The Puri Rath Yatra festival is based around the worship of Lord Jagannath (a reincarnation of Lords Vishnu and Krishna). It commemorates his annual visit to his birthplace, Gundicha Temple, and aunt's home along with his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra.
When is the Festival Celebrated?
The Rath Yatra begins on the second day of Shukla Paksha (waxing phase of moon or bright fortnight) of the lunar month of Ashadha, as per the traditional Oriya Calendar.
In 2017, it commences on June 25 and ends on July 7.
Once every nine to 19 years, when the month of Ashadha is followed by another month of Ashadha (known as "double-Ashadha"), a rare and special Nabakalebar ritual takes place. Meaning "new body", Nabakalebara is when the wooden temple idols are replaced with new ones. In the last century, the ritual was performed in 1912, 1931, 1950, 1969, 1977, 1996, and 2015.
Where is the Festival Celebrated?
The Making of New Idols
Since the idols of Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra are made from wood, they're subject to decay over time and need to be replaced. The new idols are crafted from neem wood but not all neem trees are suitable for this purpose. According to the scriptures, the trees need to have certain qualities (such as specific number of branches, color, and location) for each of the idols.
On the year when the idols are due to be replaced, a contingent of priests, servants, and carpenters sets out from the Jagannath Temple to find the appropriate neem trees (locally known as Daru Brahma) in a procession called the Banajag Yatra. The priests walk bare-footed to the temple of Goddess Mangala at Kakatpur, around 50 kilometers from Puri.
There, the Goddess appears in a dream, and guides the priests as to where the trees can be found.
Once the trees are located, they're secretly brought back to the temple in wooden carts, and the new idols are carved by a special team of carpenters. The carving takes place in a special enclosure inside the temple, known as Koili Baikuntha, near the north gate. Lord Krishna is believed to have appeared to Radha in the form of a cuckoo bird there.
How is the Festival Celebrated?
Every year, the Rath Yatra festival begins with the idols of Lord Jagannath, along with his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, being taken out of their abode in the Jagannath Temple. The three of them travel to Gundicha Temple around 3 kilometers away. They remain there for seven days before returning via Mausi Maa Temple, the abode of Lord Jagannath's aunt.
The idols are transported on towering chariots, which have been made to resemble temples, giving the festival its name of Rath Yatra -- the Chariot Festival. Around one million pilgrims usually flock to this colorful event.
What Rituals are Performed During the Festival?
The creation of new idols and destruction of the old idols symbolizes reincarnation.
Devotional songs and prayers from the Vedas are chanted continuously outside the area where the new idols are being carved from the neem wood. Once they're completed, the new idols are carried inside the inner sanctum of the temple and placed facing the old idols. The supreme power (Brahma) is then transferred from the old to the new idols, in a ritual known as Brahma Paribartan (Changing the Soul). This ritual is carried out in privacy. The priest performing the ritual is blindfolded, and his hands and feet are wrapped in thick layers of cloth, so that he can't see or feel the transfer.
Once the ritual is complete, the new idols are seated on their throne. The old idols are taken to Koili Baikuntha and buried there in a sacred ceremony before dawn. It's said that if anybody sees this ceremony, apart from the priests who perform it, they will die.
As a result, the state government orders a full blackout of lights in Puri on the night the ceremony is performed.
Afterwards, the temple rituals recommence as normal. Flowers and new garments are given to the deities, food is offered, and pujas (worship) are performed. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, this year devotees won't be allowed inside the temple to see the new idols during the Nabajoubana Darshan. They must wait for them to be taken out in the Rath Yatra procession.
The Rath Yatra is a community festival. People don't worship in their houses or fast.
Every year, three huge new chariots are made for the festival. (See the Rath Yatra Chariot Construction). Construction always commences on the occasion of Akshay Tritiya. This year it falls on April 28, 2017.
When the gods return from their journey, they're decorated and adorned with ornaments of pure gold and given a nourishing drink, before being placed back inside the Jagannath Temple.
An entertaining comic scene is enacted for onlookers, as part of the grand finale. Goddess Lakshmi is angry that her husband, Lord Jagannath, has stayed away for so long without inviting or informing her. She closes the doors of the temple on him, locking him out. Finally, he manages to placate her with sweets, and she relents and lets him enter.
What are the Ritual Dates for 2017?
- Sri Gundicha: June 25. Placement of the deities in the chariots and journey to Gundicha Temple. The first chariot to move is that of Lord Balabhadra. Next is Subhadra's, and last Lord Jagannath's.
- Hera Panchami: June 28. Goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Lord Jagannath, gets concerned because he hasn't come back. Irritated, she goes to Gundicha Temple to find him and see what's going on.
- Bahuda Yatra: July 3. The grand return journey to the Lion's Gate entrance of Jagannath Temple. The chariots are drawn in reverse order.
- Suna Besha: July 4. Decoration of the deities in gold ornaments. (This is a particularly popular ritual).
- Adhar Pana: July 5. Offering the deities a healthy support drink.
- Niladri Bijay: July 7. Deities are placed back inside Jagannath Temple.
What Can Be Expected at the Rath Yatra Festival?
The Rath Yatra festival is the only occasion when non-Hindu devotees, who aren't allowed inside the temple, can get their glimpse of the deities. A mere glimpse of Lord Jagannath on the chariot, or even to touch the chariot, is considered to be very auspicious.
The massive number of devotees that flock to the festival does pose a safety risk. Lives are often lost in the immense crowd, so extra care should be taken.
Interesting Information About Lord Jagannath
The idol of Lord Jagannath doesn't have any arms and legs. Do you know why? Apparently, it was carved out of wood by a carpenter after the Lord came to the King in a dream, and instructed him to get the idol made. If anyone saw the idol before it was finished, the work would not progress any further. The King became impatient and took a peek, and the idol remains incomplete. Some people say that Jagannath's imperfection expresses the imperfection all around us, and that it's a reminder to be kind to those who are different to us.