The Rath(a) Yatra

The Ratha Yatra

The Ratha Yatra, also known as the Ratha Jatra, is the Hindu chariot festival. It takes place every year during the Hindu month of asadha, which is in the months of June and July. The Ratha Jatra is a festival of renewal. The deities are renewed and therefore it is said that the people, the land, and the kingdom are also renewed (Apfell Marglin 199). The main deity involved in this festival is Jagannatha, who presides over the temple in Puri, a city in the state of Orissa in Eastern India (Beck 116). During this festival Jagannatha, his brother Balabhadra, and their sister Subhadhra are taken on chariots from the main temple in Puri to the Gundica temple, about two miles north of the main temple (Apfell Marglin 207). Approximately every twelve years, or whenever the extra lunar month occurs in the month of asadha, an enlarged version of the festival takes place. This enlarged festival is called the festival of the new body. During the festival of the new body, the old wooden deities are replaced by new ones. It is said that “the old deities ‘die’ and new ones are ‘born’” (Apfell Marglin 199). The main participants in Ratha Jatra are the daitas, devadasis and other temple servants. Daitas are the ‘blood relatives’ of Jagannatha and the devadasis are the wives of Jagannatha. These are the only two kin of Jagannatha while all others are servants (Apfell Marglin 199). The king also plays a major role in the rituals involved in this festival. He acts as the sacrificer and in turn, he receives renewal and prosperity for his kingdom and his people (Apfell Marglin 200). The Ratha Jatra consists of more than just the journey from the main temple to the Gundica temple. There are many festivals and rituals that occur to make up the entire Ratha Jatra.

The first festival of Ratha Jatra is the bathing festival, known as Snana Jatra (Mahapatra 21). This festival takes place two weeks before the pilgrimage journey on the full moon day of the month of Jyestha (May-June). Daitas move the images of Jagannatha, Balabhadra, Subhadhra and Sudarsana one by one from the inner sanctum of the temple to the bathing platform, called the Snana Mandap or Snana Vedi (Apfell Marglin 200; Mahapatra 21 -22). This procession includes gongs, large decorative umbrellas and fans (Apfell Marglin 200). The bathing platform faces the main square and is raised approximately 30 feet so it is easily visible from the street (Apfell Marglin 201; Mahapatra 22). Once the images are on the bathing platform, temple servants retrieve water and place it in 108 pots. Some of the water is poured on deities from above while other temple servants throw it from below. The four images are ‘bathed’ at the same time. The water that has run over the images is blackened by the paint. Some temple servants collect this water and walk through the crowd. The crowd eagerly tries to get a few drops as the water is seen as the leftover of the deities.  After this bath pilgrims, who are now allowed on the platform, climb up in an attempt to touch the images. Pilgrims are then cleared from the platform and a representative of the king, or the king himself, sweeps the platform with a gold handled broom; a ritual called “sweeping” (Apfell Marglin 201). At the same time, temple servants sprinkle the platform with water and sandalwood powder. The deities are then put into “Ganes dress” which consists of the images being covered by large masks in the shape of an elephant. The curtain that is usually drawn is now open making this the only time of the year that cooked food is offered to the deities in public. The deities are offered the regular sixteenfold offering (Apfell Marglin 201). After the offering, people are once again allowed onto the platform. After this, the images are taken back into the temple in the same manner as they were brought out. This time, however, they are placed in the corridor between the inner and outer sanctum instead of in the inner sanctum. They are set against wooden braces in a semi-reclined position. This marks the end of the bathing festival and the beginning of the period of illness (Apfell Marglin 202).

