Jagannath Rath Yatra: The Grand Chariot Festival of Puri

The term Jagannath is the 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.

The Jagannath Rath Yatra is a sacred annual procession that holds a tremendous value in Odia Hinduism and among many devotees in the Northern parts of India. The word Yatra connotes to journey and in this case, it refers to the yearly journey of the divine trio - Lord Jagannath, his younger sister Subhadra and his older brother, Balbhadra along with the Sudarshan Chakra, who come out of their Garbha Griha (sanctum sanctorum) to visit their Mausi Maa, aunt Gundicha. The oldest and the grandest procession is held in Jagannath Puri, which is world famous for the 11-day celebration of one of the most highly anticipated festivals. Over time, this Yatra has extended to other parts of the country, including Bengal, Bihar, and Jharkhand.

Legend has it that the origin of this procession dates back to a time when Goddess Subhadra expressed her desire to tour the city. Since then, the Jagannath Yatra has been an unbroken tradition. This Yatra occurs on the Shukla Paksh, Dwitiya Tithi of the month of Ashadh (June or July). Prior to embarking on this journey, it is believed that Jagannath experiences a period of high fever following the Snana Yatra, a bathing ritual for the deities. During this phase of recovery, devotees are prohibited from glimpsing the deities. Following their special care and rejuvenation, the iconic Rath Yatra is set into motion. Across countless centuries, this enduring representation of the ultimate being never fails to evoke a sense of wonder.

The presiding Gods are then brought out from the temple with utmost devotion and reverence and are ceremoniously placed on their traditionally crafted chariots, each dedicated to a specific deity. These awe-inspiring chariots, towering at 45 feet, are carefully constructed and shaped from sturdy seasoned woods, by artisans known as Maharana. Traditional joinery techniques are employed to assemble all the parts of chariots along with the intricate carvings and flags adorning them.


A chariot being built (Picture Courtesy: India TV News)


While the priests perform sacred rituals, the king of Puri is needed to perform a symbolic ritual called Chhera Pehnra, where he cleanses the path for the chariots, using a golden broom. The joyous devotees accompanied by numerous volunteers then pull the chariot all the way to the Gundicha temple, located approximately 3 kilometers away.

Throughout the journey devotional songs are sung, and well-trained dancers perform traditional performances adding to the electric atmosphere. Regardless of their caste, creed, gender, race, the devotees come together and engage themselves in the bhakti (ultimate love) for the eternal beings as they witness their beloved lord emerging from the Purva Dwar or Eastern Gate. Owing to the immense number of devotees who participate, the security during the Yatra is kept tight to ensure the safety.



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


Iconography of the Idols

The idols of Lord Jagannath, Balbhadra and Goddess Subhadra and Sudarshan Chakra possess unique and distinctive features, setting them apart from the other deities in Hinduism. While they do not resemble typical human figures, their symmetrical design is captivating. Their massive square heads seamlessly merge into the torsos. Lord Jagannath can be identified by his black complexion, clad in a traditional yellow attire, which happens to be Krishna’s favorite color. Balbhadra or Balram on the other hand is portrayed as white, donning a green attire, while Subhadra exhibits a yellow complexion, and wears a beautiful pink or red garment.

The deities also can be seen wearing magnificent mukuts (crowns) that complement their outfits. They are bejeweled in exquisite ornaments and fresh flower garlands. When Lord Jagannath is depicted without his companions, often only his face is made visible in the artworks.

What truly sets them apart are their beautifully rounded eyes, as though perpetually and excitedly engaging in darshan (divine sight) of their devotees who had journeyed from different corners with utmost devotion to immerse themselves in the love of Gods.


Jagannath Yatra Across the Nation

This divine trio is an important part of the Odisha Pattachitra artworks of the Puri, Konark, and Bhubaneswar regions. The grand celebration of Puri includes various traditional dances performed by Odissi, Ghumura, Chhua, and other folk dancers along with the drummers playing traditional musical instruments adding to the mesmerizing effect of the whole event. The whole scene is enchanting as the holy triad watches over the procession with their big, welcoming eyes. It is believed that it always rains on the day of this holy  procession. The collective fervor among the gatherers continues to be unmatched.


