Puri's Divine Procession: Jagannath Rath Yatra Celebrations

The term "Jagannath" is a combination of two Sanskrit words. "Jagan" or "Jagat" refers to the "universe," while "Nath" signifies "Master" or "Lord." Thus, Lord Jagannath is broadly embraced as "the lord of the universe." Lord Jagannath, revered by Vaishnavites, particularly Krishnaites, is the eighth avatar of Vishnu and hence a prominent deity in Hinduism.

Traditions of Jagannath Rath Yatra:

The Jagannath Rath Yatra is an annual sacred procession of immense significance in Odia Hinduism and among countless devotees in Northern India. The term "yatra" signifies a journey, and in this context, it signifies the yearly pilgrimage of the divine trio: Lord Jagannath, his younger sister Subhadra, and his elder brother, Balbhadra, accompanied by the Sudarshan Chakra. They venture out of their Garbha Griha (sanctum sanctorum) to pay a visit to their Mausi Maa, Aunt Gundicha. The oldest and most grandiose of these processions takes place in Jagannath Puri, renowned worldwide for its 11-day celebration during this highly anticipated festival. Over time, this Yatra has extended its influence to other regions of the country, including Bengal, Bihar, and Jharkhand.

Legend has it that Goddess Subhadra once expressed her desire to tour the city, and ever since, this procession has continued without interruption. The Jagannath Yatra takes place on the Shukla Paksh, Dwitiya Tithi in the month of Ashadh (June or July). Before embarking on their journey, it is believed that Jagannath experiences a high fever following the Snana Yatra, which is the bathing festival of the deities. During this period of recuperation, devotees are prohibited from catching a glimpse of him. After the deities receive special care and recover, the renowned Rath Yatra commences. It's a spectacle that never ceases to amaze, representing the enduring embodiment of the divine across countless centuries.


Jagannath Rath Yatra


The presiding deities are then brought out from the temple with the utmost devotion and reverence. They are ceremoniously placed on their traditionally crafted chariots, each dedicated to a specific deity. These awe-inspiring chariots, towering at 45 feet, are meticulously constructed from robust, seasoned woods by skilled artisans known as Maharana. Traditional joinery techniques are employed to assemble all the chariot's components, and they are adorned with intricate carvings and flags, showcasing the exceptional craftsmanship involved in their creation.

During this time, as the priests conduct sacred rituals, the king of Puri plays a pivotal role by performing a symbolic ritual known as Chhera Pehnra. In this ritual, he uses a golden broom to ceremonially cleanse the path for the chariots, signifying a gesture of devotion and humility. Following this, joyous devotees, along with numerous volunteers, come together to pull the chariots all the way to the Gundicha temple, situated approximately 3 kilometers away.

Throughout the journey, devotional songs resound, and skilled dancers deliver traditional performances, contributing to the electrifying atmosphere. In a heartwarming display of unity, devotees from all walks of life, irrespective of their caste, creed, gender, or race, come together and immerse themselves in bhakti (ultimate love), the ultimate expression of love, as they witness their beloved Lord emerging from the Purva Dwar, or Eastern Gate. Due to the vast number of devotees participating, stringent security measures are implemented during the Yatra to ensure the safety of all.

The deities enjoy a period of rest and rejuvenation at the Gundicha temple for 8 days before resuming their divine duties at the main temple. Their return journey is known as “Bahuda Yatra”.


The Iconography of Jagannath

The idols of Lord Jagannath, Balbhadra, Goddess Subhadra, and the Sudarshan Chakra possess unique and distinctive features that set them apart from other deities in Hinduism. While they do not bear the typical human form, their symmetrical design is captivating. Their substantial square heads seamlessly blend into their torsos. Lord Jagannath can be recognized by his black complexion, adorned in traditional yellow attire, which coincidentally is Krishna's favorite color. Balbhadra or Balram, on the other hand, is depicted as white and is adorned in green attire, while Subhadra exhibits a yellow complexion and wears a beautiful pink or red garment.


Jagannath Rath Yatra


The deities are also adorned with magnificent mukuts (crowns) that perfectly complement their attire. They are adorned with exquisite ornaments and fresh flower garlands. In artworks where Lord Jagannath is depicted without his companions, typically, only his face is visible.

