The Raths of Puri are created specifically for the Rath Yatra festival. This festival is celebrated every year on the second (dwitiya) day of shukla pakhya (waxing cycle of moon) of Ashadha Maasa (3rd month in Lunar Calendar).
The presiding deities of the Jagannath Temple, Puri's main temple, Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, with the celestial wheel (Sudarshana Chakra) are removed from the temple in a ceremonial procession to their chariots (raths). The huge, colourfully decorated chariots are drawn by multitude of devotees on the bada danda, the grand avenue to the Gundicha Temple (Gundicha – King Indradyumna's Queen), two miles away to the North. On the way, the chariot of Lord Jagannatha, ‘Nandighosa’ waits near the crematorium of Bhakta Salabega, a Muslim devout to pay him tribute. The chariot of Balabhadra is called, ‘Taladhwaja’ and the chariot of Subhadra is called, ‘Darpadalana.’ On their way back from the Gundicha Temple, the three deities stop for a while near the Mausi Maa Temple (Aunt's abode) and have an offering of the Poda Pitha, which is a special type of pancake supposed to be the Lord's favourite. After a stay for seven days, the deities return to their abode. Every year, these raths are newly created and carried out in the Rath Yatra procession.
The raths of Puri and the Rath Yatra festival itself has a great significance in our history and culture. This festival is known to bring about devotees from all over the country. The three chariots of the deities are surrounded by a sea of people from all four sides, some ahead carrying forward the rath, some witnessing the event from their roofs and balconies and some following in the back. Despite being celebrated for so many years, not even once has the fervor or spirit of the people, who partake in the rath making and celebration activities of the festival, reduced or diminished. In fact, the passion and devotion towards lord Jagannath is as strong as the build of the chariot itself.
It is believed that the significance of these Raths can be understood through the concepts in the holy text of Katha Upanishad. According to this text, the chariot resembles the body of the deity and the icons/figurines of the deity placed inside the chariot resembles the soul of the deity.
Several songs and poems have also been dedicated to Lord Jagannath and his rath. For example, there is a famous Odia song which states that the chariot merges and becomes one with Lord Jagannath during the festival. As a result, simply touching the chariot or rope that pulls it is believed to bring prosperity and abundance. This can be witnessed during the festival as well. Several devotees from all over the world thong to the temple town of Puri during the Rath Yatra in order to pull the ropes of the chariots. This is considered to be an auspicious act. The huge processions accompanying the chariots play devotional songs with drums, sounding plates of bell metal, and cymbals.
What further contributes to the significance of this festival is the wide broadcasting that it receives. Several TV channels in India and abroad broadcast the Rath Yatra of Puri live. Several websites have also begun including the footage and pictures of the raths and the surrounding crown of people. The celebration of this festival is has become a common sight in major cities all across the globe since 1968 due to the Hare Krishna Movement. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada had successfully transplanted the festival which now happens on an annual basis in places all over the world in over 108 cities worldwide. The significance of this festival can also be understood by looking at the 8 million rupees that are spent on its preparations. Due to the widespread appeal and popularity of this festival, the huge chariots of Jagannath pulled during Rath Jatra forms the etymological origin of the English word ‘Juggernaut’ which means ‘an unstoppable force.’
These huge, colourful chariots are drawn by hundreds of devotees, and watched by millions, who believe that seeing the gods in procession expiates them of all sins. When gods travel, the scale is massive and majestic and hence the monumental chariots surrounded by thronging devotees in a magnanimous procession. Whatever may be the legend, even to this day, each year, new chariots are built and lavishly decorated and the procession brought out in its full grandeur.
Without detailed architectural drawings or calibrated automatic machines, the skill of hands can make something so enormous, yet so perfect, that it is used to house the sacred idol, dearest to millions of worshippers. The grand splendor of the chariot assures the devotees that their exalted lord is close to them, cleansing them of their sins.
