Pradeep Pattanayak

There are 12 main festivals of Lord Jagannath observed at Srimandir in Puri. Rath Yatra is one of them. This annual festival of nine-day sojourn of the sibling deities to their aunt’s place, or Gundicha temple, is celebrated on the second day of Shukla Paksha in the month of Aashadha. 

But have you ever wondered, how and when this festival started for the first time?

Historians believe that Anangabhimadeva III for the first time called him as the servant of Lord Jagannath. He was ruling over Utkala Desha with the order of Lord Jagannath. It is believed that Anangabhimadeva started the Rath Yatra in Puri. 

While the earliest literary evidence of Rath Yatra in Puri is found from a 10th-11th century CE drama written during the rule of Somavamshi dynasty, the iconographical evidence is found from a frieze of a 14-15th century Kotarakshi temple at Dhanmandal in Jajpur district. The frieze depicts a chariot with 12 wheels (six visible) without spoke drawn by devotees. The sculptural frieze is now preserved at the State Museum in Bhubaneswar. 

How Rath Yatra was introduced?

There are many stories and opinions telling about the beginning of the Rath Yatra. According to some historians, the Rath Yatra was inspired from the Buddhist ritual of using handmade chariots to popularize Lord Buddha’s philosophy ‘ahimsa’. 
Chinese traveler Fa Hien, who visited Odisha in the fifth century AD, has written about the tradition of chariots of Lord Buddha being pulled along the public road. In fact, the practice is still extant in Nepal where it is believed that gods and goddesses are the different incarnations of Lord Buddha. 

According to some others, the inspiration of the Rath Yatra was taken from Krishna tradition. Lord Jagannath being worshipped in the Gopalamantra of Lord Krishna and many Bhakti saints like Ramanuja, Ramananda, Kabir, Chaitanya associating Lord Jagannath with Lord Krishna lend credence to the belief. 

A legend of Krishna episode is widely believed to have association with Rath Yatra. 

King Kansa, the maternal uncle of Lord Krishna and Balram, invited them to Mathura with an intention to kill them. Akrur came with a chariot to take them. They sat on the chariot and left for Mathura. The people of Mathura had an opportunity to have a darshan of Lord Krishna when the two siblings moved around Mathura sitting in a chariot, after defeating King Kansa. 

Devotees in Dwarka celebrated the day when Lord Krishna and Balram took their sister Subhadra along with them in a chariot to show the city’s beauty. 

Another folklore associated with the Rath Yatra is that on Devasnana Purnima day, Lord Jagannath and his siblings are taken to the bathing altar on the temple premises. At the altar, they take a ceremonial bath with 108 pitchers of sacred water. After this, they fall severely ill for 15 days. Upon their recovery, they wish to visit their aunt’s house for a change. 

However, many believe, it is Lord Jagannath’s wish to come out of His abode and meet his devotees irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Thus the Rath Yatra was started. 

According to yet another folklore, Queen Gundicha requested her husband King Indradyumna, who built the temple, to start Rath Yatra, so that sinners and those who are not allowed into the temple to have a darshan of the deities could have darshan of Him for attaining salvation. Thus, the yatra is also known as Gundicha Yatra.