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ARTICLE : Puri rath yatra

Title : Ratha Yatra : The Chariot of secularism
Author : B B Mohanty
Date : July 18, 1996

Every year thousands of devotees from all over the  world
gather at Puri to witness the largest mass  communication
and mobilisation ever - The Rath Yatra of Lorg Jagannath.
This  year too, Puri is all dressed up for the  occasion,
but  with  a slight difference. This is the  scared  year
when  the  idols of Lord Jagannath, Lord  Balabhadra  and
Devi Subhadra are renewed. B. B. Mohanty delves into  the
essence  of  the  festival and its  significance  to  the

There  will be a new-look Jagannath at this  year's  Puri
Rath Yatra on July 17.  Though the famous, fabulous  Rath
Yatra  is held every year, and televised since 1993,  the
idols  of  Lord  Jagannath,  Lord  Balabhadra  and   Devi
Subhadra  are  renewed  every 12th  year.   This  is  the
hallowed 12th year.

The  Rath Yatra is a glamorous annual event  attended  by
perhaps  the biggest multitude assembled anywhere in  the
world  for any single event.  It is indeed  the  greatest
communication event in the world.

The  new  idols this year are made of  wood  coming  from
selected  neem trees.  The wood has been cut  from  trees
identified   in  different  parts  of   Orissa   strictly
according to the suggestions made in their dreams to some
selected  worshippers.   These  worshippers  are   called

The Rath Yatra is a living demonstration of the  theories
of mass communication and mass mobilisation.  Nowhere  in
the  world  do so many people assemble  to  witness  this
gigantic  and colourful event.  They also participate  in
pulling   the  chariots  of  Jagannath,  Balabhadra   and
Subhadra. Some try to immortalise themselves by being run
over under the wheels of the sacred chariots.

It  is  an  unforgettable  sight  which  shows  how  mass
enthusiasm  results  in the generation  of  energy,  both
physical and social. Communication plays a key  catalytic
role in this wonderful phenomenon.  It is spontaneous, it
is  forceful and it is dynamic. It makes the millions  of
pilgrims  and  others  coming to the  Rath  Yatra  to  be
energised  by a psychological force emerging out  of  the
age-old  devotion towards, and faith in, Lord  Jagannath,
the presiding deity of the magnificent festival.

The  Rath Yatra communicates messages directed at a  mass
audience  which  is heterogeneous in  character.   It  is
composed  of  men, women and children, belonging  to  age
groups, religions, sects, castes, creeds and all colours.

The  focus of the message radiated by the Rath  Yatra  is
secularism.   It  is  reinforced  by  the  philosophy  of
Vasudhaiva  Kutum-bakam (The World Is My Family)  flowing
from  the  name  Jagannath,  which  means  Lord  of   the

In   Hindu  religion  and  mythology,  there  have   been
references  to  the  use of chariots  for  a  variety  of
purposes.  In Vedic literature, there has been mention of
the rath or chariot.  The human body has been compared to
a chariot.  The rath has been described in the  Upanisads
dating back to prehistoric times.

Our  ancient scriptures say that the chariot of  the  Sun
God  is  driven by seven horses.  The  world  famous  Sun
Temple  at  Konarak  was designed and  constructed  as  a
chariot of the Sun on these lines of thought.  Lord Indra
and  Lord  Vishnu  had chariots.  In  the  Ramayana,  the
Mahabharata  and other mythologies, the rath  or  chariot
has been described in different scenarios.  The  Pushpaka
Vimana of Lord Indra has been described in many Puranas.

It is not known how and why the Rath Yatra was translated
into  English as the Car Festival, when the word  chariot
should  have been used for rath.  By any stretch  of  the
imagination, one cannot compare a chariot with a car, and
more so when the chariots of Puri are huge constructions.
Perhaps  some colonial British officer had  wrongly  used
the  word  car for rath, but even today in  some  tourist
literature  the Rath Yatra of Puri is referred to as  the
Car  Festival  of  Puri. This is both  a  linguistic  and
communication  distortion, demanding urgent  intervention
by  the concerned departments of the state government  of
Orissa  and the government of India. The Rath  Yatra,  in
English, should be the "festival of Chariots."  Likewise,
some Englishman misspelt Jagannath as Juggernaut, and the
spelling has gone into the dictionary.


