yatra. All photographs copyrighted to Nila Tamaraa
I do not like crowds -- the massive, bone-crushing kind. I am borderline demo-phobic or at least that's what I believe -- I am 5'2" and the fear of being trampled looms large. But, I am also a try-everything-atleast-once-in-your-life kinda girl AND a sucker for stories, especially if it involves mythology. 

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
India, as you may know, is a land of gods and goddesses -- in different shapes, sizes and for varied occasions. They are woven into the warp and weave of this country. Puri is one of the four holy dhamas (abode of God) in India -- the other three being Dwarka, Badrinath and Rameshwaram. It is 2 kms wide and 4 kms long and is located on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Puri is Lord Vishnu's home on earth. (For the uninitiated, Lord Vishnu is part of the triumvirate -- the other being Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma).

Devotees from far and near
As I made my way to Puri, the roads got narrower and crowded. Devoutness was the cling film casing this temple town. The air was thick with odors -- camphor, flowers, sticky sweets, boiled rice, human sweat and the ocean. Is that the scent of hope and reverence? I dunno. But it can be charmingly overwhelming -- charming, only if you have an open mind toward new experiences. 

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
The temple has four carved gates: Lion Gate (Simaha dwara) in the East; House Gate (Ashwadwara) in the South; Tiger Gate (Vyaghradwara) in the West and Elephant Gate (Hastidwara) in the North. The Lion gate is the main gate of the temple. Here a replica of the idols in the sanctum sanctorum is kept, so non-Hindus and foreigners can worship the God since they are barred from entering the temple. 

On the day of the Rath Yatra the 2km Grand Road is filled with devotees singing and dancing
The presiding deity in the temple is Lord Jagannath and his brother Balarama and sister Subhadra. To the people of Puri, Lord Jagannath is more like an elder brother and the Head of the house and not a fear-striking divinity. Their relationship with their God is informal -- so there's a lot of hugging and chiding of the Lord in the worship; they have long conversations, scold him and demand boons and blessings knowing deep in their hearts that He will take care of them. 

Lord Jagannath, Shubadra and Balarama
Unlike the beautifully sculpted statues of the gods in the rest of the country, the idols in Puri seem incomplete -- with stumps for hands, disproportionately large eyes, no legs and a body that appears half-done. And there's an interesting story behind it -- yeah, yeah, I told you, I am sucker for stories. 

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
In front of the temple is a 11 mt pillar known as Aruna Sthambha. It was once housed in front of the Sun Temple in Konark. In the 18th century it was brought to Puri and it has remained there hence. There is a wheel at the top of the temple and it is made out of eight metals and it is called the Blue Wheel or Nila Chakra. Everyday a different flag is tied to the mast. 

Khaja, the sweet dish is one of the favourites during this festival
The temple has the largest kitchen in the world. Food for over a lakh of devotees can be cooked here everyday. Lord Jagannath seems like an epicure -- a foodie. I like him already! He is offered five meals a day, starting with Gopala Ballava or breakfast, sakal dhupa (brunch), madhyana dhupa (lunch), sandhya dhupa (supper) and badasinghar dhupa (dinner). The food is cooked in earthen pots. The steam-cooked food is then carried in slings of earthern pots, from the kitchen to the Lord's chamber and offered to Lord Jagannath. After which the food is said to become mahaprasad or divine food. The menu includes cooked rice, dal, vegetable curry, sweet dishes, cakes made out of sugar, jaggery, wheat flour, ghee, milk etc. Once it comes out of the Lord's chamber, it takes on a special-inexplicable-delicious-aroma that fills the temple. Devotees can buy the mahaprasad at Ananda Bazar inside the temple. Khaja, made of refined flour, sugar and ghee is a particular favourite with the Lord and the devotees. It is also sold outside the temple. 
Sweet offerings or prasad unique to this festival
Now, moving on to the Chariot Festival -- the reason why I flew down to Puri. The festival itself begins in May- June on a full-moon day. It involves a series of interesting rituals which become occasions for people to celebrate. And I love it when gods play house-house. Here goes...

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
After the bath, the deities fall ill and are taken to the sick room or anasara ghar, where they remain for 15 days. During this time the gods are served only fruits -- sick people's diet, mind you. Oh, how I love when gods play the game of 'humans' :)

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. 

