A look at the significance of the Ratha Yatra festival, the awe inspiring Jagannatha Puri and the story behind how the deities appeared in their present form.
Jagannatha Puri, a town of 200,000, is one of the most important pilgrimage centers and one of the four holiest cities in India. These four cities are Badrinatha in the north, Dvaraka in the west, Ramesvaram in the south, and Puri in the east. Badrinarayan in Badrinatha was especially worshiped in Satya-yuga, Rama in Ramesvaram in Treta-yuga, Dvarakanatha in Dvaraka was especially worshiped in Dvapara-yuga, but Lord Jagannatha in Puri can be worshiped by everyone in Kali-yuga. In fact, the importance of Jagannatha Puri, sometimes called Purushottama-Ksetra, is explained in chapters 52 through 57 of the Uttarabhaga section of the Narada Purana. There we find it stated that simply by visiting Puri, which is rarely achieved except for those who have performed many pious acts, and by seeing the Deity of Jagannatha (Krishna), one can easily attain freedom from future births and reach the spiritual abode.
The main temple building, called Sri Mandir, was built in the 12th century by King Chodaganga Deva, though the site goes back much farther as described above. This is a huge complex where buildings house as many as 5,000 priests and assistants. The whole compound is surrounded by a thick stone wall 20 feet tall that encloses an area 665 feet by 640 feet. The wall has four large gates, one on each side. The additional smaller buildings were added after the 16th century. The main temple, which reaches 215 feet in height, is where we find the six foot tall Deities of Jagannatha, Balarama, and the shorter Subhadra. They stand on a five foot high throne facing the pilgrims as they enter the temple room. Outside the main temple hall are over 100 smaller shrines dedicated to the various demigods. There is an arati ceremony six times a day from 4 AM to 9 PM when devotees come in for darshan of the Deities, in which they sing, chant, or worship the Deities in ecstasy. As many as 50,000 people come to the Jagannatha temple in a day. Unfortunately, foreigners are not allowed into the temple grounds, but you can get a look at the temple from the roof of the Raghunandan Library across the street for a donation.
The temple compound also has a huge kitchen, employing over 650 cooks and helpers who make hundreds of vegetarian preparations for the 54 separate offerings that are given to the Deities every day. After the food is given to the Deities it becomes prasada, or the Lord’s mercy. By taking such spiritually powerful food it is said that one becomes more and more spiritually surcharged and free from past karma. Much of the prasada is sold or given to people who depend on the temple. When I had my ricksha driver buy some for me, I got a basket with several clay pots filled with a variety of rice, vegetable, dahl, and sweet preparations. It was absolutely delicious and was enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two days. Taking this prasada at Puri is to partake in a tradition that goes back thousands of years and is considered especially purifying. It is said that only by Krishna’s grace does one get the opportunity to receive the remnants of food offered to Him.
The Appearance of Lord Jagannatha
The significance of Jagannatha Puri and the story of how the Deities first appeared goes back many hundreds of years to the time of King Indradyumna, who was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. It is related that one time in his court the King heard from a devotee about an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, named Nila-madhava. (Nila-madhava is the Deity form of Lord Vishnu.) The King very much wanted to see this form of the Supreme and sent many Brahmanas to search for Nila-madhava. All came back unsuccessful except for Vidyapati, who did not come back at all. He had wandered to a distant town which was populated by a tribe of people known as Shabaras of non-Aryan heritage. He had stayed in the house of Visvasu, and later, at Visvasu’s request, married his daughter, Lalita.
After some time Vidyapati noticed that Visvasu would leave the house every night and return at noon the next day. Vidyapati asked his wife about this. Though her father had ordered her not to tell anyone, she told Vidyapati that Visvasu would go in secret to worship Nila-madhava. After repeated requests, Vidyapati finally got permission to go see Nila-madhava, only if he went blindfolded. But Vidyapati’s wife had bound some mustard seeds in his cloth so that a trail could be left to follow later. When they reached the shrine, Vidyapati saw the Deity Nila-madhava after the Shabara took off the blindfold, and he felt great ecstasy.
The story continues to relate that while Visvasu was out collecting items for worship, Vidyapati saw a bird fall into the nearby lake and drown. The soul of the bird suddenly took a spiritual form and ascended back to the spiritual world. Vidyapati wanted to do the same and climbed the tree to jump in the lake. Then a voice from the sky declared that before he jumped he should tell Indradyumna that he had found Nila-madhava.