The period of illness takes place during the dark fortnight. During this time, the gate to the dancing hall is closed. Only the daitas and the Pati Mahapatra, a member of the cooking division, are allowed into the area where the deities are reclining (Apfell Marglin 202). All auspicious sounds are stopped during the period of illness. This includes the banging of gongs and sounding of trumpets and conch shells. Very few people visit the temple during this time, as it is silent and deserted (Apfell Marglin 202). The offerings to the deities during this time are said to be in “tribal fashion” (Apfell Marglin 203). Instead of cooked meals, daitas bring raw fruit and milk products. They peel and taste the fruit to make sure that it is ripe before serving it to the deities. The peels are not removed from the room, but left on the floor. The deities are also served an herbal medicine. The daitas stay with the deities, eating and sleeping there. The images of the deities have been damaged during the bathing festival so they are repaired during this time. The old cloth is replaced with new cloth and covered with a coat of resin and paint. Once this outer layer has been repaired, one of the daita paints the details of the deities’ faces, except the pupils of the eyes. The painter’s work does not begin, however, until the night of the thirteenth day. On the twelfth day of the dark fortnight, the daitas bring the king plates with the old cloth covering from the deities, one for each member of the king’s family. The cloths are the leftovers of the deities. The king then gives the daitas saris, which are tied around their heads at the main gate of the palace. Once these saris have been tied around their heads, the daitas go for a viewing of the king at which they bow to the king. The king then instructs the daitas how to properly manage the car festival. On the thirteenth day of the dark fortnight, some pasted chalk and gum, which will be the first coat of paint on the images, is offered to the king (Apfell Marglin 203). The king then once again advises the daitas how to smoothly run the festival. The painter daita then begins his work and finishes painting by the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight. The fifteenth day marks the end of the period of illness. The dancing hall is opened and pilgrims are allowed into the temple for ‘the viewing of the new youth’ of the deities (Apfell Marglin 204).

After the viewing of the deities, the deities and the temple are purified. Following the purification, three puja pandas paint the pupils on the deities, which is called the ‘festival of the eye’ (Apfell Marglin 204). After the painting of the pupils, a representative of the king comes to perform a welcoming ritual. After this welcoming ritual, the deities are given traditional offerings. The images are still in a reclining position, as during the period of illness (Apfell Marglin 204). The next day, the second day of the bright fortnight of asadha, marks the beginning of the car festival. Pilgrims go to the sea to take a purifying bath and then return to the temple. During this time, Vedic Brahmins perform rites on the chariots to purify them. The chariots themselves are built new each year. The chariot built for Jagannatha is called Nandighosa. It is 33 feet cubits high, has sixteen wheels, painted yellow and covered in red and gold cloth. The chariot of Subhadhra is called Devadalana. It has twelve wheels, is just over 31 feet cubits high, painted black and covered in red and black cloth. The chariot of Balabhadra is called Taladhvaja. It has fourteen wheels, is just over 32 feet cubits high, painted blue and covered in red and green cloth (Mahapatra 17). The wooden images of the deities are moved in a procession from the temple. The procession is preceded by beating gongs. The first deity to be brought out is the wooden pillar of Sudarsana, which is run around the chariot of Subhadra three times before it is carried up to the platform. Balabhadra is brought out next, followed by Subhadra and finally Jagannatha. A group of about twenty temple servants carry the images (Apfell Marglin 205). Daitas and the cooks carry the actual images while puja pandas and simharis hold thick silk ropes, which are tied to the images (Apfell Marglin 205-206). In front of the images are two rows of men dressed in bright red sashes and beating gongs. There are also people bearing umbrellas and fans and others blowing trumpets and conch shells. Once the images are placed on the platforms, everyone waits for the king. The king is brought from the palace on a chair carried by men and is followed by the palace elephant. The king is given a gold-handled broom. He walks around the platform three times, sweeps it once and sprinkles it twice with perfumed water. This sweeping ceremony is called the Chera Panhara (Mishra 146).  He does this on all three chariots in the same order that they were brought out. He then returns to the palace in the same way that he came. After this, the ramps to the platforms are removed and four ropes are fastened to each chariot. The car caller gives the call to start pulling. When this call is given, the crowd pulls on the ropes, moving the chariots (Apfell Marglin 206). As the chariots move through the streets, things are thrown onto the chariots from the crowds. Once all three chariots reach the Gundica temple, the cars remain there until an auspicious hour when the deities can be moved from the chariots to the temple. This may be up to 24 hours later. During this time of waiting, pilgrims surround the chariots chanting prayers, making offerings, and climbing onto the platforms to touch the deities (Apfell Marglin 207).

