by Tulasi-Priya on Thursday 21 June 2012

Care for a bit of spectacle to go with your morning coffee*? Watch this:

One of the largest festivals in the world, Jagannatha Ratha Yatra (“The Chariot Journey of the Lord of the Universe”) is going on right now in Puri, India. The festivities are paused for the evening but will continue bright and early tomorrow, and won’t stop for nine full days. The above link is archived footage, but it’s pretty much the same thing every time, and has been for a thousand years and more. images belong to their respective owners. Click on or mouse over the images to see their source. 

Above: early 19th-century painting of Ratha-Yatra by British architect James Fergusson.

Below: painting of Ratha-Yatra from 1909 completely from scratch, using only hand tools and wood from special trees, the chariots are built to last. They don’t, however; every year a new set of divine wheels is built by hereditary (paid) servants and castes whose service goes back centuries, if not millennia. their short life, they are lavishly decorated. All this for only one round-trip of six kilometres.

I spent two months in Puri in the winter of 2010-2011. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. Several times a week, the husband and I walked the dusty Grand Road, on which the carts travel in their annual journey from the Jagannatha temple (wherein I am not allowed to enter) to the Gundicha temple about three kilometers away. The thoroughfare was less congested than it is during the festival, but that’s not saying much. Grand Road is a veritable river—no, make that a rapids—of human, animal, and mechanical activity: pedestrian traffic, scores of motor-rikshas, bicycle rikshas, dogs (alive and dead), those peculiar squat miniature cows and bulls (about four foot tall at the shoulders) that roam freely and pacifically around this seaside town; lepers, beggars, fruit and vegetable-wallas, and men hawking counterfeit brand-name luggage, among other things. I have daily flashbacks of my days there, all good, not excepting the time a leper pursued me, conking me on the head with her stump, in the vain hope that I would crown her with my sun hat. Sorry, Didi, nothin’ doing.** can’t have an Indian festival without inviting Hanuman, the empowered mystic monkey-servant of the incarnation Rama. Beloved by all Indians, Hanuman has attained god-status among certain segments of the population, particularly wrestlers. He is the designated protector of the Jagannatha temple, which is surrounded by several smaller temples dedicated to the superhero-monkey-devotee. forces help maneuver the chariots into their starting positions. million-plus devotees who come on pilgrimage for this festival will part like the Red Sea as the chariots roll down Grand Road at a surprisingly brisk clip. The garish spectacle of the gigantic chariots and the wide-eyed deity forms (don’t call them idols; they’re not), and the fact that some of the over-zealous faithful used to throw themselves*** under the transcendental bus (knowing it couldn’t stop), prompted the horrified British in the mid-1800s to add a new word to the English lexicon: juggernaut.

The ecstatic hordes are lining that avenue right now, camping out, chewing paan, pumping millions of rupees into the local economy, and most of all, waiting to catch a glimpse of Jagannatha (another name of Krishna) and his energetic expansions, Balarama (the original guru), and Subhadra (the personification of the total material energy). It’s a fairly complicated theology, but if I can understand it, anybody can, eventually.

This is high entertainment in India, whether you are commoner or king (the figurehead king of Orissa, the Gajapati, is sort of the Grand Marshall of the whole shebang every year), and it’s indicative of the deep spirituality that is still flourishing in an increasingly materialistic India.

For a somewhat academic, error-ridden, and incomplete (but easy to understand) explanation of the festival, go here:

Ratha-Yatra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

More tomorrow.

Who would you throw yourself under the bus for, and why?


* Started this post this morning but got carried away looking for images. I think there will be coverage for the next nine days, though, so tune in tomorrow. Back to where you left off

** Didi, “elder sister,”  is a term of respect and affection. It’s really only used in close relationships. Back to where you left off

*** In truth, it was probably more often a form of self-euthanization; people who were sick or in dire circumstances would put an end to it all amid the paradoxical solitude of the crowds, the hubbub distracting others who would ordinarily try to stop a suicide. It was/is believed that dying in the presence of the Lord would grant one liberation, in spite of all prohibitions and warnings to the contrary. UPDATE: out of a million-plus souls who attended the festival, only two died, one from natural causes. The cause of death for the other person is unknown at the moment. I guess that means he wasn’t crushed. Back to where you left off

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah W June 21, 2012 at 8:32 pm

How absolutely marvelous!

I had only a small, inadequate idea of what this festival encompassed and now I’m fascinated.

I would throw myself under anything to save my kids. Farther than that, I can’t say, yet.


Tulasi-Priya June 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I only scratched the surface here, Sarah. There’s an esoteric side to also, (which is not to say that the externals are merely symbolic), very sweet. It’s a kind of homecoming festival, a reenactment of lovers (God and the devotee) reunited. That’s why I’m so in love with this place.


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