What truly distinguishes them are their beautifully rounded eyes, as if forever engaged in darshan (divine sight), eagerly connecting with devotees who have traveled from various corners with utmost devotion to immerse themselves in the love of the Gods.


Jagannath Yatra Across Nation

The grand celebration in Puri includes a diverse range of traditional dances, such as Odissi, Ghumura, Chhua, and others, performed by folk dancers, accompanied by drummers playing traditional musical instruments. These performances add to the mesmerizing atmosphere of the entire event. The entire scene is enchanting, with the holy triad watching over the procession with their large, welcoming eyes. It is a belief that it always rains on the day of this sacred procession, further enhancing the mystical ambiance. The collective fervor among the gathered devotees remains unparalleled. 


Jagannath Rath Yatra


The town of Mahesh, near Kolkata, hosts the second-largest chariot festival in India, following the Rath Yatra of Puri. This festival's origins are believed to trace back to the 14th century, pre-dating the arrival of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In contrast to the idols of Puri, which are replaced every year, the idols in Mahesh have been venerated for centuries. The aunt's residence in Mahesh is known as Kunj Bati.

Auspiciousness is associated with pulling the sacred chariot ropes, known as Roshi, on this day. While the Mahesh Rath Yatra features a fair, the processions in the Gopitara and Mahishadal regions are accompanied by groups of kirtan singers and local band parties who sing hymns and chant prayers as part of the celebration.

Another major city where the Rath Yatra is annually celebrated with tremendous enthusiasm and love is Ahmedabad. The chariots of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balram, and their sister Subhadra are brought out from the 400-year-old Jagannath temple, located in the Jamalpur area of Ahmedabad. Mahant Shri Narsinhdasji Maharaj is credited with playing a pivotal role in initiating the first Rath Yatra in the year 1878.

A notable feature of the festival is that the procession includes not only the three chariots but also fifteen adorned elephants and a hundred trucks carrying tableaux, adding to the grandeur of the event.


Rath Yatra 2023: The Chariot Festival in Puri and Beyond

In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time in 2000 years, the Jagannath Puri Yatra faced disruption. However, this year, the festival resumed its enthusiasm. Once again, the Puri Rath Yatra was held on June 20, 2023, attracting a multitude of devotees who braved the scorching summer heat to participate in this sacred journey. The holy site was bustling with devotees from across the nation, and many foreign devotees were also seen celebrating the Yatra with great love and happiness.


Rath Yatra 2023

BTS from MeMeraki's Odisha Pattachitra Masterclass


As in every year, the performers and participants displayed unwavering enthusiasm. The vivid colors and vibrancy were evident, from the grand chariots to the costumes and attire of the participants.

Furthermore, this collective devotion has been passionately celebrated in many countries, including the USA, Rome, Prague, and England. The 2023 Jagannath Yatra Parade organized by ISKCON in New York, USA, on June 9th, was truly a sight to behold! A vast gathering of believers and spectators gathered in Tomkin's Square Park for the Kirtan session. The organizers even provided lunch to all the participants of the Rath Yatra, and onlookers enthusiastically joined in the celebration of the event.

The Rath Yatra in Cologne, the fourth largest city in Germany, is another spectacle worth witnessing. German devotees were observed singing Kirtan songs and playing Mridanga and Khol Drums throughout the procession. The "Hare Krishna" bhajan resounded joyfully, sung by a cheerful group of devotees dedicated to Shri Krishna, who is manifested as Jagannath. The chariot carrying the idols of Balbhadra, Jagannath, and Subhadra was beautifully adorned with balloons and flower garlands, adding to the festive ambiance.

Equally captivating was the Jagannath Rath Yatra that took place on June 3rd in the city of Rome. The streets were bustling with a significant number of devotees and Kirtan singers. The continuous chanting of "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama" resonated throughout the procession. In addition, a garlanded statue of Prabhupada Maharaj, a prominent spiritual leader and the founder of ISKCON, was seated in a chariot alongside Jagannath and his two siblings, further enriching the spiritual experience of the event.

From the streets of India to faraway cities, the spirit of the Jagannath Yatra has transcended geographical boundaries. The Rath Yatra serves as a powerful reminder to observers and followers alike about the virtues of selfless devotion, reverence for tradition, and the profound influence of collective consciousness. In this manner, the Jagannath Rath Yatra continues to flourish and evolve, disseminating its message of cultural harmony and inclusivity beyond borders.


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