The making of the Puri raths for the Jagannath Rath Yatra is the responsibility of a separate group of carpenters and artisans who have been undertaking this profession for generations. The main carpenters and artisan group responsible for making the chariots are known as Viswakarma Sevakas. The carpenters and artisans belong to the family of hereditary carpenters and they have been doing the job for centuries. The making of the chariot involves a large number of artisans and workers with a variety of special skills. Each group makes specific parts of the chariots. Each group of workers is known as nijoga. The main groups of carpenters and artisans are as follows-
Badhei Maharanas – The main construction of the chariot is done by this group of carpenters. This main group includes certain subcategories based on their specialized skills and roles. Gunakara – This group provides various measurements and standards for the Rath.
Pahi Maharanas – This group fixes the wheels of the chariots.
Kamara Kanta Nayakas (Ojha Maharanas) – This group is of the ironsmiths who prepare nails, pins, clamps, iron rings fixed inside axles used as the outer covering of the wooden wheels.
Chandakaras – This group carries components of major parts and helps in assembling and fixing them.
Rupakaras – This group carves images and shapes in wood for decorating the chariots.
Murtikaras – These are sculptors and they create various sculptures in the wood on the chariot. Ashta Manjari or eight female companions fitted on the parapet of each chariot is prepared by them.
Chitrakaras (Painters and artists) – This group makes lines, drawings, and paints the hariots.. They also paint the body parts of the sculptors and images.
Suchikaras (Daraji Sevakas) – This is a group of tailors who prepare covers, cloth mantles, small canopies, flags, and pennants. This group also beautifies the clothes with appliqué work and other designs.
Ratha Bhois – This group is led by the Bhoi Sardar and they consist of hardworking laborers who help the skilled artisans in their work. Apart from this, numerous other artisans are engaged in making the chariots.
Myths & Legends
Owing to the popularity and significance of Lord Jagannath and the Rath Yatra festival, there are a plethora of myths and legends surrounding this topic. The sheer amount of origin myths depict how loved and idolized lord Jagannath is in Hinduism. It is believed that Jagannath is an incarnation of Lord Krishna. The Jagannath Mandir in Jagannath Puri is one of the four most sacred mandirs in the four directions of the Indian sub - continent. The other three are: Rameshwar in South, Dwarka in West and Badrinath in the Himalayas. Probably the mandir in Jagannath Puri is the only mandir in the world housing murtis of three deities who are siblings - Lord Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra.
Pertaining to the Rath Yatra, the following origin stories are found-
1. Kamsa, the maternal uncle of Lord Krishna, invited Krishna and Balram to Mathura with the malicious intention of killing them. The evil Kamsa sent Akrur with a chariot to Gokul. Lord Krishna and Balram climbed onto the chariot with Akrur, taking leave of the Gopis to proceed to Mathura. This day of departure is celebrated by the devotees as Rath Yatra.
2. Jubilant devotees celebrated the day when Lord Krishna, having vanquished the evil Kamsa, gave them darshan in Mathura in a chariot with his brother, Balaram.
3. Devotees in Dwarika celebrated the day when Lord Krishna, accompanied by Balaram, took Subhadra for a ride on a chariot to show the city's beauty.
4. Once in Dwarka, Lord Krishna's eight queens requested mother Rohini to narrate the divine episodes of Lord Krishna with the Gopis while he was in Vraj. For a while Rohini dithered. Finally, after a lot of insistence she relented. However, considering it unbecoming of Subhadra to hear such episodes, she was sent her to guard the palace doorway..Soon, Lord Shri Krishna and Balaram arrived at the doorway. With arms wide apart, she stood between the two, preventing them from entering. However, from here they stood, Rohini's katha soon engrossed them all. Just then sage Narad arrived. Seeing the siblings standing together like murtis, he humbly prayed, "May the three of you grant darshan in this manner forever." The Lord granted the boon and thus, the three eternally reside in the Jagannath Mandir in Puri.
5. There is another interesting story of Lord Krishna becoming the Sarathi (driver of Arjuna's chariot) during the eighteen-day battle of the Mahabharat.
6. When Shri Krishna was being cremated in Dwarika, Balaram, overcome with grief, dashed into the ocean with Shri Krishna's partially cremated body. Subhadra too behind. At the same time, on the eastern shore of India, King Indradyumna of Jagannath Puri had a dream that the Lord's body would float up to the shores of Puri. In his dream, the king was told that he should build a huge mandir in the city and consecrate the wooden murtis of Shri Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra. The bones (asthi) of Lord Krishna's body should be placed in the hollow in the back of the murti.
