The world famous Rath Yatra of Puri can not be seen in isolation as one festival. Being celebrated once a year with all the conceivable grandeur, it is the culmination of several festivals that dominate the calendar for almost two months.
Besides the deities in the temple, the other major attractions include the three gorgeous chariots in which the three deities, Lord Jagannath, Lord Balbhadra and Godess Subhadra travel once a year to their birth place the Gundicha temple. It is often construed as the 'leela' of the Lord to symbolise that He is not different from any other ordinary human being who loves to go out on pleasure trips.
Equally interesting is the process of the making of the three chariots, Nandighosh, Taladhwaj and Darpadalan. From the day of Akshya Tritiya every year begins the marathon task of making of the chariots for the ceremonial journey by the three deities to Gundicha temple for a week long sojourn. It is almost a two month long rigorous exercise by about 150 carpenters of specialized background.
Made of timbers from some perticular trees, the three chariots in total require 2184 pieces of wood as per the custom. The chariot of Lord Jagannath, 'Nandighosh' that stands 45.6 ft high, has 16 wheels, while Lord Balbhadra's chariot 'Taladhwaj' has a height of 45 feet with 14 wheels and Godess Subhadra's chariot 'Darpadalan' with 12 wheels stands 44.6 high.
On the full moon day of Jyestha(May-June)the devotees of the Lord get the spectacular visual treat when the three deities move in a colourful procession to a podium in the outer enclosure of the temple for the holy bath that is known as 'Snan Purnima' . One hundred pitchers of scented water are poured on them till the colours thin out. The occasion draws lakhs of pilgrims from all across. After that, in the evening, the three deities assume elephant 'vesh'(costume)before they retire into the convalescing chamber inside the temple to recover from the delirium they suffer due to excess bath.
The convalescing phase lasts for 15 days during which the devotees remain deprived of the Lord’s darshan. Then a day before the Rath Yatra, the deities shall assume the real appearance with new colours and the gates are thrown open for the devotees who thong in lakhs to have the special darshan known as ' Navajauvan Darshan '.
Finally comes the day of the Rath Yatra, on the 2nd day of the bright fortnight of the month of Ashardh, when the three deities, accompanied by the Sudarshan Chakra, come out in a spectacular procession called 'Pahandi'.
Accompanied by the beats of cymbals, drums, chanting of mantras by devotees in frenzied ecstasy, hundreds of priests and Sevayats conduct the procession by pulling the chariots of the deities in rhythmic movements for hours. It becomes a special moment when the entire atmosphere gets electrified by a spiritual fervour and lakhs of people get lost in the realm of devotion.
Once the deities get seated on their respective chariots, the ' chhera pambhra', the ritual sweeping of the chariots takes place, which is done with a golden broom by the Gajpati (King) of Puri who is revered as the principal servant of the Lord. It becomes an interesting sight when the king comes out of his palace carried on a decorated palanquin. Dressed like a servant of ancient times, the king or the servant of the real sovereign symbolically brooms the chariots.
<b>Rath Yatra </b>
What follows then is the most awaited and exciting part of this great festival of faith. Thousands and thousands of devotee struggle to lay their hands on the sturdy ropes made of coconut fibre and join the milieu in pulling the chariots. The chariot of Lord Balbhadra, the elder brother of the Lord, Taladhwaj moves first followed by that of Godess Subhadra and the Lord Jagannath moves with extra grandeur, amidst cheers from lakhs of devotees, in his chariot Nandighosh.
The three huge chariots grind forward slowly along the grand road (known as Bada Danda) till they reach the Sri Gundicha Mandir. As legends have it, Gundicha Mandir is the place where the three deities had taken this shape by the hands of the divine craftsman, Bishwakarma himself. The deities stay overnight on the chariots when people cutting across religion, caste or creed get a free chance to have the darshan from very close quarters. Even one can touch the Lord.
The deities then proceed to the sanctum-sanctorum of Gundicha temple the next day and stay there as the guests of Debi Gundicha for nine days before they come back. And the return journey is known as Bahuda Yatra (return festival).
<b>Secular Lord of Puri </b>
While we talk of Lord Jagannath what comes to mind is the word Dharma. In essence, the aura of lord Jagannath, in fact, transcends the limits of such confines. Rather it can be seen as a compendium of myriad facets of spirituality and faith. The vastness of Jagannath cult combines within its fold cross-cultural spiritual philosophies difficult to fathom by ordinary yardstick.
So, it can not be confined within the narrow limits of a single religion.
On one side is this grand shrine of 12th century, majestically overseeing the entire holy city and on the other is the lovely city of Puri on the shimmering shores of Bay of Bengal. A fantastic tourist spot still unexplored, in a way, is the Puri sea beach that combines the whims of the playful ocean and the golden sand bed; so placid yet so vibrant.
The holy city of Puri, more known as Srikshetra, is one of the four 'dhams' in the country. And the temple of Lord Jagannath, standing at the centre of a huge complex of temples, is an edifice that should not be construed in terms of any particular belief but a spiritual synthesis that has become a way of life.
Though several small temples in this city have either vanished or are in a dilapidated state, this temple of the three deities, continues to be living and vibrant. Inside the same complex, fortified by a high and majestic wall called 'Meghanad Pachiri' (boundary), there are other important temples of various Gods and Godesses. However the main temple has remained the chief attraction of pilgrims.
The history of the temple can be traced to the pre-historic period when the Lord was worshiped as Purushottam and Puri even had earned the name of Purushottam Kshetra. The name Jagannath (or lord of universe) is a collective representation of the Triad and has been in use since the dawn of last millennium. Enjoying a multiform manifestation, the Lord of Puri is viewed as the fusion of Saivism and Shaktism and the three deities represent Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Goddess Subhadra is believed to be Lord Brahma.
Either out of ignorance or racial animosity, there had been quite a few attempts by Muslim invaders at the desecration of this temple. But there have also been instances when people from the community had relished the Mahaprasad (offerings to the deities) without any prejudice. The brightest example could be bhakt Salbeg, a Muslim, till date considered to be the most revered devotee of the Lord.
His tomb on the chariot‘s route of the Lord bears the bright testimony and believe it or not, the chariot of lord Jagannath does stop for a while in front of this tomb as a mark of respect for the great devotee, Salbeg.