The deities are carried from the chariots to the temple in the same way they were transported from the main temple (Apfell Marglin 207-208). Once inside the inner sanctum of the temple the deities and the temple are purified. The deities stay at the Gundica temple for seven days. On the second day of their stay, Laksmi is brought from the main temple on a palanquin carried by brahmin temple servants to the Gundica temple. The procession includes torches, gongs and a conch blower. Once they reach the Gundica temple, Laksmi’s palanquin is placed in front of Jagannatha’s chariot. Here a brahmin performs a short worship of Laksmi. After this worship, the devadasis sing a song and perform a ritual with the daita in charge of the image of Jagannatha (Apfell Marglin 208). Laksmi is then brought into the inner sanctum of the temple. After a brief ritual in the inner sanctum, Laksmi is returned to the main temple. The other three chariots are turned to face south, in the direction of the main temple (Apfell Marglin 209).

On the tenth day of the bright fortnight of the same month, the deities begin their journey back to the main temple, called the Bahuda Jatra (Mishra 148). This journey is conducted in the same way as the first journey, but takes from the tenth to fourteenth or fifteenth day. This journey is slower because most of the pilgrims leave Puri immediately after the first journey, as well as the poor road conditions often caused by the rainy conditions common during this part of the year (Mitra 129). The images are transferred to the chariots, the king sweeps the platforms, and the crowd pulls the chariots. The chariot of Jagannatha again makes a stop on the journey, this time at the king’s palace. Here “the meeting of Laksmi and Narayana” takes place (Apfell Marglin 209). Once this ritual is complete, the chariot of Jagannatha is pulled to the main temple. A sixteenfold offering is then given on all three chariots and on the evening of the eleventh day, a special offering is given. At this time, the deities are given ‘the golden dress’ which consists of solid gold forearms, hands and feet that are attached to their unfinished arms and legs. They are also given golden crowns adorned in gold jewelry. After the deities are dressed in this way, pilgrims walk around the chariots. The gold dress is then removed and the deities are taken back into the temple (Apfell Marglin 210). The three deities are returned to the inner sanctum, Jagannatha going through another ritual first. Purifying rights take place and after this, the temple is once again open for regular worship (Apfell Marglin 211).

References and Further Recommended Readings

Apffel Marglin, Frédérique (1999) “Time Renewed: The Place of the Daitas and Devadasis in the Famous Ratha Jatra Festival of Puri.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 7(2), 131-173.

Beck, Guy L. (2005) “Indian Subcontinent: India: CITIES: Puri.” Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World 5. 116-117.

Jagannatha. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend, Thames & Hudson. Credo Reference. Web. 10 March 2012.

Mahapatra, Sri Sara Ch. “The Car Festival of Lord Jagannath.” Car Festival of Lord Jagannath, Puri. Ed. Sri Sarat Chandra Mahapatra. Orissa, India: Sri Jagannath Research Centre, 1994. 15-31. Print.

Mishra, Rajkishore. “Rituals and the Role of Functionaries during Chariot Festival.” Car Festival of Lord Jagannath, Puri. Ed. Sri Sarat Chandra Mahapatra. Orissa, India: Sri Jagannath Research Centre, 1994. 15-31. Print.

Mitra, R.L. “Ratha Jatra.” Car Festival of Lord Jagannath, Puri. Ed. Sri Sarat Chandra Mahapatra. Orissa, India: Sri Jagannath Research Centre, 1994. 127-140. Print.

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Puja Pandas




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Article written by Kayla Giebelhaus (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.