Beginnings, Significance & Impact
We are a painfully religious country. Faith has always been our prime support system, and cornerstone to our belief in us and our existence.
Even by these standards the emotional and spiritual connect people have with Lord Jagannath is exceptionally strong and unique. To truly understand the reasons behind this unique bond, we need to understand Jagannath’s philosophy and origins, something which the Rathyatra is an integral part of.
So when and why did the Rathyatra begin? What is its significance and meaning to the Jagannath Philosophy?
The atrocities inflicted on during the Mughal Dynasty are widely documented. It is said during this time the temple was attacked 12 times. While the temple itself remaining unscathed, according to the Garuda Puran, the idols were hidden away for 156 days by the erstwhile king Raja Ramachandra Deb. The day they were finally brought back the idols were taken through the streets to be viewed amongst much revelry by the people before taking their rightful place on the Ratna Singhasana.
Typical to Indian culture however, sometimes history and myth merge into a glorious chimera of a story.
According to the Skanda Puranathe the day King Indradyumna first installed the idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra aeons ago is celebrated by a yearly divine bathing ritual called the Snan Yatra.
On this day Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and lady Subhadra are bathed with 108 pots of sanctified water drawn from a well within the temple. This yearly bath results in the Lords’ apparentlyfalling ill, eventually retiring to convalesce for a fortnight.
You know how we really need to get out of the house after we’ve been cooped up for a long time? Well, that’s exactly how it is for the trinity. After a long convalescence, this is the Lord’s way of celebrating: a mosh pit party with his loving devotees and a visit to his aunt’s place for some good old family time. However, he makes a rookie mistake and leaves his wife Goddess Lakshmi back at the temple. You know he’s going to pay for that later.
The Humanity of Divinity
Stories like these are what humanize Lord Jagannath, making the idea of him different from any other gods in the Indian pantheon. Traditionally Indian deities are isolatedfrom the world they look after. Divinity never leaves the sanctum and it is the devout that must come to doors of the Divine.
Lord Jagannath, however, prefers to live and rejoice among the people. This is more than just a curious eccentricity when you truly study it. It builds on the aura of Jagannath as a living God. A God who loves his people so much that he chooses to partake of humanity and experience all its quirks; to play out his ‘leela’ if you will.
While the aura of the divine still remains, Jagannath is considered a far more approachable and relatable deity thanks to his very human foibles. This brings me to another interesting characteristic of the Jagannath devotee. There are very few bowed heads; the devout here reach out to Jagannath, hands raised and hungry, their faces naked with raw love, hope, and sometimes even anger. Like the old lady who sings to Jagannath, scolding him for not solving her problems like he promised, or the old sindoor salesman, a man who brings pride and color to the forehead of many a married woman, but whose own eyes are dulled with cataract…yet, he squats silently, day after day, near the temple of the Lord.
To quote Mahadevi Dasi, a devotee from Los Angeles, who has been living in Vrindavan for 22 years now – “ He is not a scary , unseen unattainable icon of the Unknown, he is a friend, he is a brother , he is a lover, he is everything that you and I seek in this plane of existence.”
What this blogger liked about the concept of Jagannath, is that the grandiosity of religious symbolism has been done away with, boiling down even the physical representation of the concept of Jagannath down to its simplest ethics of love and oneness of humanity.
Let us explore that for a second. Unlike most gods in the Hindu Pantheon he isn’t worshipped in an anthropomorphic larger than life form carved out of cold hard stone. All three visages – Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra- are carved out of wood, neem to be precise.
Standing six feet tall, Jagannath’s earthly form is a massive square head with mesmerizing eyes. Merging into the chest are two outstretched stumps for arms that are lined up with the smiling red mouth.
This rather unorthodox representation of a divine form leaves most people stumped. But when you dig deep into the significance of its representation, it adds to the aura behind the Jagannath Concept.
