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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.
OTHER RELIGIOUS FAITHS
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
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
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
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.
JAGANNATH AND BUDDHA
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
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.