THE rath yatras or temple car festivals are the oldest and continuously celebrated spiritual events in India. Temple cars are basically chariots used to carry idols of Gods and Godesses. The rathas are driven manually by rope, pulled by thousands of devotees. These beautifully decorated chariots on wheels are called Thiru Their in Tamil. Every year, during this period the splendidly decorated chariots of Gods role down the streets accompanied by the devotees who chant Veda mantras or recite shlokas or sing bhajans and namsankeertanams.
During this festival, children are seen on the streets dragging miniature versions of the chariots with tiny idols installed on them. Shops and houses are decorated with flowers, lights and rangoli. Special dishes and sweets are prepared. Most of the people refrain from eating non-vegetariain food. One of the basic and significant features of rathotsav is that it is responsible to combine people under one common bond of unity. Various castes, communities, customs and traditions are found to be assimilated in all these rath yatras.
Tamil literature, specially, dewarams and prabhandams, mention about these ancient car festivals in the temple towns such as Thiruvarur, Srivilliputhur, Thiruvannamalai and Chidambaram. In Tamil Nadu, 515 wooden temple cars are taken out for procession every year. The chariot of Thiruvarur is said to be the biggest one of its size. It is 96 feet tall and weighs more than three hundred tonnes. The thought content and the concept is also wonderful. According to Vedic faith, the human body is the chariot and the soul is the deity installed in the chariot. The wisdom acts as the charioteer to focus the life in the right direction.
Thiruvannamalai Arunacha-leshwar Mandir possesses a huge wooden chariot for procession. Inside this temple, Raman Maharishi performed his spiritual sadhana throughout his life. Chidambaram Nataraja temple celebrates the chariot festival twice a year—one during July month for Aani Thirumanjanam and another during the winter, Margazhi Thiruva-dhirai utsav.
The impact of this Thiru Ther is really unique cutting across all barriers. Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Karunanidhi calls himself an atheist. Some years back, he constructed a memorial for Thiruvalluvar who composed 1330 verses of Thirukural. During the course of planning, Shri Karunanidhi instructed the architects to design the main structure in such a way that resembles rath or Thiru Ther of Thiruvarur temple, which happens to be his birthplace. So the impact of rathotsav penetrates even an atheist’s mind. It is virtually unstoppable and tremendous, because these festivals are not simply rituals or routine affairs. It signifies a phenomenon and intense faith of all sections of people. Of late, many more temples like Kanchi and Palani have golden rathas. Lord Sri Krishna of Udipi has many types of rathas with silver and gold plates.
Every year in Puri Jagannath Temple, three huge chariots are newly built for Sri Krishna, His elder brother Balaram and His younger sister Subhadra. Over 1000 logs of wood are brought from Daspalla and Ranpur forests and more than 100 carpenters work for two months constructing the three chariots. A local textile mill provides nearly 2000 meters of cloth each year and the chariots are radiantly decorated in colour. Very strong coconut ropes, 8 inches in diameter, are used by the devotees to pull the chariot along the procession route. The nails, brackets and fixtures are all made locally and the smiths work for a month on them. Idols are placed on the chariots that are upto 48 feet high and have 16 wheels. The mammoth wooden chariots carrying the three deities pulled by thousands of devotees from the temple in Puri to temple garden in nearby Gundichaghar, present a spectacular scene.
Temple cars towering silken canopies rise into the sky as drums and symbols resound in joyous celebrations. People, young and old joins with excitement, their eyes brightens, sing and dance in the street, as if swimming in an ocean, on full moon day with overwhelming happiness.
As far back as human records and memory extends, the chariots of Lord Jagannath have rolled every year on the 10th day of the bright fortnight of Ashada (July) in the town of Puri. On the day of the journey, people get up early morning and offer prayers to Lord Jagannath. The entire yatra is a symbolic humanisation of God from his pedestal of glory to a more ordinary man’s level. The teeming pilgrims when they pull the chariot, absolutely there is no difference of high and low. All are equal before Lord Jagannath. At the end, God himself eats the food prepared by the last man of the society. The complete festival is organised to strengthen the emotional bondage and the oneness of the people.
The annual rath yatra of Lord Jagannatha in Gujarat has been going on for the last 133 years. Earlier, it used to be only in Ahmedabad and now it has spread all over Gujarat. It is celebrated with devotion in a peaceful and joyous atmosphere. Now-a-days, this is celebrated all over the world wherever Hindus are living with gaiety and grandeur.
Taking inspiration from this ancient car festival, VHP organises rath yatras in socially backward areas. Local deities, Devi Parvati and Kartikeya are decorated in chariots taken to villages in Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Rajasthan and Andhra. This has created a feeling amongst the people living in those villages that since God himself has come to their doorstep, there remains no difference of higher and lower castes in Hindu society. Due to these rath yatras, a group of dalits who had embraced alien faiths, came back to Hinduism in Tamil Nadu. In the same way, several thousands of converted Vanvasis came back to Hindu fold in Orissa and Rajasthan.
The people who participate in this spiritual, cultural and social endeavour feel the presence of God in themselves and enjoy their original blissful life. Lord Jagannath is the most loving and kind form of the Almighty. Even those who hardly understand the philosophy behind rath yatra becomes free of many lifetime karmas just by seeing or taking part in the festival. One can even become liberated due to the spiritual potency of Lord Jagannath’s presence.