Pradeep Pattanayak

There are four sacred pilgrimage destinations of the Hindus known as Char Dham. They are Badrinath, Puri, Rameshwaram and Dwarka. In Puri, popularly known as Jagannath dham, Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, along with His siblings Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra is worshipped in the world-famous Srimandir. 

For the uninitiated, a total of 148 festivals are celebrated in the temple annually. Of them, 12 are yatras, 28 are upa yatras and 108 are festivals. 

Out of the 12 yatras or main festivals, Rath Yatra or Ratha Jatra is the most important one. This nine-day-long annual sojourn of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra is celebrated on the second day of the Shukla Paksha of Hindu month of Ashadha. This festival is eagerly awaited because this is the only occasion when Lord Jagannath steps out of the sanctum sanctorum to give darshan to all devotees irrespective of caste, colour and religion. 

The preparations for the nine-day annual sojourn start early, with the construction of chariots beginning on the auspicious day of Akshay Tritiya. And, approximately 18 days before Ratha Yatra, Lord Jagannatha, His brother Balabhadra and His sister Devi Subhadra are given a famous ceremonial bath which is known as Snana Yatra. This festival is observed on Purnima Tithi in the month of Jyeshtha, which is popularly known as Jyestha Purnima. 108 pitchers of herbal and aromatic water are used in the festival. 

The same night, the deities are taken to ‘Anasara Ghara’ where they stay for a fortnight. It is believed that, like human beings, they too fall sick after bathing. During this period, devotees are not allowed to have a darshan of recuperating deities.

On the new moon day of Hindu month of Ashadha, the deities become ready to appear before their devotees. The festival is known as ‘Netrotsava’ or ‘Nabajoubana Darshan'. The next day is world famous Rath Yatra.

On the Rath Yatra day (Dwitiya tithi, Shukla Paksha of Ashadha month), it seems all roads lead to Puri as lakhs of devotees from different parts of the globe throng the holy town to have a glimpse of their beloved Lord Jagannath seated on His chariot.

After completion of daily rituals like Mangal Alati, Abakasha, Rosa Homa, Ballabha, Mailam Lagi, among others, the preparations start for the deities' outing.

Out on the Grand Road, ‘Deula Purohit’ servitors perform ‘Rath Pratistha’ ritual wherein the decorated three majestic chariots are sanctified before the journey begins. 

The deities are taken out of the sanctum sanctorum in a royal procession called ‘Pahandi Bije’. In Dhadi Pahandi, they are taken one after another in close succession. They all assemble at the seventh stair to wear giant floral crowns, known as ‘Tahia’.

Thereafter, the deities are taken in rhythmic movements amidst beating of cymbals, gongs and drums, sound of conch blowing and chanting of their names by devotees. While Lord Sudarshan and Devi Subhadra are carried on shoulders, Lord Jagannath and Balabhadra are carried with forward and backward movements with pauses.

They go to their respective chariots through Pata Agana, Ananda Bazar, Inner Lions’ Gate, Baisi Pahacha, Lions’ Gate, Gumuti and Arunastambha.Proxy divinities like Madanmohan and Ramakrishna are placed on Nandighosha and Taladhwaja chariots respectively.

In Chita Lagi rituals, special head ornaments and pata bastra are provided to the deities.

Most significantly, Lord Jagannath is provided with a coconut sent by the villagers of Baligaon, the village of Dasia Bauri.

Then the most important ritual of Chhera Panhara begins the sweeping of chariots. In this ritual, Puri Gajapati Maharaja is seen performing the job of a sweeper. He sweeps the three chariots using a gold handled broom while sprinkling sandalwood powder and water. This ritual is also performed on the last day of yatra, called Bahuda Yatra.

After completion of this ritual, the long wait of devotees to pull chariots comes to an end. They pull the chariots along the three-kilometre-long Grand Road to the Gundicha Temple (a monument built in memory of Queen of Indradyumna).

Worth mentioning, after 200 metres of journey, the chariot of Lord Jagannath comes to a screeching halt before a mazar (tomb) on the right side. It is the tomb of Salabeg, one of the greatest devotees of Lord Jagannath.

The deities stay at the Gundicha temple for eight days. After eight days’ stay, on the ninth day, the deities return to their abode. This is known as ‘Bahuda Yatra'.

On their way home, the three chariots stop at the Mausi Maa Temple where Poda Pitha Bhog, a special baked pastry prepared from rice flour, coconut, jaggery, is offered to the deities.