More revelry
Once the deities take their place inside the chariot, the king of Puri -- the current king, Gajapati Dibyasingh Deb, is a law graduate from Chicago -- sweeps the floor of the chariots with a golden-handled broom; he also swabs the floor of the chariot with holy-scented water. 
The chariots are beautifully carved and decorated. The servitors and priests can be seen inside the chariot
What is interesting is that there are numerous rituals in this festival and each one is performed by servitors or daitapatis who have been entrusted with that particular job from time immemorial. There are 36 communities of servitors. Unlike the 6000 priests in the temple who come from the brahminical sect, the servitors are tribal descendants. They are known as the first worshippers and kin of Lord Jagannath -- a status bestowed upon them, it is said, by the Lord Himself.  These servitors are entrusted with the duty of taking care of the gods and the rituals during the chariot festival. So, you have a community of servitors who draw water from the well for the bath, another set who bathes the deities, ones who cook, clean, dress-up the gods, collect wood..so on and so forth. They are responsible for all the rituals starting from the day of the chariot festival till it ends. 

Humongous crowds throng to get a glimpse of their Lord. Ambulances are a common sight in the crowd
Back to the chariot... now it is time for the gods to begin their journey. Four pieces of coir ropes that are 250 feet long are attached to the chariots. Devotees throng to pull the chariot. The road, which is only as wide as MG Road in Bangalore, is filled with thousands and thousands of people from across the globe. The 2km stretch turns into a ocean of humans, chanting, singing, dancing --- and fainting (they are quickly carried to safety by the innumerable volunteers). 

Some devotees dress up as Shiva and Hanuman 
The first one to leave is Balarama followed by Subhadra and finally Lord Jagannath. It usually takes insane hours to travel the 2 km distance due to the crowds. The chariots aim to reach the other end of the road before sunset, because once the sun sets the journey cannot be continued -- the chariots are left wherever they are and the journey resumes the next day. Lucky for me, this year the chariots made it to the other end before sunset. 

Members of the Hare Krishna community dancing and singing praises of their Lord
Once they reach the Gundicha temple, they spend the night outside the temple -- in their respective chariots, something like camping under the sky. The night does not sleep. There's story-telling, much dancing and singing by the devotees. The next day they entere the temple -- in the Pahandi style -- and remain there for seven days where they are cooked and served special meals. 

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.
In the meantime, goddess Lakshmi, wife of Jagannath, who is livid at being left behind makes her way to the Gundicha temple to meet her husband --- on the fifth day. After giving him 'the look and stare' which conveys her displeasure at his un-husbandly behaviour, she returns home, but not before damaging a part of His chariot parked in front of the temple -- it's to show her anger and disgust at being left behind and not included in the siblings' road-trip. 

Joy knows no bound even as the devotees wait for the chariots to make their way down the road
After seven days the siblings return home, but not before Lord Jagannath makes a brief stop at his aunt's house, known as Mausi Ma Temple, or the Ardhasani temple, closeby. He accepts from his aunt his favourite rice cake -- poda pitha. The three chariots then make the return journey and enter their house via the Lion Gate. However, they do not go into the sanctum sanctorum. They sit in the chariots till the next day, which is known as Bada Ekadasi. They are then decked up in gold and worshipped by thousands of devotees, before they take their right full place inside their abode marking the end of the chariot festival.  Phew !

Absolute bliss
During this festival, the small temple town turns into vibrant holy abode. The sideshows and fairs come alive -- children walking the rope, monkey performing tricks, vendors selling anything and everything, and sadhus walking about with matted hair and trishuls... the place is a riot of colours, flavours and energy. The devotees come in all sizes and shapes and economic strata. For two days, I was jostled, pushed and pulled in the crowds, but never groped. I was surprised to feel absolutely safe in this ocean of people. That was the biggest miracle!

A selfie with 'Hanuman'
Next year is said to be a special year for Puri and its Lord. Apparently, every 8 or 19 years, depending on the lunar calendar, the soul of Lord Jagannath is transferred to a new idol and it is called Nabakalebar. This occasion falls again in 2015. New deities would be carved from a sacred Neem tree. Locating the right neem tree is an elaborate spiritual exercise and usually begins two or three months before June. The servitors, deemed with the task, go on a fast and it is said that goddess Mangala appears in their dreams and gives them directions to the location of the right neem tree out of which the new idols are carved. The old idols are buried in the temple crematorium for the gods known as Kaoili Baikuntha. The priests then observe 11 days of mourning and on the 12th day tonsure their heads as is the custom in a traditional Hindu family. 

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

The khaja-seller

...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

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