New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday gave conditional approval to conduct the annual Jagannath Rath Yatra this year, which takes place in Puri, Odisha. It limited the festival to being held only in Puri, and attached a few stringent conditions to how the famous yatra would be conducted.
First, there can be no large-scale public attendance. Only 500 people are permitted to pull each chariot, provided they had tested negative for coronavirus.
Second, all entry points into Puri have to be closed during the yatra, and there must be a curfew during the festival.
Furthermore, the top court said an interval of an hour was to be given between the procession of two chariots.
The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde also clarified that the festival, which is spread over 10-12 days, was to take place only in Puri and no other part of Odisha.
Following the court’s approval, the festival began Tuesday. Puri’s titular king Dibyasingha Deb performed the customary sweeping of the wooden floor of the chariots before they began their journey.
ThePrint finds out the history behind the Rath Yatra, which usually sees lakhs of devotees converge at the temple annually, and what makes it so unique.
The venue: Jagannath Temple
The Jagannath Temple in Puri is approximately 60 km away from Bhubaneswar. It was built in 12th century AD by Chodaganga Deva of the Ganga dynasty.
The presiding deity is Lord Jagannath, along with his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. The temple also has statues of deities Sudarshan, Madhaba, Sridevi and Bhudevi. Jagannath is considered to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hindu mythology.
Counted among the main temples of worship in India, the Jagannath temple is on a raised platform and stands at a height of 65 m, while the main gate is guarded by the ‘Simha Dwara’, a structure with two lions.
Unlike many other temples, the Jagannath temple does not permit non-Hindus to enter.
In the past, the temple was plundered 18 times. In 1692, Mughal king Aurangzeb ordered the demolition of the temple. However, according to ‘The Origins of Religious Violence: An Asian Perspective’ by Nicholas F. Gier, the temple was not destroyed as local officials were bribed. Instead, it was shut and reopened in 1707 after Aurangzeb’s death.
The event: Pulling of the chariots
The Rath Yatra, or the Chariot festival, is a 10-12-day annual celebration during which Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are taken in chariots to stay in the Gundicha Temple, 3 km away from the Jagannath temple, for nine days.
There are varying accounts in Hindu mythology as to why the deities are taken to Gudincha. One legend has it that the deities go to meet Gudincha, the queen of King Indrayumna, who is believed to have built the temple. Another legend has it that on the fourth day of the festival, Goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Lord Jagannath visits the Gundicha temple to meet her husband.
At the end of the nine-day period, the deities are brought back to the Jagannath Temple. The journey is called Bahuda Jatra or the Jagannath Yatra, and the chariots are pulled by devotees.
The procession of the three chariots from Jagannath temple to Gundicha temple is called pahandi.
The size of the chariots vary, and indicate a hierarchy between the three deities.
Lord Jagannath’s chariot is called Nandighosh and has 16 wheels. His elder brother Lord Balabhadra’s chariot is called Taladvaja, and moves on 14 wheels, while Subhadra has the smallest chariot, called Padmadhvaja, which has 12 wheels.
New chariots, the main attraction of the festival, are handcrafted every year, preparations for which begin at least two to three months in advance. Instead of metal or stone, they are carefully crafted with wood, cloth and resin.
At the end of the festival, the raths are dismantled and the wood is used as fuel in temple kitchens.
Lakhs of devotees come from across the world to participate in the festival and pull the chariots, which is considered to be an auspicious act.
While pulling the 45-foot high chariots, a huge procession is undertaken with devotional songs playing to the clanging sound cymbals and plates, and drums.
— ANI (@ANI) July 4, 2019
History of the yatra
The Rath Yatra goes back all the way to 1558.
According to Bhaskar Mishra, a researcher of Jagannath culture, the festival did not take place 32 times between 1558 and 1735 due to Mughal invasions. It, however, was held during the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1919.
It was not held for the first time in 1568 when General Kala Chand Roy, the general of Bengal King Suleiman Kirrani, attacked the temple.
From 1733 to 1735, the festival was not held because the deputy governor of Odisha, Mohammed Taqi Khan, attacked the temple, forcing the idols to be shifted to Ganjam district in the state.
In present day, the rath yatra has become a landmark event that is celebrated internationally in Dublin, Moscow and New York and is broadcast on many Indian and foreign television channels.