When it comes Indic festivals, it doesn’t get bigger than the Rath Yatra in Puri, Odisha. This, is the story behind the greatest chariot ride ever—the ‘Juggernaut’.
The nine-day Rath Yatra, from 14 July this year, is the most important ritual involving Jagannath in Purushottam Kshetra (as Puri is also known as) and represents the culmination of year-long ceremonies with legends woven around them. The story behind the yatra goes thus: Jagannath doesn’t usually take a bath with cold water, but when the heat gets unbearable and He does, He catches a fever and takes two whole weeks to recover. But, it is said, a nagging fever persists and in order to recover completely, He goes out of His abode to cover Himself with the dust raised by the footsteps of his army of devotees. The dust, and the veneration of His devotees, cures Him completely. And this going out of His abode by Jagannath takes the form of the Rath Yatra that lakhs of devotees from around the world descend on the seaside temple town of Puri to witness and participate in.
The Purushottam Kshetra, or Puri, incidentally, is also home to many other temples and monuments. The Skanda Purana describes Puri as shaped like a dakshinavarti shankh (right-oriented conch shell) with a total area of 5 kosh (about 16 square kilometers) of which two kosh lies submerged under the sea. All the temples, mathas, sacred tanks and trees, and the jeha ghar (recreational centres) and akhadas (gymnastic centres) associated with the temples were once enclosed by a wall called the Meghanada Pacheri (little of it is left now).
The centre of the shankh kshetra (another name for Puri) is the Nilagiri hillock (shaped like the back of a turtle) on which stands the famous Jagannath Temple. The broad end of the shankh kshetra is on the west and is marked by the Loknath temple dedicated to Shiva. This is one of the eight famous Shiva temples in Puri. The apical end of the shankh (conch) is on the east and marked by another famous Shiva temple known as the Nilakantha temple. The area between these two temples is considered to be the most sacred.
The Tantric Puranas say the shankh kshetra is made of seven concentric folds, the central one being the Nilagiri hillock on which Jagannath presides with His elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. The second fold, which is hexagonal in shape, is presided over by Goddesses Bimala, Kamala, Sarbamangala and Uttara. The third fold is shaped like a lotus with eight petals, each inlaid with eight forms of Shiva accompanied by the eight respective forms of Devi. These deities are responsible for guarding the Nilagiri hillock.
While the inner compound wall of the temple forms the fourth fold, the fifth fold seats another eight forms of Shiva with the accompanying Devis. These deities form the outer protective ring around Jagannath temple. The sixth fold hosts six ashrams while the outermost fold is where pilgrims, pujaris (priests), sebaits (servitors) and pilgrims live.
There is another interesting version on why this area is called shankh kshetra. Vishnu had killed a demon named Madhu, who had a son called Shankhasura. Shankhasura wanted to avenge his father’s death and prayed to Shiva. He became Shiva’s disciple, and then wanted to learn the Vedas from Brahma. The latter refused and an angry Shankhasura stole the Vedas and hid them. Brahma appealed to Vishnu for help and the latter killed Shankhasura. The killing of His disciple infuriated Shiva, but the Gods managed to pacify Him by getting Vishnu to name the area where He (Vishnu) would preside over as shankh kshetra. But whatever be the legend, the presence of temples dedicated to Shiva and the various forms of Devi in this predominantly Vaishnavite pilgrimage site (Puri) is a prime example of the fine syncretic tradition of Sanatan dharma.
The Vishnudharama (an unpublished Sanskrit work dating back to 200 CE) that enumerates the centres of Krishna worship states that Krishna was worshipped a Purushottama in Odra (Odisha) kingdom while Vishnudharmottam (600 CE) refers to manifestation of Vishnu as Purushottam in Odra. Mention of the Rath Yatra can be found in 10th century texts (Anargharaghava) while the famous Madala Panji (the palm leaf chronicles of Jagannath temple) records that Yayatikesari (1078-1147 CE) built the temple to Purushottam at Puri. Some scholars say that the original temple was constructed in the 100th to 200th century BCE. A grander temple was built later by Chodagangadeva, the 3rd king of the Ganga dynasty. The Jagannath temple itself is a blend of Dravida and Nagara temple architecture styles with the pidha (base) being in the square Dravida style while the rest of the temple is in the circular Nagara style.