The head of the Orissa chapter of Chinmaya mission says “ The lord has no hands, because as His name suggests he is Jagannath – The Lord ( Nath) of the world (Jagat). He is everywhere and in every one of us. We are his hands and it is through us that he plays out his miracles in the world. He does not need feet, because he is everywhere. Look at the Lord’s eyes, they are big and round, like the earth , the sun and the moon and every other planet in the galaxy, and through them he sees everything and all of us”
Even the colors of the deities have a globally binding significance, Lord Jagannath is black, Balabhadra is white and Lady Subhadra is yellow. Some say this represents the people of all regions and colors whether it be Asian, African, or Caucasian…further proof that the ideology of Jagannath is global and not bound by any nationalistic religious sentiment.
There is an indefatigable belief among the people here that Jagannath, though ruler of the entire universe , still pays attention to each and every individual and like a kind father goes out of his way to make their wishes come true.
For example, people believe that during the journey the Daru takes from the place of its discovery to the temple- the bullock cart carrying the Daru stops where the Gods will it to – to enable their devotees to catch a glimpse of them. True or not, it was definitely real for one man.
Prasanth Pradhan is an extremely effervescent and very friendly young man who runs a tea and pan stall just on the outskirts of Puri. As the fates would have it, we stopped there for a quick post lunch paan on our way to Bhubhaneshwar.
He recounted the day the Daru Brahma was being brought to the temple :
“I have been mad (sic) for the Lord for 10 years! A part of me died everyday because I was unable to go see Him. But that day? They were bringing the Daru Brahma from the nearby village, and He stopped right here! Right in front of my stall, it stayed there 10 minutes! Only for me! My Lord came to see me!”
There was an ethereal glow to his face as he recounted this tale, his childlike enthusiasm and innocent joy infectious. Before I knew it we both had tears streaming down our faces, as I embraced him and he shouted for the world to hear “Jai Jagannath! Jai Jagannath!”
The March of the Chariots
The Day of the Rathyatra was upon us.
We were lucky to be amongst a handful of people with a vantage viewing point from the upper balcony of The Grand. But being the greedy artists that we are, Piyush and I wanted the pick of the spots available.
The streets had already started filling with people; and by 10am the crowd had swollen to massive numbers. To beat the mildly oppressive humid heat compounded by the total lack of breathing space ; which is what happens when 20 lakh people gather nose to face jostling for movement- the local fire station had tankers scattered all across the burgeoning crowd spraying them with water, giving them much needed respite.
The wait was long but not boring, the absolute delightful color of people in the crowd made for some fascinating images. Women dancing with abandon, their voices singing their love for Jagannath, rising to a crescendo that drowned out the rest of the crowd, a sea of arms raised, hungering to embrace their lord , chants of “Jai Jaggannath ! JaiJagannath” rumbled through the air like the crashing of gigantic waves.
Amongst the crowd walked Gods… or at least men dressed like Gods; their deep love for the divine interpreting in the sincerest form of flattery- imitation. That being said some of them were pretty talented and really got into the meat of their character. Like this Hanuman; who was a complete boss! He styled, he profiled, he swung around his mace! He ‘blessed’ his followers with a regal divinity that would put most Godmen to shame. He even managed to get up the ramp leading upto the chariots, simultaneously shooing away a ‘Krishna’ from his spotlight.
He was quite the showman but it was evident that he loved what he did, and that came from a place of honest devotion. A little digging rooted out this nugget- when he wasn’t enacting the Monkey God with such élan, he was a government clerk, and he has been doing this every year- for 15 years. Over the years, his enthusiasm and his art have made him a popular fixture at the Rathyatra.
And then we had ‘Krishna.’ Him we bumped into multiple times when we were there. He might be a tad garishly painted and be a little too thin – but he had the voice of an angel and could play the flute with such perfection it would make the Pied Piper of Hamlin go, “ Screw this, I’m going back to the cat grooming business…”
Celebrations brokeout everywhere, colourful flags peppered the throbbing mass of humanity, cymbals, drums, trumpets played out adding to the festive atmosphere as people waited for the first glimpse of the Gods after weeks of separation.
And suddenly….the crowd erupted. After days of waiting, crowd exploded into chants , as the idols were finally brought out.