When Visvasu returned to worship the Deity, Nila-madhava spoke and said that He had accepted the simple worship from him for so many days, but now He wanted to accept the opulent worship that would be offered by King Indradyumna. When Vidyapati went back to tell the King, Indradyumna immediately went to find Nila-madhava but could not locate Him. So the King arrested Visvasu, but a voice told him to release the Shabara and that he should build a temple on top of Nila Hill where the King would see the Lord as Daru-brahman, the wooden manifestation of the Absolute.
After great endeavor, King Indradyumna built the temple at Sri Kshetra, now known as Jagannatha Puri, and later prayed to Lord Brahma to consecrate it. However, Lord Brahma said that it was not within his power to consecrate the temple since Sri Kshetra is manifested by the Supreme’s own internal potency and is where the Lord manifests Himself. So Brahma simply put a flag on top of the temple and blessed it, saying that anyone who from a distance saw the flag and offered obeisances would easily be liberated from the material world. Nonetheless, after much waiting the King became anxious since Nila-madhava had not manifested Himself. Thinking his life was useless, the King decided he should end his life by fasting. But in a dream the Lord said that He would appear floating in from the sea in His form as Daru-brahman.
The King went to the shore and found a huge piece of wood that had the markings of a conch, disc, club, and lotus. This was Daru-brahman. But try as they might, the men could not budge the wood. In a dream the Lord spoke to the King and instructed him to get Visvasu and put a golden chariot in front of Daru-brahman. After doing this and forming a kirtana party to chant the holy names, and praying for Daru-brahman to mount the chariot, Daru-brahman was easily moved. Lord Brahma performed a sacrifice where the present temple now stands and installed a Deity of Lord Narasimhadeva, the Deity that is now on the western side of the temple.
From the wooden Daru-brahman, the King requested many expert carvers to carve the form of the Deity, but none could do so for their chisels immediately broke when they touched the wood. Finally the architect of the demigods, Visvakarma, (some say the Lord Himself) arrived as an old artist, Ananta Maharana, and promised that he would carve the Deity form of the Lord inside the temple in three weeks if the King would allow him to work behind closed doors. But after 14 days the King became very anxious because he could no longer hear the sounds of the carving. Finally he could stand it no more. On the advice of the queen he personally opened the doors of the temple to see what was happening. Then he saw the forms of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balarama, and Lady Subhadra. But because the King had opened the doors sooner than he was supposed to, the Deities were not completed; Their feet and hands had not yet been carved. Thus, the Supreme manifested Himself in this form.
The King felt he had committed a great offense for having opened the doors before the allotted three weeks had passed, so he decided to end his life. But in a dream Lord Jagannatha told the King that though he had broken his promise, this was just a part of the Supreme’s pastimes to display this particular form. The King was told that this form, even though it appeared to be incomplete, was actually the form of the Lord that was meant to be worshiped in this age of Kali-yuga. Occasionally the King could decorate the Deity with golden hands and feet. Yet those devotees filled with love would always see the form of Lord Jagannatha as the threefold bending form of Syamasundara, Krishna, holding a flute. Thus, the Supreme appeared in this form so that people could approach and see Him, especially as He rides through town on the huge carts during the Ratha-Yatra festival.
The Ratha-Yatra Festival
During the Ratha-Yatra festival is the most popular time to go to Jagannatha Puri. This is usually in July when it is very hot. But thousands upon thousands of pilgrims flock to Puri to take part in this auspicious event, which is said to have been celebrated for thousands of years, making it one of the oldest and one of the biggest religious festivals in the world. This is the time when the Deities come out of the temple for all to see. It is also the time when as many as a million people gather in this small city with one purpose: to show their faith and devotion to God in the form of Lord Jagannatha.
The actual construction of the carts begins two months before the festival day, on the third day of the bright fortnight of Vaisakha (April-May). More than 600 trees, or 400 cubic meters of wood, are needed for the construction, taken from the local forests along the banks of the Mahanadi River. Using the same simple tools and procedures as they have for the past hundreds of years, once the basic elements are made, such as the wheels, then the actual construction begins only a few weeks before the festival. When I saw the carts a few days prior to the festival, I doubted that they would be finished in time. However, the construction crew works on them night and day, and everything was ready the day before the festival.
In the main road in front of the temple huge stacks of wood are used to assemble the three chariots which will reach up to three storeys tall and will roll on wheels, each eight feet high. The chariots are painted with bright colors and the tops are covered with red, black, yellow, or green canopies. The colors signify which chariot is for which Deity. Lord Jagannatha uses red and yellow, Lord Balarama uses red and green, while Subhadra uses red and black. The Deities are also painted with particular colors that mean something. Jagannatha’s blackish color represents faultless qualities; Balarama’s white color signifies enlightenment; and Subhadra’s yellow color signifies goodness.
