Come Asadha (June-July), a Hindu month, people from all over the world throng to Puri in Orissa to see one of the most spectacular events, i.e. the Jagannath Rath Yatra. It marks the annual visit of Lord Jagannath (by which name Lord Krishna is known in Orissa) to his birth place, Gundicha Mandir.
Lakhs of devotees converge at Puri for this festival. Idols of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra are taken in giant size wooden chariots to Gundicha Ghar. The deities are kept there for a week and then returned to the temple. The journey back consists of another ritual, known as Bahuda Rath Yatra.
It is said that on this special day and for seven days afterwards, Lord Jagannath descends from His pedestal and mingles with His devotees. There are no barriers between Him and His worshippers.
Each deity has its own massive chariot, which is replica of the temple. The day before the rath yatra, the three chariots are lined up along side the Arun Stambha, an 18th century pillar, situated in front of the temple.
Lord Jagannath'schariot, Nandighosha, is yellow in colour, 45 ft. high and has 16 wheels, each one is seven feet in diameter. About, 4,200 devotees draw the chariot.
Balabhadra'schariot called Taladhvaja, is blue in colour with 14 wheels and is the eastern-most of the chariots. Subhadra'schariot is the smallest, with 12 wheels and is called Darpadalan. This chariot stands in the centre. Thick ropes attached to the axles of the chariots are used to pull the chariots.
The festival has been celebrated since ancient times. According to a legend about its origin, Lord Jagannath is said to have expressed his desire to visit his birthplace every year for a week. To another legend, Subhadra wanted to visit Dwarka, her parent'shome and her brothers took her there on this day. The yatra is believed to be a commemoration of that visit. According to the Bhagavad Purana, it is believed that it was on this day Lord Krishna and Balaram went to Mathura to participate in a wrestling competition, at Kansa'sinvitation.
On the day of the rath yatra a special group of priests or servitors called daitapatis takes over the charge from the regular Brahmin priests of the temple. But the most popular ritual is perhaps that sweeping of the chariots by the descendants of the Maharaja, heralded by the gaily-caparisoned elephants, sweep the chariot platforms with a gold handled broom and sprinkle scented water. A humbling act, it symbolises that everyone is a servant of Lord Jagannath.
The wooden chariots are built anew every year and collection of wood begins from the day of Basant Panchami (February-March). The actual construction begins on the auspicious day of Akshaya Tritiya (April). A couple of weeks before the commencement of the rath yatra the idols are given a ritual bath (Snan Yatra) and kept in seclusion. During this period the temple remains close to the visitors.
In olden days people used to throw themselves beneath the giant wheels of the chariot to be crushed to death so that their place in heaven was assured. However that practice no longer exists.
People refrain from eating non-vegetarian food on this occasion. Nowhere else is a deity once installed and consecrated, taken out of temple. The Lord Jagannath Temple at Puri is the sole exception to this general rule. In fact during the yatra the chariots become mobile temples, which sanctify the city.