A distinctive feature of the Jagannath temple is the many delightful rituals and their accompanying legends. The story about the establishment of the temple goes like this: King Indradyumna (he finds mention in the Mahabharata) is asked by Vishnu to build a temple dedicated to Him. The king deployed Vidyapati, a Brahmin, to scout for a site. Vidyapati, in the course of his travels, reached the eastern seashore and rescued a maiden named Lalita, who happened to be tribal king Biswabasu’s daughter, from drowning in the sea. Biswabasu was a devotee of Vishnu and used to worship his live form inside a forest. Vidyapati, who had married Lalita, tricked Biswabasu into revealing the site of his worship, but Vishnu left the spot after this. Biswabasu was grief stricken, but sage Narada asked him to look out for three logs that would come floating on the seashore and asked him to carve statues of Vishnu and his brother and sister from the logs. The logs were found and transported to the spot where the Gundicha temple stands. Vishwakarma appeared in the guise of a Brahmin and offered to carve the statues on the condition that no one would disturb him for 21 days. But on the 14th day, curiosity overcame the king and he opened the door of the chambers where the Brahmin was carving the statues. He saw the unfinished statues and that the Brahmin had disappeared since the doors of the chamber had been opened. Narada once again appeared before the king and said that Vishnu would be worshipped in that form itself in Kalyug. And that Vishnu would take the form of Jagannath, or the Lord of the Universe, and be worshipped by all. The descendants of Biswabasu are called daitapatis and are the sevaits (servitors) of the temple.
An important ritual is the Chandan Yatra that begins from Akshaya Tritiya (the third day of the new moon in Baisakh) when temperatures start rising. In order to provide relief to Jagannath, his pratimurtis (proxies) are taken on boat rides for 21 days in the nearby Narendra tank. This is followed by the Snan Yatra on the full moon day of the month of jyeshtha when Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshan are bathed with 108 pitchers of water drawn from a well. After this bath, the deities fall ill and for the next fortnight--known as anabasara--are kept away from public view. This is followed by the mega ritual--the Rath Yatra--that starts on the second day of the bright fortnight of the month ashadha. The deities are taken out and placed on three massive chariots which are then pulled by devotees till the Gundicha Temple 3 km away. This journey takes more than 12 hours due to the huge crowds that jostle to pull the ropes, an act that many believe will help them attain moksha.
The return journey, or the Ulta Rath, falls on the twelfth lunar day. But before that, while Jagannath and his siblings are at Gundicha Temple, Vishnu’s (or Jagannath’s) consort Lakshmi visits the Temple but finds the doors closed and cannot go inside. In a rage, she breaks the spoke of a wheel of Jagannath’s chariot and that has to be replaced. When Jagannath returns to his temple, he finds the main door (the Singha Dwar) closed; an angry Lakshmi had ordered its closure. Though it is opened after a while, Lakshmi remembers the insult she faced at Gundicha temple and closes the gate of the main Temple in a renewed fit of anger. Lakshmi relents only after Jagannath offers her rasgullas, which happen to be Lakshmi’s favourite sweet. Incidentally, this forms the basis of Odisha’s claim to the rasgulla!
There are a few hundred other rituals associated with the temple and Bhagwan Jagannath, all accompanied by delightfully interesting tales, and it would take a few volumes to detail them. And that too won’t be enough since there are many other temples with their presiding deities, each with distinctive stories and legends, in shankh kshetra. Since the Jagannath temple came under repeated attacks by Muslim invaders, a number of akhadas were set up to provide training to young men to guard the temple. These akhadas had Hanuman temples attached to them. Thus, there are many Shiva, Shakti, Narasimha, Hanuman and Radha-Krishna temples in Puri, apart from hermitages and mathas, including the Gobardhan matha established by the Adi Shankara. Interestingly, there are Buddhist, Sikh and Kabir mathas also in Puri. The shankh kshetra is thus steeped in history and divinity, and a pilgrimage to Puri is considered to be as good as ones to all major temples in the subcontinent.
Read all articles of the Swarajya Utsav series here.