Each cart is different. The cart of Lord Jagannatha is called Cakradhvaja or Nandigosha, which means tumultuous and blissful sound. Using 16 wheels, it rises 45 feet tall, and weighs 65 tons. It also carries a figure of Garuda on its crest, and is drawn by four white wooden horses. Balarama’s cart is called Taladhvaja, meaning the sound of significantly powerful rhythm. It has 14 wheels, and is drawn by four black wooden horses. It carries Hanuman on its crest. Subhadra’s cart is called Padmadhvaja or Darpadalan, which means destroyer of pride. It has a lotus on its crest, uses 12 wheels, and is drawn by four red wooden horses. After the Ratha-Yatra festival the wood from the carts is used as fuel for the big kitchen in the temple, which can last up to nine months.
About two weeks before the festival, the Deities of Jagannatha, Balarama, and Subhadra are given a ritual bath, which is performed on the front main wall of the temple, which allows everyone to observe it from the street below, or one of the surrounding buildings. This is called the Snana-Yatra. After this They play the pastime of getting a cold. They are then taken to a designated area and given special treatments and offerings. They may also be repainted at this time. About every 12 or 19 years the bodies of the Deities are replaced with new ones carved from a ritualistically selected Daru-Brahman in the form of a nima tree. This is known as the Nava-Kalevarna festival. It occurs when there is a leap (additional) month in the Vedic calendar that appears between Snana-Yatra and Ratha-Yatra. This was last performed in 1996, 1977, and 1969. After such an occurrence, the crowd that attends the Ratha-Yatra in Puri expands from the usual 700,000 or so to as many as two-and-a-half million.
When the big Deities are brought out, first there is Lord Balarama, then Lady Subhadra, and then Lord Jagannatha. Each time excitement suddenly fills the air and many men blow conch shells and bang on drums and cymbals to announce the arrival of the Deities at the main gate of the temple complex. Then the smiling face of Lord Balarama appears through the doorway and the crowd shouts and chants, “Jai Balarama. Baladeva ki jai!” Generally, however, unless you are situated on a tall building, you cannot see the faces of the Deities because there are so many assistants that help move Them. But you can easily see the huge headdress They wear. Once the Deity is on the cart, the headdress is torn off and distributed amongst the people as prasada.
Daityas, strongly built men who lift the Deity, carry Lord Balarama. It is described that they move Him from one large cotton pillow to another, however, I couldn’t see any. Lord Balarama is five feet and five inches tall and has an arm span of 12 feet. When carried, there are five men on each arm, with up to 50 men pulling in front and 20 offering support in the back. All of these carriers are Daityas, members of the Dayitapati family who are descendants of Visvavasu. Gradually, taking about a half hour or so, Lord Balarama moves from the temple gate to the chariot and is placed on it so everyone in the crowd can see Him. Then Subhadra, who is less than five feet tall, is also carried from the temple to Her chariot. And finally Lord Jagannatha is brought out. He is five feet and seven inches tall with an arm span of 12 feet, and also needs many assistants to be moved.
It should be pointed out here that the way the King sweeps the carts is an example of how the festival has changed over the years. If you read accounts of the Ratha-Yatra festival as described in the Caitanya-caritamrta, there are some major differences in the festival we find today compared to 500 years ago. The King used to sweep the street in front of the carts as they paraded down through the town. The reason he no longer does this is related in a story I was told. It seems that at one time years ago a King of Puri, Purusottama Dev, was to marry a princess who was the daughter of a king, Maharaja Sallwo Narasingha, from the district of Kanchi. When the Ratha-Yatra festival was to take place, the father of the princess was invited, but sent his minister Chinnubhatta Godaranga instead. When he attended, the King of Puri performed the devotional tradition of sweeping the road in front of the carts. The visiting minister, however, rather than being impressed with the devotion of the King for Lord Jagannatha, did not approve of him sweeping the road, even if it was for the Lord. When he reported this to King Sallwo Narasingha, the king objected to the idea of his daughter marrying the King of Puri since he was merely a street sweeper. Purusottama Dev was extremely angry that he, as the servant of Lord Jagannatha, would be insulted for his service like that. So he gathered his troupes and went to Kanchi to teach King Sallwo a lesson. Unfortunately, King Purusottama Dev was badly defeated.
