Ratha Yatra (Puri): An Unstoppable Juggernaut

Quick Facts and Stats

  • Summary: Hindu Chariot procession, specifically the procession of Lord Jaganath, his elder brother and younger sister, to Lord Jaganath’s birthplace and the temple of their Aunt in Puri in the Indian state of Odisha
  • 2019 Date: July 4th, date varies
  • Celebrated by: Hindus, Indians especially in the East of the subcontinent.
  • Linked Holidays: Other Ratha Yatras

Background and Theological Significance

Lord Jaganath means ‘Lord of the Universe’. He is quite unique in terms of how Indian deities are portrayed. While most appear in roughly human form with human proportions, Lord Jaganath is portrayed with a large head that sits atop a stump for his body with no hands or legs. The large face is dark and decorated with large lidless eyes that are meant to represent the sun and moon. Altogether this is symbolic of the belief that Lord Jaganath is without beginning or end. Sometimes he is given short stumpy arms as well outstretched as if offering a hug attempting to embrace all.

All this relates Lord Jaganath to the supreme deity Vishnu in Hindu theology. Vishnu is part of the supreme Trinity of gods, the Trimurti, alongside Brahma and Shiva. They each perform a certain role in the created order. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver, Shiva the destroyer.

Vishnu is said to have had nine incarnations, or avatars, and one that will come in the future. These avatars appear at times when the created order is threatened and must be preserved and protected. The ninth avatar is often named as Siddartha Buddha, but in the tradition of Lord Jaganath, the Ninth Avatar of Vishnu is Lord Jaganath. Buddha was born further North than Lord Jaganath and so which of them is considered the Ninth Avatar of Vishnu depends on which part of India you are in.

In the tradition, Lord Jaganath can take on a more cosmic role, being associated not just with a specific avatar but with Vishnu himself. The procession that takes place in the Puri Ratha Yatra, alongside his older brother and younger sister, can be seen to mirror this relation of him with this supreme triad. In these traditions Lord Jaganath is related at different times to different avatars of Vishnu. In this tradition Lord Jaganath is dressed different depending on the circumstance; it is also more common to relate him to Krishna, the Eighth Avatar of Vishnu. There is certainly large overlap with the devotee’s focus on the importance of love and compassion, and realising the divinity in all things.

The term Ratha Yatra means Chariot Pilgrimage. According to tradition, after his being away from home, Lord Jaganath’s followers became upset and started to cry out. Upon hearing this Lord Jaganath became distraught and, along with his elder brother and younger sister, and returned home. The festival is a yearly homecoming for the god and his siblings, so that they never feel homesick again.

In this way, Lord Jaganath is held up as a multi-purpose defender and preserver of the cosmic order. The procession that takes place in the Puri Ratha Yatra, can be seen as refreshing the defence of the cosmic order. Refreshing creation and the global community of his followers along with it.

History

The origins of the festival are obscured by the mists of the distant past. Jaganath seems to be regionally located in the East of the Indian subcontinent and therefore it may be the case that he was a locally worshipped deity that evolved and grew in significance. Now the significance cannot be questioned as the city of his temple is one of the four Char Dhams, sites of pilgrimage that should be visited in order to achieve Moksha.

Lord Jaganath may have unquestioned significance now, but there are many different theories about his origins. Some see his origins in Buddhism, some in Jainism, others in the Vaishnava tradition, and others still see Jaganath originating from tribal deities or from a mention in the Rig Veda. This debate is still fresh, and continues to rage on among scholars of Hinduism and India.

The lack of a unified or pure story about the origins, might be seen as disadvantageous, but it can perhaps be a blessing in disguise. Lord Jaganath has been associated so widely with different groups and deities that his popularity through these multiple associations has solidified and grown. His Ratha Yatra in Puri is both the oldest and the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. Alongside this. Numerous Ratha Yatra’s for him and his siblings have sprung up in Hindu communities in cities all over the world.

What Happens?

Each year Lord Jaganath, his older brother Balabhadra, and his younger sister Subhadra, are taken from their temple on chariots (or Rathas) and processed (Yatra) two miles north to Gundicha temple, which marks the place of Lord Jaganath’s birth, via Mausi Maa Temple which is dedicated to their Aunt. The three deities remain at Gundicha temple for nine days before being transported back to their home temple of

The Chariots that they ride on are newly made each year and take roughly two month to construct. They are huge, Lord Jaganath’s chariot is 45 feet tall, 35 feet at its base and rolled on 16 wheels. The three chariots are such that they resemble temples in their own right, which is expected as they are transporting gods.

The chariots are transported by the devotees themselves. It is a central part of taking part in the festival to help to pull the chariots between the temples. Due to the chariots being so massive it take huge crowds of people to drag them. The image of a massive unstoppable block moving towards its destination is believed to have given us the word Juggernaut, a word that is directly adapted from Lord Jaganath’s name.

The Puri Ratha Yatra renews the community of devotees and is replicated across the world. It is the oldest and largest of its kind and is made possible by the hard work and dedication of the people who make and pull the chariots each year. The sacrifice that people undertake in order to ensure that their cosmic preserver is able to perform their duties highlights the importance of traditions, but also the importance of coming home.

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