Juggernaut of a Rath Yatra – Puri Jagannath

The Yatra of Jagannath of Puri beckons millions in India and across the world to witness a glorious spectacle. Sridhar brings to you a riveting account of Jagannath Yatra 2018 and what happens on the ground amidst the teeming millions.

On July 13th 2018, the train I boarded from Bhubaneshwar, Orissa eased to a slow halt. I could hear the announcement blaring out of the public address system. I tugged at my backpack and the camera bag which acted as a chestpack before setting foot, for the first time in my life, in Puri.  Hotel formalities was successfully negotiated and I set out to witness the beginnings of a grand spectacle which is the Jagannath Rath Yatra.  Rath means a chariot. Puri is located on the eastern seaboard of India nestled in the state of Orissa with the Bay of Bengal for a faithful companion. From Bhubaneshwar, one can reach Puri by road or train within couple of hours. 

The origins of Jagannath Yatra of Puri is unknown and there are several fables relating to it. Though it makes for fascinating reading, the bottomline is the influence Jagannath has on the local populace is based on a strong decoction of faith, tradition and belief on the Supreme Being. So much so that that the British bureaucracy were instructed to handle the affairs of temple of Jagannath with utmost care and that no disrespect was to be exhibited. The British feared that it might lead to an uprising!  In Warangal, Telengana, there exists an inscription which says that the Gajapati King, Kapilendra Deva invaded Utkala region( today’s coastal Orissa) on the orders of Lord Jagannath. Perhaps, this relationship of God-Servant is very rarely seen in India. 

The Rath Yatra is widely covered by the media and we all are treated to the visuals of the Chariots. I wanted to experience the Yatra first hand and to be amidst the people for whom Jagannath reigns supreme. For the uninitiated, there are three chariots which are occupied by Balarama, Subhadra and Jagannath (the Trinity) respectively. The Chariots are made of wood and every year, the Trinity gets to ride on brand new chariots. The old ones are buried. The Chariots start their journey from Jagannath Temple and end right outside Sri Gundicha Devi Temple.

The Grand Street- Jagannath Temple at the far end

Two temples, Sri Jagannath and Sri Gundicha Devi temple adorn the either ends of a 4 km road.  After a brisk walk from the hotel, I reached the temple street which was already bustling with activity. Devotees of Lord Jagannath across Orissa and the world were streaming into Puri. The anticipation of the Yatra was written large on everyone’s face. People were scampering from one end of the street to another. Hare Rama, Hare Krishna chants were heard everywhere. Small groups of people singing glory of the Lord traipsed towards the Jagannath Temple. Some were dancing, some…singing with gay abandon. Tufts of hair which adorn only the back of the head of men were flying in all directions. The eyes are closed, arms raised, palms facing the Jagannath Temple and the chant of “Jai Jagannath” tumbled from their lips.

Sri Gundicha Devi Temple

Ropes to pull the Chariot

The Chariots getting ready to roll the next day

Hot wheels

Woodwork on the Chariot

Gods on wheels

All woodwork!

Triumph of good over evil

The Raths were getting ready for the next day’s procession. Huge rolls of ropes were placed right next to the chariots. People were milling around the chariots. Mobile were whipped out for taking selfies. Then I walked towards Sri Gundicha Temple just to see what was going on at the other end. The folklore is that Queen Gundicha built the temple of Jagannath and requested the King to organise a Yatra so that lesser mortals could see and pray to the Lord. Hence the Yatra starts from the Jagannath Temple and end at the Gundicha Temple. As I reached Sri Gundicha Temple, I was greeted with a rather amusing sight of men and women holding brooms and an earthen pot.  It was a symbolic ritual wherein the devotees clean the precincts of the temple to receive the Trinity the next day.

Getting ready for entering Sri Gundicha Devi Temple

The devotees were chanting and dancing to a rhythm set by the cymbals and drums. I spotted a sadhu with goggles giving an impromptu discourse and blessing everybody by placing a plastic mace on the devotee’s head! The procession of devotees came out of the temple and veered towards the right and hordes of people followed them. I did the next best thing. Follow the followers! Soon we came to a tank called the Indradyumna Tank. The priests were chanting, standing in the tank with water at waist high. Soon the chanting reached a crescendo and the climax ended with beating of water. Water flew everywhere and I had to take evasive action to protect my camera. 

Later in the evening I slowly walked back to the hotel to recharge my batteries for the Yatra Day. I woke up early and made my way to the Temple street with a thought that with some luck I can squeeze into a vantage point. My hopes were quickly dashed for there were already scores of people lining the streets.  Security was tight and a large cordon of police stopped me from going any further. The temple street, as in all streets across India, is dotted with hotels, shops on either side. Elaborate arrangements were made for the well connected to view the Yatra from the roof top. The spots were sold at a premium I was told. 