On returning to Puri in such a downcast mood, he stopped at the simple cottage of Saikatacharya, a great ascetic, householder devotee of Lord Jagannatha. This devotee pointed out that the King had forgotten to ask permission from Lord Jagannatha before he went to attack King Sallwo. With this realization, the King returned to Puri and visited the temple of the Lord, crying over his defeat, asking why the Lord had let this happen. He spent the night in the temple, and with doors closed, before the night came to an end, the King heard a voice asking why he was so distraught over such a simple thing. The voice said to go gather his troupes again, and that we two brothers, Jagannatha and Balarama, would go along to fight on the King’s behalf. As the news spread, many people, both old and young, joined the King’s forces to fight with Their Lordships. However, as they went, the King was filled with some doubts whether Their Lordships were really going with him.
While the King and his army went onward, far ahead were two soldiers that rode on one black horse and one white horse. They stopped to quench Their thirst at a small village near Chilika Lake by buying some yogurt from a devotee named Manika. She offered Them yogurt, but when she asked for payment, they said They had no money. Instead They gave her a jeweled ring and told her to give it to King Purusottama Dev, who would then give her payment.
After some time, the King caught up to the lady, who flagged him down to give him the ring and asked for payment for the soldiers’ drink. The king was shocked to see the ratnamudrika ring of Lord Jagannatha and then regained his confidence that, indeed, Their Lordships had certainly come with him. In payment for the ring, the king gave her the whole village, which is still named Manikapatna. After this the king and his troupes were victorious over King Sallwo, and he also took King Sallwo’s daughter as well. However, he did not marry her after the insult her father had given him. He instructed his minister to see that she get married to a qualified sweeper. After one year, at the next Ratha-Yatra, the King again performed his sweeping ceremony. At that time, the king’s minister announced that the king was the most qualified sweeper, since he swept for Lord Jagannatha, and that the princess, Padmavati, should marry him. Then Maharaja Purusottama Dev married the princess and she later gave birth to a great devotee of Lord Caitanya, who became known as King Prataparudra. Anyway, at some point after this, the King of Puri discontinued sweeping the streets and now sweeps the carts.
After the King has swept the carts, they quickly begin to disassemble the gangplanks that lead up to the cart and begin to fasten the wooden horses that point the direction. Many thousands of devotees surround the carts and the people in the front take up the long, thick ropes to pull the chariots down the main road to the Gundicha temple, where the Deities stay for a week. Then the leaders on the carts that ride near the wooden horses direct those who are pulling the ropes to take up the slack. When everything is ready, a whistle is blown by the chariot driver and a hundred people on each of four ropes begin to pull. Then the numerous priests and assistants on the carts that ride along begin to bang on the gongs and cymbals, and suddenly the cart lurches forward and begins to move.
The Deities spend the first two nights on the carts outside the Gundicha temple, or wherever else They may be if They do not make it there the first night. During this time, pilgrims can climb up on the carts and see the Deities very closely and even embrace Them. But the priests are quick to charge everyone a certain number of rupees for this opportunity, which makes for a very good business for the priests. When I climbed a cart and was about to give a “donation,” as many as five of the attendants grabbed the money at once before I let go of it. And when I did not let go of it right away, they started to get very angry. This was after I had been assured that I could climb the cart to see the Deity of Lady Subhadra and there would be no charge, and I would also be allowed to take a photograph. I indeed was allowed to see Lady Subhadra and even embrace Her, which is a rare event for any pilgrim, what to speak of a Westerner. But after I had given my donation, I took out my camera to take a photograph and a guard immediately came over and objected and ordered me to get down off the cart. So that brought an abrupt end to the episode. Nonetheless, if one can overcome this businesslike atmosphere, it can still be a very devotional and memorable event. And you can also go up on the carts of Lord Jagannatha and Lord Balarama as well, if you can handle the crowds and the many priests who ask for donations, or who want to direct people, sometimes forcefully with the use of sticks. Some people simply stay on the ground and offer prayers and small ghee lamps from a distance. Others climb all three carts to get the personal darshan of all three Deities.