Snippet from MeMeraki's Odisha Pattachitra Masterclass


The town of Mahesh near Kolkata holds the second-largest chariot festival in India after the Rath Yatra of Puri. The festival is believed to have originated in the 14th century, which predates the arrival of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Unlike the idols of Puri which are changed every year, the idols here are the same that have been venerated for centuries. The aunt’s house is known by the name of Kunj Bati in Mahesh. Pulling the sacred ropes of the chariots called Roshi is deemed auspicious on this day. While the Mahesh Rath Yatra is marked by a fair, the processions carried out in the regions of Gopitara, and Mahishadal is accompanied by groups of kirtan singers and local band parties who sing hymns and chant prayers.


Devotees performing dance during ISKCON Ulta Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath in Kolkata. (Image Source: PTI)


The other major city where the Rath Yatra is annually welcomed with a lot of enthusiasm and love is the city of Ahmedabad. The chariots of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balram and their sister Subhadra are carried out from the 400-year-old Jagannath temple, located in the Jamalpur area of Ahmedabad. It is stated that Mahant Shri Narsinhdasji Maharaj played a vital role in initiating the first Rath Yatra in the year 1878. The highlight of the festival is that the procession along with the three chariots also comprises fifteen decorated elephants and a hundred trucks with a tableau.


Decorated Elephants in Rath Yatra, Ahmedabad


Rath Yatra 2023

In 2020, due to the covid, it was for the 1st time in 2000 years This year the festival of Jagannath Puri Yatra, commenced on 20th July. Fortunately the Rath Yatra ensuing after that year resumed the enthusiasm. Once again the Puri  Rath Yatra was held in Jun 20, 2023, witnessed a sea of devotees braving the scorching heat of the summer to be a part of the holy journey. The holy place was thronged by multitudes of devotees from across the nation. Many foreign devotees were also witnessed celebrating the Yatra with utmost love and happiness. Like every year, the gusto among the performers and participants was in its full verve. The colors and the vibrancy was very much apparent from the three magnanimous chariots to the costumes and the dresses of the participants. 

Furthermore, this collective devotion has long been fervently celebrated across many countries such as the USA, Rome, Prague, England. The 2023 Jagannath Yatra Parade organized by ISKCON in New York, USA, on the 9th of June, was a sight to behold! A huge assemblage of believers and spectators were seen gathered in Tompkin’s Square Park for the Kirtan session. The center even provided lunch to all the participants of the Rath Yatra. Even the onlookers were seen joining and reviling in the Rath Yatra celebration.


New York celebrates Rath Yatra (Picture: @iskon on Twitter)


Rath Yatra in Cologne, the fourth largest city in Germany is yet another sight to behold. The German devotees were seen singing Kirtan songs and playing Mridanga, Khol Drum throughout the march. The “Hare Krishna” bhajan was being joyously sung by a jolly group of the bhakts of Shri Krishna manifested as Jagannath God. The chariot carrying idols of Balbhadra, Jagannth and Subhadra was colorfully decorated with balloons and flower garlands. 


Rath Yatra in Berlin in front of the “Alte Wache” near the Humboldt University in 2021  (Picture: Iskcon News)

Equally fascinating has been the Jagannath Rath Yatra on the 3rd of June, in the city of Rome. The streets were seen buzzing with a good number of devotees and Kirtan singers. The continuous chanting  “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” echoed throughout the procession. Additionally, a garlanded statue of Prabhupada Maharaj, one of the prominent spiritual leaders and the founder of ISKCON, was placed in a seated position in a chariot carrying Jagannath, and his two siblings.

From the streets of India to the faraway cities, the spirit of Jagannath Yatra has transcended geographical boundaries. The Rath Yatra has been serving as a powerful reminder to the observers and the followers about the goodness of selfless devotion, reverence for tradition, and the profound impact of collective consciousness. In this way, the Jagannath Rath Yatra is continuing to thrive and evolve, spreading its message of cultural harmony and inclusivity beyond the borders.



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