The three chariots were decorated and ready to receive their occupants. Balaram, brother of Krishna, was first, then Subhadra ( Sister of Balarama and Krishna ) and then Jagannath himself with great pomp and fervour.  Each chariot is identified by the flag. Green denotes Balarama, Black denotes Subhadra and the Yellow – Jagannath. The morning sun was relentless and extremely hot. Locals were confident that there would be heavy showers later in the day. From nowhere a man appeared in front of me with a plastic container on his back and a hose on his right hand and sprayed water all over my face and head. He smiled at my surprise. There is a commotion right behind him and a truck rumbled in with a cannon and water tank strapped on its back. Soon the cannon sprayed the devotees with water and there is a general feeling of appreciation from the public at the local administration’s effort to make the Yatra just that much comfortable. As I made my way around the hordes of people, I spotted the most unusual of sights. A man with generous mop of leaves on his head was walking with no care for the world. His eyes were bloodshot and his stare was piercing. There were kids riding on the shoulders of their father. That I feel is the most endearing sight and the view from the top is grand ,of course. I also became photographer to many people and a group had come all the way from Jharkhand. In this age, where data sharing with strangers is frowned upon, mobile numbers were freely exchanged and after reaching home, I sent the pics to almost 10 such groups! 

Water bazooka

Devotee enthralled

 One amongst many unusual sights

Man with the dholak (drum)

No words!

A Pandit in the crowd

                   Shades of vermilion

Kaja- A sweet munch

 A chariot of a different kind 

A man dressed as Hanuman was going around in full make-up,  tail, mace et al. This man would later play a very important role at the fag end of the  day.  Impromptu friends were made- a Mr. R.K Singh from Bhubaneshwar, a Mr. Arun from Patna.  Mr. Singh had one important observation to make. What kind of enjoyment the people who occupied the terraces would have when all the fun is happening on the streets? Couldn’t argue with him. At about 2 p.m the heavens opened and there was no running for shelter. People were still standing, all drenched, waiting for the chariots to roll. At about 2.45 p.m we heard a roar. The chariot carrying Balarama started to move. Soon, shrieks of Jai Jagannath pierced the air. There was lots of shoves and jostling in the crowd, all surmounted with a wry smile. One guy even advised me to cover the camera with a towel while he himself was getting crushed from all sides! What fun! Balarama came close to me and I found myself shouting Jai Jagannath with my hands raised! After, Balarama passed by, I somehow managed to cross the street to get a better view of Subhadra and Jagannath. The rain had still not subsided and I managed to squeeze under a stranger’s umbrella who happened to be, of all places in the world, from Mumbai!

The chariots are pulled by Police personnel who are specially deputed for this day. It is a well oiled exercise. When the chariot is about to move, a red flag goes up. The priests spring into action and start hitting a round plate with wooden stick. Another priest rides a wooden horse which is tied on the front of the chariot! The frenzy is infectious. The loudest rendering of Jai Jagannath was reserved when the chariot of Jagannath passed by. The yellow colour of the decorations of the chariot with an overcast sky for a background was a photographer’s delight though it was very difficult  to hold the camera steady and focus when there is a sea of humanity crashing on to you from various sides.

I walked behind Jagannath’s chariot enjoying the sights and sounds. As soon as I thought I have seen everything, the most hilarious incident played out.  Hanuman, I think took his act too seriously ,climbed on top of a fire engine. Soon a police constable clambered on and ordered Hanuman to get off the vehicle. The crowd roared its disapproval. The duo was soon joined by a person of higher authority. It was a sight for the Gods literally! Hanuman, looked very unhappy and reluctantly hopped off the vehicle.  By evening, Balarama and Subhadra reached Gundicha Devi Temple. Jagannath stayed back at the half way stage. The next day He made the remainder of the distance. The Three Chariots in the horizon looked perfect and to me it signalled the end of my Yatra. 




Conference on top of a fire engine

Better sense prevails!

That entire night I barely slept. Athletes say that when your adrenaline is flowing, then sleep is, but a tiny flicker of thought. I could hear the heavy patter of the rain falling on the roof and the dull thud of rain drops in my room. Water was trickling through the empty switch board embedded in the wall and then on to the window sill. The rains were that heavy. At 5.15 a.m, I made my way to the railway station skipping over puddles of water. 

I settled for the return journey to Bhubaneshwar. The train pulled away from Puri Station but strangely enough I felt a faint tug at my heart. The sort of tug which instantly makes you realise that Puri has enveloped you in a strange embrace and you are finding it difficult to disengage. 

Jai Jagannath!

Getting to Puri:

Nearest Airport- Bhubaneshwar

Nearest Railhead- Puri

Things to see around Puri- The Puri Beach- wickedly called the “Sea Beach”! & Konark Sun Temple which is about 45 minutes from Puri.




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