The Deities are then taken inside the Gundicha temple only on the third night. After the Deities’ stay at the Gundicha temple, They return a week later to the main temple in a similar parade that is attended by fewer people. This can be a time when you can get much closer to the carts and walk more easily with the parade, providing you have time to stay in Puri for this event. Again, the Deities come out of the Gundicha temple as before and are placed on the carts with much fanfare from the devotees. Then again the King of Puri comes to cleanse the carts, and shortly thereafter the carts are ready to be pulled in a most festive parade back to the main temple. The return trip usually happens all in one day. However, again the Deities stay outside on the carts for two nights, allowing everyone who wants to climb up on the cart for a close darshan. Then on the third night there is the Suna Vesa festival in which the Deities are dressed in gold outfits. Again, the city becomes extremely crowded as people want to see the Deities in the golden ornaments. These include gold crowns, hands and feet, golden peacock feather, gold earrings, different golden necklaces, and ornaments such as a silver conch and gold disk for Lord Jagannatha and golden club and plow for Lord Balarama. These are all solid gold, and all together weigh up to one ton.
No one is allowed on the carts for the gold festival except for the intimate servants of the Deities. The way the crowd works for this festival is that they approach the carts from the main road. The closer to the carts you get, the thicker the crowd becomes. You are then directed by numerous police to walk with the crowd around the front of the carts and then down a side street. The police will also not let you stop along the lanes, but make sure everyone keeps moving. As you walk, you can then look toward the Deities to see Them in Their unique gold ornaments. They look especially powerful dressed as They are like this. Your darshan is only as long as it takes for the crowd to move, and then you must continue on, or come back around again, all of which can take an hour to make it through the crowds. Then as you come back around, the street is divided into two lanes, one for those approaching the carts and the other for those leaving. So you have to continue a ways away before you can begin to come back around. Getting directly in front of each of the carts is the only way you can have a direct line of sight toward the Deity during this event.
After this, the Deities stay on the carts one more day and are then taken into the main temple the following evening, as They were when taken into the Gundich temple. Then the Ratha-Yatra festival is completely finished until next year.
The Internal Meaning of the Ratha-Yatra Festival
The meaning of the Ratha-Yatra parade is steeped in religious sentiment. The form that Lord Krishna takes as Jagannatha is the manifestation of His ecstasy that He feels when He leaves the opulence of His palaces in Dwaraka, represented by the Puri temple, to return to the town of Vrindavan and the simple and pure spontaneous love the residents there have for Him. Thus, there is no difference between Lord Krishna and Lord Jagannatha. So in the mood of separation from His loving devotees, Jagannatha mounts His chariot and returns to Vrindavan, which is symbolically represented by the Gundicha temple. In this way, the esoteric meaning of the Ratha-Yatra parade is that we pull the Lord back into our hearts and rekindle the loving relationship we have with Him. Many great poems and songs, such as Jagannatha-astakam, have been composed describing the event and the highly ecstatic devotional mood one can enter while participating. Many verses are also written in the Caitanya-caritamrita that describe the pastimes Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu had during these Ratha-Yatra festivals 500 years ago.
To explain the internal meaning of Ratha-Yatra further, Lord Jagannatha is the embodiment of Lord Krishna’s love for Srimate Radharani. While Lord Krishna was living in Dwaraka, he felt great separation from Radharani and the residents of Vrindavana. On the day of one solar eclipse, He traveled to Kuruksetra with His brother Balarama and His sister Subhadra on His chariot. There He met Srimate Radharani and other residents of Vrindavana, all of which wanted to take the Lord back to Vrindavana. While traveling and thinking of this meeting, He entered mahabhava, the highest sentiments of loving exchange. In that state, His eyes dilated like fully bloomed lotuses, and His hands and legs retreated into His body. In this way, the form of Lord Jagannatha is called radha-viraha-vidhura, the separation from Radharani, and also mahabhava-prakasha, the manifestation of mahabhava for Radharani. Lord Caitanya was the embodiment of Srimate Radharani’s love for Lord Krishna. So Lord Caitanya taking Lord Jagannatha from the main temple to the Gundicha corresponds to Srimate Radharani’s wanting to take Lord Krishna from Dwaraka back to Vrindavana, the place of spontaneous and ecstatic love of God.
It is also explained that by participating in this festival, chanting and dancing, or helping pull the ropes of the chariots, one becomes free of many lifetimes of karma. One can even become liberated due to the spiritual potency of Lord Jagannatha’s presence. One of the ways this happens is explained as follows: at the very end of one’s life when the memories of his activities pass through the mind, when he remembers the amazing Ratha-Yatra festival his mind stops and focuses on that event. Thus, he dies thinking of Lord Jagannatha and is liberated from material existence and returns to the spiritual world, just like a yogi is transferred to the spiritual strata when his mind is fixed on the Supersoul at the time of death. This is why thousands of pilgrims come to Jagannatha Puri every year for Ratha-Yatra