The Rath Yatra at Puri
Snapshot
  • For centuries, rituals surrounding Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra, have unfolded with the rolling chariots. They keep the siblings alive in a community.

A group of siblings decides to beat the scorching heat of Odisha. They take a bath, a long bath with cold water to beat the heat, like most of us have done sometime or the other. Like many of us, the siblings fall sick. They stay confined to a sick room under the watchful eyes of a vaidya (physician) for 15 days and have to change their diet and activities to recuperate soon. And when they recover after 15 days, they want to make the most of their lost time and crave for a change. So, they decide to take a small vacation to the house of their aunt. In all the excitement, the younger brother forgets to invite his wife for the vacation and in the process, leaves a very angry wife to deal with, once he returns home. In fact, he is not allowed to enter the house once he returns, and finally, has to placate the angry consort with a pot of warm and fresh rasogolas. Thus ends an eventful summer for the siblings.

In a nutshell, this is the story behind the world famous Rath Yatra of Puri, where Jagannath, Balabhadra and their sister Subhadra get on their chariots and visit the Gundicha Temple located about three kilometres from the Shri Mandira. The elaborate sequence of events during the Rath Yatra mirrors the everyday lives of ordinary people, much like the daily nitis (ritual practices) of the deities. But, in the true fashion of the lord of the universe, the mundane daily activities become a celebration in the temple, with everyone from the Gajapati (the ruler of Puri) and groups of servitors tending to every need of the deities. From getting up to calls of ‘manima’ (the bejewelled one), to change of clothes and food according to seasons, the occasional bana bhoji (picnic in the jungle) with siblings, music while going to bed, a royal physician to tend to their illnesses and even quarrels with consorts — every activity is guided by unique rituals.

Consider this. There is a group of servitors called the mutura pakhala, who are responsible for providing mutura twigs to the deities for brushing their teeth every morning, and a different group of servitors called the darpania (one who holds the mirror for the deities), who provide the mirrors to the deities while they dress up. There is a group called the khuntias, who just stand guard over the lord and lovingly call him ‘manima’ (colloquially used for king) and talk to him now and then. There are multiple groups of sevayats responsible for each aspect of the preparation of the mahaprasad. The paniki pata (group of servitors responsible for chopping vegetables in the temple using the tool) handle the vegetables. The rosa nikap (this group of servitors handles the flavour ingredients in the temple offering) prepare the ghee and ginger. The chaula bachha (a group of servitors) clean the rice. Every group of servitors are known as a nijoga and the Gajapati (title of the King of Puri) Ananga Bhima Deva had established 36 such nijogas to handle all the nitis. Comprising almost all caste groups and covering almost all aspects of skill, the group of sevayats in Puri are known as the chhattisnijoga (36 nijogas). Though with time, the groups of servitors increased and there are now about 250 such nijogas. Some of the old nijogas like the binkara comprising skilled veena players, who used to play the instrument while the deities went to bed, no longer exist.

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But, what this goes on to show is that the system of nitis or rituals is central to the temple ecosystem and each niti is intertwined to the next like clockwork. It is not just the temple but the various mathas (Hindu monasteries) and pithas in Puri which also have specific responsibilities. All this reaches a crescendo from the period between the snana purnima (when the three deities along with Madanmohan and Sudarshan are brought out of the sanctum sanctorum for a bathing festival) and the bahuda (when the chariots return to the Shri Mandira from the Gundicha Temple).

The festivities of the Rath Yatra commence from the snana purnima, also known as jyeshtha purnima. Then begins a unique ritual, where the deities are doused with 108 pitchers of perfumed water from the suna kuan (golden well) near the northern entrance of the temple. A group of sevayats called the Suna Goswamis draw water from the well and this is the only occasion on which the water from this particular well is used. The Suna Goswamis cover their mouths with a piece of cloth so that the water remains uncontaminated. The water is preserved in the bhoga mandap (area where the food offering is prepared and stored) and perfumed with flowers, turmeric and sandalwood. It is also the only occasion when the deities literally bathe with water because on regular days, it is a mantra snana, where water is poured on a mirror placed in front of the deities. On the evening of the snana purnima, Shri Balabhadra and Shri Jagannath take on the gaja bhesha or the elephant attire. The deities are dressed in different attires every single day and also for particular occasions. Gaja means elephant and bhesha means attire, which includes silk clothes and ornaments. Devi Subhadra wears an attire based on the lotus.