The six feet tall solid wood idols are by no means light, and we could see the strain on the bearers’ faces as the idols were pushed, pulled, shoved and carried from their inner sanctum to their throne on the chariots. But even as their faces contorted with the physical strain, their eyes glowed with almost maniacal energy…energy that can only come from true faith and belief.
Finally all the idols were in place, the crowd was in a near frenzy. The chaos was controlled by a select group of volunteers from the fire services, the local police, the army, and the general public. The area around the chariots was cordoned off and kept clear by volunteers. Some people have criticized this move, because in previous years, devotees were allowed to touch the chariots. On the flip side however, the previous years’occurrences also show a number of injuries and deaths caused by people getting caught under the giant wheels; so all in all I’d say – good call.
The Sankaracharya arrived at around 11am with his entourage to conduct a pooja and give his blessings, thus signalling the official start of the day’s proceedings.
Perched precariously on the ledge of the balcony so that I could get an unrestricted view of the chariots, I was very agitatedly asked to come off the ledge by a very nervous group of organizers. Initially I thought it was for my safety, but a few minutes after I crept my way back on the veranda, an excited commotion broke out below my perch.
A group of army personnel started clearing a path from the palace entrance below. Finally amidst cheers and clanging cymbals and rhythmic beat of the drums, the King’s cavalcade made its appearance. Dressed in simple white kurta with an elegantly basic turban, his Highness the Gajapati Maharaj greeted the crowd with humble folded hands as his palanquin (in the good old days they used elephants, now wouldn’t have that been a stereotypically Indian sight for sore eyes) flanked by members of the temple administration carrying large canopies bearing the crest of Lord Jagannath made the long slow journey to the chariots.
Upon arriving at the chariots, the Gajapati Maharaj conducted a ceremony called the Chehana Paharna , which involves sweeping the chariots with a golden handled broom. This is symbolic of the philosophy that no job is too menial for anyone if it is done for a good purpose.
After the King made his way back, the wait continued but the energy built until finally the moment everyone was waiting for arrived.
With an audible groan the huge chariots finally started moving through the crowd. Inch by inch the selected volunteers pulled the chariots across the Bada Danda.
The next three hours were a delightful smorgasbord of chaos, the cheering crowds, the majestic chariots making their way slowly across the sea of humanity, the colourful drapes brightening up the cloudy day, an army of priests overflowing from the chariot platform, some perched on top of the wooden horses, reins raised in exultation, some clanging cymbals and pounding drums, while others; well.. Much to the amusement of the crowd, just sat and waved at the crowd like royalty, like we were all there to see them.
Those of you had read the papers during the time would know that it wasn’t all shiny happy people. As it happens in any large gathering, things did get out of hand, with the attending police force having to resort to rather harsh measures. I must admit I was part of the murmuring crowd that vilified the security forces, the sight of those faces twisted in rage as they swung lathis at young and old alike was disturbing.
A minor stampede did ensue; the sight of men, women and children being carried away on makeshift stretchers was frighteningly frequent.
An exciting few hours later, the chariots halted their march. As per tradition, the chariots aren’t moved after sunset. So that evening, as the day drew to a close, the Gods halted for the night giving their devotees a chance to revel in their presence for one more day.
With the setting of the sun, our journey came to an end. Later that night as we sat on the dismantled remains of the ramp gazing upon the chariots not 3 feet from us, I couldn’t help but reflect on the last few days.
The tale of Jagannath has many voices, and even more points of view. The beginnings of this belief and ideology, so ancient it has been lost to time, is only being passed from faithful to faithful over the generations.
A lot of these stories have to be taken on faith, a religious or quasi religious faith atleast. But scratch the sandalwood encrusted exterior and there is a more Universal reality – Love.
Not the sugar and spice, lovey dovey ,whatsapp heart popping emoticon sending kind. But a kind that is more… honest. A love that doesn’t shout from the roof tops, but has tea and cookies with you by the lake.
A love for everyone and no one, a love that spreads its wings so wide, it folds you within yourself.
A love for humanity, a love for yourself and the ability to accept the differences between the two.
Before I start sounding like Deepak Chopra, let me end with this. The Puri journey ends; for now.
But the quest to find ourselves. Continues.
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