The Chariot of Faith
Smita Mishra

One symphony bids them all
One song…
They all attend in faith
The heavenly orb
Moves on…

When more than five hundred thousand people assemble at a place to celebrate a departure, when a whole city is caught in some frenzy and dances in sync on some mesmeric devotional song, when diseases vanish just by the touch of the ropes of a huge chariot, when all troubles end at the mere sight of the dark elusive god, there must be some strong reason, some powerful historical truth behind it all!

The reason indeed is there. It is the occasion of the yearly sojourn of Lord Jagannath along with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subadhara to his aunt and their garden house. After five days the Lord returns to the temple and the journey is called Ultarath. The entire thing may sound a bit bizarre to people unknown to the faith and traditions of Puri, a small coastal town in Orissa. But for the believers it is the most sacred festival for which preparations are made for months.

Celebrations and the rituals

Celebrations begin in July, and the venue is one of the largest Vishnu temples of the world built in the 12th century by the king of Kalinga Anantavarman Chodaganga. The temple, one of the finest expositions of Pancharatha style of architecture and the “white pagoda” of the ancient seafarers is the home to the deity whose yearly procession pulls masses from across the globe.

The rituals begin a fortnight earlier when the deities are given a holy bath on ‘the Snana vedi’. As the idols become discoloured because of the bath, they are kept in isolation for sometimes and message is spread that the gods are ailing! On the eve of the yatra, three gigantic chariots (that take months to get constructed) are lined up outside the temple. These chariots are heavily decorated with flowers, trinkets, bells etc. The colour schemes for the chariots of different deities are also different.

The largest, the 45 ft Nandighosh- the red and yellow chariot with golden dome belongs to Lord Jagannath. The smallest Dev Datan belongs to Subhadra who travels between the chariots of her two brothers .On the day of the yatra the Lord with his siblings ascends the exquisitely decorated chariot amidst thundering trumpets, blowing of conch shells, deafening clang of metal gongs and chanting of holy songs by the saffron clad priests and sadhus.

The sea of humanity, overwhelmed at the sight of their beloved Lord swoons in devotional frenzy. The procession would not inch ahead unless the King of Puri ceremoniously brooms the path with a golden broom and besprinkles holy water. A loud cheer reverberates through the masses as the wheels of the chariots begin rolling. Balbhadra, the eldest leads the way followed by Subhadra and Jagannath. Dovetees vie with each other for the opportunity to pull the chariot’s sacred ropes, the very touch of which supposedly is sufficient to wash away all sins.

Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra, perhaps the only deities to be brought out of their abodes every year, then proceed towards Gundicha temple which is considered to be the birth place of Lord Jagannath. The temple is at a distance of 3 km from the Jagannath temple and there is another legend, which says that Gundicha was the wife of King Indrayumna, the original builder of the temple. There is an interesting folklore, which says that the three divine siblings do not like visiting their aunt because she is very mean. But they are forced to go there by the head priest who chides them for being disrespectful to their aunt.


What started the yatra? How old it is? What is its purpose? This question often comes in our minds. Although there may not be a concrete answer to the questions yet there are a number of legends associated with the ritual, which suffice our queries to some extent. According to one, it was Lord Jagannath who expressed his wish to visit his birthplace Gundicha Ghar at least once every year. According to another it was Subhadra who wanted to visit her parents’ place at Dwarka, so her brothers take her there. While Bhagawad Paurana says that on this day the two brothers go to Mathura on the invitation of Kansa to take part in a competition.

Economic Significance

Rath Yatra plays a very significant role in the economic life of the people. In the poverty stricken state of Orissa where droughts and floods beguile all attempts of development, the temple and the yatra associated with it silently do their work. The temple gives employment to a large number of people.

Thousands of carpenters, tailors, and jewellers work for the whole year to make the massive chariots, intricately embroidered clothes and beautiful jewellery for the great occasion. Innumerable masons and servants are under the perpetual employment of the temple and the Rath Yatra provides the opportune moment for them to earn money. The Rath Yatra can be described as a huge exhibition of the state’s native art and crafts. The foreign currency earned during the Yatra is much more than what the state earns for the whole year from tourists.

The home of benevolence

The Jagannath temple at Puri is not merely a place of worship of a particular community and the Rath Yatra a communal festival. The temple transcends the narrow limits of caste and religion and continues to tower as the ageless symbol of harmony and piety. The gates of the temple may not open for people of all communities but it makes sure that no one is left out and away from the benevolent gaze of the Lord.

A deity Maitri Devta, symbolizing universal brotherhood is placed at a point where the people of all religions can view him and pay obeisance. It is said that in the thousand year old history of the Puri temple, not one hungry man has ever been turned away without being fed. The temple kitchen, the largest in the world serves nearly a hundred quintal of cereals and 55 new dishes every day.

No one knows what historical fact lies behind the Rath Yatra but the truth is, it is a beautiful festival, which symbolizes the humanization of Gods. Today the festival may just seem a medley of a few religious rituals but who knows it might have begun in the remote past as a reformist measure by some insightful priest who wanted to awaken the tyrannical king? Doesn’t the symbolic gesture of the king sweeping the path drop a hint?

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