The chariot The chariot

The day after the snana purnima marks the beginning of the most unique period in the nitis of the temple, where the three deities fall sick and are moved to a ‘sick room’, the anasara pindi. A bamboo screen hides them from the visitors and most sevayats, except for a special group of sevayats called the daitapatis. Jagannath is considered to have originated as a tribal deity with the name of Neela Madhaba and was worshipped by a tribal chieftain Vishwavasu. The daitapatis are considered to be of tribal lineage and the descendants of Vishwavasu. Between the snana purnima and the Rath Yatra, the daitapatis take on the most important role in the administration of the nitis in the temple. While a pattachitra of the deities are exhibited for the common public, the indisposed deities in their sick room are tended to by the daitapatis and the vaidya. But, these set of rituals are so secretive that even the sevayats from other nijogas are not privy to it. During the 15 days of anasara, no other sevayat is allowed access to the sick room and only the pati mahapatra (the head of the daitapatis) has full knowledge of all the rituals. But, at the same time, the other sevayats continue the daily activities in front the pati dians (the replaced deities in the sanctum sanctorum). During this time, devotees throng another pilgrimage site, Alarnath, about 25 km from Puri. It is believed that since there is no opportunity to see the deities in Shri Mandira, Shri Jagannath manifests himself as Alarnath.

While not much of the rituals of the anasara or period of isolation can be discussed, the next big day comes a day before the Rath Yatra — known as the naba joubana darshana. This literally translates into renewed youth or vigour and marks the day when the fully recovered and recuperated deities venture out of the sick room, take their place on the ratna sinhasana (bejewelled throne) and give darshan to the devotees. It is believed that the water poured on the vigrahas (the deity in the form of an idol) on snana purnima makes the colour fade a little. Therefore, during the end of the anasara, the Datta Mahapatra paints the faces of the deities in a ritual known as banak lagi (the deities are decorated in this ritual using saffron, musk and camphor). The darshan of the deities after recovery, in all their beauty and magnificence is considered to be a sight for sore eyes and is rightly called netra utsava (celebration for the eyes).

The next day – ashadha shukla dwitya is the day of the Rath Yatra. The three deities along with Sudarshana, Manamohana, Rama and Krishna move to their respective chariots in a ritual known as pahandi bije. There are specific rituals marking the event with different nijogs of sevayats responsible for each. One of the nitis, which generates the most interest is the chera pahanra (sweeping of the chariot) by the Puri Gajapati. The Gajapati sweeps the three chariots with the deities seated in them before they commence their journey. This establishes that even the highest ruler of the land is a sevayat of the lord of the universe. Rath Yatra is an opportunity for all devotees and faithful irrespective of their caste, religion and gender to pull the chariots of the lords but there is a special nijog called the kalabethi, who have been traditionally responsible for it. Another unique ritual followed during the Rath Yatra was done by a group of servitors called the rath dahukas. They were traditionally responsible for singing songs, which were drawn from eighth century tantric literature. The songs were usually double layered and many consider the lyrics extremely bawdy. It was believed that until the dahukas sing these songs, the chariots do not move. But, the content of these songs was considered extremely provocative and vulgar, because of which they were banned in Puri in the mid-1990s.

This article is part of the Swarajya Utsav series. This article is part of the Swarajya Utsav series.

Any discussion on the Rath Yatra would be incomplete without focussing on the one left behind in the process, the other half of the divine pair, the consort, Lakshmi. This is a story with its share of drama and intrigue. While Shri Jagannath and his siblings celebrate the seven days of their vacation, his wife is left behind in the Shri Mandira with a wounded ego and numerous questions.

So, in desperation, she consults the other deities, Vimala and Saraswati, about her future course of action. They are equally enraged about the situation and devise a plan to avenge the injustice. Goddess Vimala, who is a tantric deity, advises Lakshmi to serve Shri Jagannath a moha churna, which will draw him back home. So, on the fifth day of the Rath Yatra, the goddess armed with the churna (a medicinal mix) visits her husband at the Gundicha Temple in a beautiful palanquin, in a ritual marked as the hera panchami. The servitors of both the deities make them sit facing each other, where the moha churna is secretly applied on Shri Jagannath and the goddess then requests him to return home. The lord gifts the goddess a garland marking his consent and she prepares to return to the Shri Mandira. But, her anger has still not subsided. While returning, she finds an opportunity to vent it. So, on orders of the goddess, one of her servitors damages a portion of the chariot Nandighosha, which belongs to her husband.

Their conjugal fight does not end at this. On the tenth day of ashadha, the chariots return to Shri Mandira and on the twelfth day, the deities enter the temple. While Shri Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra are allowed to enter their home, the angry goddess is not done resolving issues with her husband and he has to go the extra mile to appease her. So, just like every Odia, he falls back on the ever trusted delicacy rasagola and seeks a truce with his wife. This ritual called the niladri bije marks the end of the Rath Yatra and the origin of the rasagola, which no neighbouring state can ever wish away.

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For centuries, these rituals have continued, passed on from one generation to another. Some have evolved, some have been discarded. Kings and governments have come and gone by. Gajapatis have bowed down to Jagannath and hundreds of sevayats have together made sure that their ‘manima’ and his siblings get the best of their care and attention. Courses of meals have been served, pots of water perfumed. Gotipuas and devadasis have performed for him, vaidyas have tended to them, dahukas have sung their raucous numbers. Lakhs have thronged the streets with faith guiding their tired feet and happy hearts. The wheels of his chariot have rolled on for centuries. He lives in his rituals and with him breathes the culture of a community and the consciousness of all that is.

Jai Jagannath.

Read all articles of the Swarajya Utsav series here.

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