Odishatv Bureau

Two recurring themes in the writings of the colonial administrators are the incidence of religious suicide by devotes and incidence of cholera as a result of massive congregation during Ratha Yatra. 

The incidence of suicide by devotees by either jumping from a pinnacle or lying themselves under the wheels of chariots have been referred to in many writings. Robert Sathe in 1809 AD in the poem, writes:

The ponderous car rolls on and crushes all
Through flesh and bones it ploughs its dreadful path

Groans rise unheard, the dying cry and death and agony
Are trodden under foot by your mad throng
Who follow close and thrust the deadly wheels along.

Taverneir, Bernier and many others also referred to the Car Festival and suicide. An eye-witness account of the Jagannath temple and its rituals in the seventeenth century in detail is available in Bah-rul Asrar written by Mahmud Bin Amir Wali Balkhi, an illustrious Muslim pilgrim who visited Puri during the reign of Jahangir. He came from Balkh in northern Afghanistan in 1624-25 to India. He referred to suicide thus:

“One of the strange sights is that during the movement of the chariot there is a high cupola like a lofty gate (?) There is a group of self-sacrificing worshippers who disregarding any possession or wealth in the pursuit of worship, resolve to offer their own lives; they climb over the pinnacles and to the top of the said tower. When the chariot reaches near them and the curtain keepers remove the curtain from the face of Jagannath, and all the Hindus who ascend that tower throw themselves all of a sudden under the wheel and so by this means go to hell. On that day, I was told nearly 2,000 persons, by throwing themselves down from that elevated place, obtained annihilation. Those who are old and weak and cannot climb that tower, simply throw themselves under the Rath so that the idol rides over them and kills them. On that day some two thousand died like this.”

(Umakanta Mishra teaches History at Ravenshaw University, Cuttack and can be reached at umajnu@gmail.com)