Chariots of the Gods
As per mythological believes, every god and goddess existing on the Earth have their own vehicles (vahana) to move around. The vahana of Lord Vishnu -- the preserver-- is the eagle king Garuda. He is often shown as a winged human-shaped figure with a beaklike nose. Garuda carries Vishnu to Vaikuntha (heaven) where he lives. Shiva has his vahana as Nandi, Durga’s vahana is lion, Ganesh’s vahana is rat that symbolises Ganesh’s ability to destroy every obstacle. Don’t get puzzled, the season is not apt to discuss about the vehicles of gods or goddesses. Here we will elaborate about the human-made vehicles to transport deities during their vacation time. Yes! You got it right. We are discussing about the chariot festival or better known as Jagannath Rath Yatra celebrated at large scale in Puri as well as other parts of Odisha and the country. This year the Rath Yatra will begin on 29 June and culminate on 7 July.
Every year in mid-summer, Lord Jagannath, with his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, goes on vacation, travelling on grand chariots, from his temple in Puri, to his garden palace in the countryside. This belief of the devotes has given rise to one of the biggest religious festivals in India — the Rath Yatra or the Chariot Festival. This is also the etymological origin of the English word ‘Juggernaut’.
Jagannath, believed to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu, is the Lord of Puri -- the coastal town of Odisha. Rath Yatra is of great significance to the people of Odisha. It is during this time that the three deities of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are taken out in a grand procession in specially made gigantic temple-like chariots called raths, which are pulled by thousands of devotees.
Many believe that the custom of placing idols on grand chariots and pulling them is of Buddhist origin. Fa Hien, the Chinese historian, who visited India in the 5th century AD, had written about the chariot of Buddha being pulled along public roads.
The festival begins with the Ratha Prathistha or invoking ceremony in the morning, but the Ratha Tana or chariot pulling is the most exciting part of the festival, which begins in the late afternoon when the chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhdra start rolling. Each of these carriages have different specifications: The chariot of Lord Jagannath is called Nandighosa, has 18 wheels and is 23 cubits high; the chariot of Balabhadra, called Taladhvaja has 16 wheels and is 22 cubits high; Devadalana, the chariot of Subhadra has 14 wheels and is 21 cubits high.
Each year these wooden chariots are constructed anew in accordance with religious specifications. The idols of these three deities are also made of wood and they are religiously replaced by new ones after 12 years. After a nine-day sojourn of the deities at the country temple amidst festivities, the divine summer vacation gets over and the three return to the city temple of Lord Jagannath.
Puri being the abode of these three deities, the place plays host to devotees, tourists and about one million pilgrims from across India and abroad. Many artists and artisans are engaged in building these three chariots, weaving its fabric covers that dress up the chariots, and painting them in the right shades and motifs to give them the best possible looks.
The Rath Yatra of Ahmedabad stands next to the Puri festival in grandeur and crowd-pulling. Nowadays, there are not just the thousands of people who participate in the Ahmedabad event, there are also communication satellites which the police use under the global positioning system to chart the course of the chariots on a map on the computer screen to monitor them from a control room.
The Rath Yatra of Mahesh in the Hoogly district of West Bengal is also of historical repute. This is not only because it’s the grandest and the oldest Rath Yatras in Bengal, but because of huge congregation it manages to attract.
Rath Yatra is a great festival because of its ability to unite people in its festivity. All people, rich and poor, brahmins or shudras equally enjoy the fairs and the joy they bring. Even Muslims participate in Rath Yatras. Muslim residents of Narayanpur, a village of about a thousand families in the Subarnapur district of Odihsa, regularly take part in the festival, from building the chariots to pulling the rath.