Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra – Behind The Scenes Story

It so happened that I planned my Jagannath Puri trip a week before the Rath Yatra which brings millions of devotees to this sleepy, coastal town in Orissa. If I had planned a week later, I would have really struggled with booking and high costs. To attend a festival like the Rath Yatra – which I would love to at some point – I would probably need to prepare earlier with regards accommodation.

I was able to see the preparations behind the Rath Yatra, and understand the Puri religious eco-system a bit better. It was exciting to visit the three Raths (chariots) being made on the wide public road outside the Jagannath Temple and note the daily progress in the work. 

Jagannath Temple
Jagannath Temple Entrance @ Night

A Bit Of History

The Jagannath temple has three main deities. Krishna (Vishnu), Balabhadra (many consider to be Shiva) & Subhadra (Devi) – so also depicting the three main sects of Sanatan Dharma. This is interesting, because I had understood this to be predominantly a Krishna temple. (Balabhadra being his elder brother & Subhadra the sister). However, apparently the priests in this temple are from the Shakta or Devi path. So it is not predominantly Vaishanav as I had earlier thought.

ISKCON – a bhakti movement deeply connected with Krishna, has taken the rath yatra to other places across the world. And this association increases the connection of the deities & this temple to Krishna and Krishna’s devotees.

From online research, I am not able to figure out the roots of this Rath Yatra ritual. I guess if we asked local people in Puri, there maybe many stories that come up. Some of these stories suggest that this is a ritual that has been happening since ‘time immemorial’ BUT the current Jagannath temple was built only in 1161 AD. This means the rath yatra associated with this temple would not be more than 800 years old. However, this temple is supposed to have been built on the ruins of another older Jagannath temple. So it is possible that – this ritual is a lot older than the current temple itself.

What is the Rath Yatra?

The three main deity idols are taken from the main temple to another temple just about 2 km away called Gundicha Temple. Here the deities stay for 9 days and then they return back. 2 km seems a small stretch but the fan fare, devotees and fervor makes it a full fledged procession. The main road outside the temple is called ‘Grand Road’ and it stands true to its name. I would say it is broad enough to be a 8 lane highway with a side area for a few food stalls and footpath for people. On a usual day of course, it is filled with the hustle bustle of people, cows, cycle rickshaws, cycles and vehicles all mingled up together into one chaotic, typically Indian juice. 🙂

Jagannath Puri Temple Grand RoadThe Grand Road outside the temple

Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra - gundicha temple
Gundicha Temple. This is where the Raths are headed. 🙂

It is quite rare for the main deity of an Indian temple to be moved, in fact in other temples such an act could cause serious harm because the idol has been consecrated in a very specific manner. Moving it can really change the subtle dynamics. However Rath Yatra is a unique exception to this and allows for moving the idol. Such processions where the deity is moved around happens in many places in India. This Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra is probably the most popular and famous event. Also, since the idols of the Puri temple are made of wood, anyway they are replaced every 12 years, so I guess there isn’t a problem to move the idols.

The Raths (Chariots)

Each of the three deities get a separate Rath to travel. Each of these Raths are made anew every year and decorated impressively. After the 9 days are up, the idols then travel back to the main temple, this is the return Rath yatra which would also be interesting to see.

watermarked-2016-07-01 20.57.53 Jagannath Puri Grand Road

I had a chat with some of the artisans working on the Raths. There are specific groups of people working on the different sections of the Rath.

The Wood Workers of the Rath Yatra

The wood-workers are the ones who make the Rath structure out of wood. They use wood from 4 specific types of trees that are considered favourites of Krishna. These trees are nurtured specifically near Cuttack and then sent across to Puri. The group of people who structure the chariots from the wood are of one community called the Vishwakarmas – initially I wasn’t sure if I heard this right but it makes sense if you are aware of the story of the Puri Temple.

The King Indradrumnya who went about creating the original Jagannath temple (the current temple is made much later by King Anantavarman descendants of the South Indian Chola dynasty), found some sacred wood. He needed to get it carved into the idols. A carver, Vishwakarma said he will do it, but he was not to be disturbed at his task. He was kept alone with the wood and the room was locked. However after a month or so the King got curious and he peeped inside, as soon as he did, Vishwakarma who was said to be Vishnu himself in disguise, disappeared! The idols were mostly done, and the king repented his mistake. Soon though the Gods approved these half made idols and they were deified. Since this Vishwakarma, I guess the wood working community has carried down the name ‘Vishwakarmas’.

Every year this same group works on the Rath yatra wood work. And this skill is taught from father to son. So the same family circles continue in this work, generation to generation. They come together for this Rath making once a year, after that each one goes on to their individual practice. The sense I got from the people was that it was considered better & ‘proper’ to be in the religious works at other times too – like making temples or idols for other people. But some people also went about with common carpentry works.

Jagannath Rath Yatra Wood Workers
They have unique tools and probably also processes and technique that they use from generations…
Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra Wood Works
The Vishwakarmas at their work

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The Artists

Each task for the Rath Yatra has a specific group associated to it. Once the wood workers are done building the Raths, another group gets to work beautifying them. They paint and sculpt to transform the wooden Raths into bright, colourful works of art. Here also a similar social dynamics takes place, as I described earlier. The specific artisans get to work on the beautifying and these skills are passed from father to son. I wanted to know whether they indulge in any pooja and other rituals related to this work, but the person wasn’t too forthcoming but they do some pooja related to the Rath yatra before beginning this work.

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Traditionally, the work for the Rath Yatra starts on Akshaya Tritiya. (Also a good day for the shahi snaan in the Kumbh Mela). The Rath Yatra takes place on Aashaadi Beej or the second day of the new moon of the month of Aashad. This year (2016) it falls on 6th July.

If you are looking to visit this festival I suggest booking your accommodations and travel tickets well in advance as lakhs of people would be coming down to this coastal town. Generally however people may come for just a day. Or lot of the poorer people just stay on the streets probably, at least that is what I saw in Kumbh Mela, but food, hotel, travel rates all across the city will spike so better be prepared.

Once all the logistics is sorted, then being part of this kind of festival should be interesting. Krishna is known for his path of Bhakti or devotion. So I can imagine the festival would be full of music, dance and Indian sweets. 🙂