The  Rath  Yatra used to be celebrated according  to  the
principles of other religious faiths.  The Chaitra  Yatra
of  the Jains was nothing but a Rath Yatra.   Khandagiri,
near  Bhubaneswar, is one of the ancient centres  of  Jam
philosophy.   According  to some  researchers,  the  Rath
Yatra  of  Khandagiri was a very  ancient  festival.   In
Ujjain, the Rath Yatra used to be celebrated according to
Jain customs.

In  Nepal,  the  Rath Yatra is  celebrated  by  different
communities.   The  Buddhists in Nepal celebrate  a  Rath
Yatra,  known  as  Machhendra  Yatra,  in  the  month  of
Chaitra, in which the Hindus also participate.  According
to Oldfield, "The Buddhist festival is evidently  adopted
from  the  Hindu festival of Jagannath  and  his  brother
Balaram   and  the  Kumari  representing   their   sister

The Chinese traveller Fahian has given a detailed account
of Rath Yatra celebrations in different Buddhist centres.
Some  researchers are of the view that the Rath Yatra  at
Puri  is  an  imitation  of  the  Buddhist  Rath  Yatras.
According  to  one researcher who has  translated  Fahian
into  English, "The reader cannot fail to be struck  with
the very close resemblance between  the Buddha procession
described  here,  and that of  Jagannath,  which  indeed,
requires no great stretch of imagination to suppose it to
be  the  model and prototype.  The time of  the  year  at
which the ceremony takes place corresponds very closely."

Sir  W.W. Hunter in the Indian Empire has  written:  "The
car   festival   is   probably   a   once   consciousness
representation  of the Tooth Festival of  the  Buddhists,
although  its  original significance has dropped  out  of
sight."  Dr  Harekrushna Mahtab and other  scholars  have
maintained that the Buddha's teeth have been kept  inside
the Daru Brahma, the wooden idol of Lord Jagannath.

Dr Rajendralal Mitra, while discussing the Rath Yatra  of
Puri  said:  "These  facts have no room  for  doubt  that
Jagannath and some of his peculiar ceremonial observances
are  of Buddhist origin, that the car festival marks  the
anniversary of the Buddha's birthday."

Evidence is available showing the celebration of the Rath
Yatra in western countries.  For instance, in the  island
of Sicily there used to be a Rath Yatra.  And now, thanks
to  the International Society for Krishna  Consciousness,
the Rath Yatra is celebrated in many western countries on
the pattern of the one at Puri.

The  name  of  the  Lord chariot  of  Lord  Jagannath  is
Nandighosa.  It has 16 wheels, Lord Balabhadra's  chariot
is  named  Taladhwaja and  has 14 wheel. The  chariot  of
Devi Subhadra is called Devadalana. It has 12 wheels. The
three  chariots, with their respective flags standing  on
the  Bada Danda (the long Street) and viewed against  the
background of Bada Deula (the big temple) with its  flags
flying  high, communicate to the millions of  spectators,
the  people  of  Orissa and to the world  at  large  that
Jagannath  is the symbol of secularism manifested in  the
unity of mankind.


The Jagannath cult is based on the following  principles:
equality  of all religions, equality of all  communities,
welfare of all, and impartial treatment of all.  Devotion
to  Lord  Jagannath  is  manifested  in  the  spirit   of
compassion, love for all and equality of all.  Folk lore,
folk  literature  and ancient scriptures  say  that  Lord
Jagannath  is  Lord Vishnu and is worshipped in  Puri  as
Lord  Krishna with his elder brother Lord Balabhadra  and
his sister Devi Subhadra.  The devotional songs in  Oriya
known as bhajans and jananas reflect the devotee's  faith
in the powers of Lord Jagannath.

The  Odisi  dance owes its origin to the  temple  rituals
observed  in  the  Bada Deula.  The  Baisi  Pahachat  (22
stairs  to  the temple) is described  in  the  devotional
songs as the place where one re-examines and affirms  his
faith  in  Lord Jagannath.  The Ananda Bazar  (market  of
joy)  inside the temple premises is the place where  maha
prasad  (offerings to Lord Jagannath) is sold. and  where
it  is  a  privilege to take it with  devotion  and  joy.
Anand  Bazar  establishes equality of all as one  of  the
principal  tenets of the Jagannath cult. The  Bada  Deula
can  be  called  the largest  restaurant  in  the  world,
cooking  varieties  of maha prasad for the  thousands  of
pilgrims everyday.

Lord  Jagannath is also taken as the presiding  deity  of
the tribe known as Savara.  In the Mahabharata written by
Sarala  Das, Jagannath has been known  as  Savarinarayan.
The   Shaivites   worship  Balabhadra  as   Lord   Shiva.
According to the Skanda Purana, the Shaktas  (worshippers

of Goddess Durga) have been worshipping Devi Subhadra  as
Bhadrakali.   The  Vaishnavas worship Jagannath  as  Lord
Vishnu.   Within  the Hindu religion, Lord  is  perceived
differently by different sects.


In  the 12th century AD, Jayadeva, the  famous  Vaishnava
poet  of  Orissa,  in  his  Geetagovinda,  has  described
Buddhadev  as the ninth avatar (incarnation)  of  Vishnu.
The Buddhists subscribing to the Mahayana philosophy hold
the view that both the Buddha and Purushottama belong  to
mahasunya, having no shape.  In the Mahabharata of Sarala
Das,  Jagannath has been described as the Buddha of  Kali
Yuga.  Other poets have described Jagannath as an  avatar
of the Buddha.  Dr Rajendralal Mitra says that when  Gaya
was  the  principal  centre of Buddhism,  Puri  was  also
flourishing  as  an equally important centre  devoted  to
Buddhism.    According   to   him,   before   Vaishnavism
influenced   Buddhism,  Orissa  was  already  under   the
influence of Buddhism.  In short, the Jagannath cult  has
a built-in component of Buddhism.

The  Jains have claimed that Jagannath is Gina.   In  the
Jain  scripture "Jnana Siddhi," Indrabhuti has  described
Jagannath as Gina.  The followers of Mahima Dharma having
their  centre  of learning and worship at  Joranda,  near
Dhenkanal  (Orissa),  do not worship any idol,  but  they
worship  Lord  Jagannath.  It is easy to  establish  that
Jagannath  attracts  people from all  religions  and  all
sects.   All the prophets of different  religious  faiths
have  visited  Puri.   The  Jagannath  cult,   therefore,
embraces,  all.  It has travelled to different  parts  of
the world.

In the province of Bali, Indonesia, where the majority of
people  are Hindus, one finds and feels the  presence  of
the  Jagannath cult.  In the Besakih temple,  the  oldest
one  in Bali, one finds the idol of Lord Jagannath.   But
there is a difference.  In the Besakih temple, there  are
no  idols  inside, it is totally empty.   The  idols  are
outside the temple premises.

The  Hindus of Bali believe that inside the temple  there
should be nothing, and it should be kept neat and  clean,
so  that the gods and goddesses, when tired,  would  come
down  to  take  rest.   In  the  Prambanan  temple   near
Yogyakarta,  one  sees  the  idols  of  Hindu  gods   and
goddesses.  Jagannath is no longer confined to India.  In
this context, it is the Jagannath cult which communicates
the  message that it is no longer a phenomenon  or  faith
confined to India.  It belongs to jagat, the whole world.
Thanks  to  satellites, the Rath Yatra of Puri  is  being
telecast on the national hook-up since 1993.  People  all
over the country watch the telecasts with pride.   Others
outside India can also view them.

What  does  it  communicate?  What is  the  message?   It
communicates  the  message that India has a  vibrant  and
dynamic  culture which cannot be debased or distorted  by
narrow-mindedness.  It also communicates that the  people
of India have been sustained by such a powerful  cultural

In all these communications, the central message is  that
the people are one. And the focus of the message is  that
Jagannath is the symbol of secularism.

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