The dream then proved to be true. He found the splinters of bone (asthi) and took them. But the question was who would carve the murtis. It is said that the architect of the gods - Vishwakarma - arrived as an old carpenter. He stipulated that while carving the murtis nobody should disturb him and if anybody did, he would stop work and leave. A few months passed, driven with impatience, Indradyumna opened the door of Vishwakarma's room, who vanished instantly as he had stipulated. Despite the incomplete murtis, the king consecrated them, placing the holy cinders of Lord Krishna in the hollow of the murti and installed them in the mandir. Every year a grand procession is carried out with the murtis of Lord Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra in three gigantic floats. The floats are pulled by devotees from Janakpur to the mandir in Jagannath Puri. The murtis are changed every twelve years, the new ones being incomplete too.
7. There is a myth regarding Snanayatra of the three deities. It is believed that after the deities are washed and bathed, they fall sick and catch a cold. During this period, they are treated with ayurvedic medicines so that their health is restored. The common notion surrounding this is that devotees of Krishna treat him like a fellow human being and loved one. Therefore, there are various other rituals as well wherein Lord Krishna is placed on a 'jhula' and swung back and forth just like we swing our children. The Snana Yatra is one ritual where Jagannath (form of Krishna) is treated with medicines after he falls sick just like human beings are.
Several mentions of Raths have also been found in Hindu scriptures-
Katha Upanishad (1/3/3-4) - the Body Rath Yama, the Lord of Hell reveals to young Natchiketa the Rath with which one can attain
Brahma-vidya - knowledge of Brahman.
“Atmanam rathinam viddhi shareeram rathameva tu,
Buddhim tu sarathim viddhi manaha pragrahameva tu.
Indriyani hayanyahur vishayansteshu gocharan,”
Ramayana - The Samsara Rath
Lord Ramachandra describes his chariot to Vibhishan, with which he is always victorious.
Courage and tenacity are its wheels,
Immutable truth and character are its flags,
Strength, discrimination, self-control and charity are its horses,
Forgiveness, mercy and equanimity are the reins, and
Devotion to the Lord is its Sarathi.
With such a chariot one can surely traverse Samsara.
Mahabharat- The Life Rath
Shri Krishna says in the Gita (18/78) that, where there is Krishna and Arjuna, there's wealth, victory, power and immutable morality. This was borne out during the battle when the mighty warrior Bhishma vowed to kill Arjuna on the tenth day. Lord Krishna anxiously searched for Arjuna and found him asleep. Bewildered, Lord Krishna asked him how he could sleep with such a pledge looming over his life. To his astonishment Arjuna answered, "Because you are awake!"
The ultimate essence of the myths and stories surrounding the raths is that the ‘Jiva’ should
unwarrantedly surrender to the supreme Sarathi, that is God or the God-realised Sadhu, if he/she wishes to successfully traverse the yatra of life, ‘Samsara.’
The word ‘Ratha yatra’ is derived from two Sanskrit words namely- ‘Ratha’ meaning chariot or carriage, and ‘j?tr?’ meaning journey or pilgrimage. Other names for the festival are ratha jatra or chariot festival.
The observance of the Rath Yatra of Jagannath dates back to the period of the Puranas. Vivid descriptions of this festival are found in Brahma Purana, Padma Purana, and Skanda Purana. Kapila Samhita also refers to Rath Yatra. In Mughal period also, King Ramsingh of Jaipur, Rajasthan has been described as organizing the Rath Jatra in the 18th Century. In Odisha, Kings of Mayurbhanj and Parlakhemundi organized the Rath Jatra which was the grandest festival in terms of scale and popularity that took place at Puri.
Moreover, Starza notes that the ruling Ganga dynasty instituted the Rath Jatra at the completion of the great temple around 1150 AD. This festival was one of those Hindu festivals that was reported to the Western world very early. Friar Odoric of Pordenone visited India in 1316–1318, some 20 years after Marco Polo had dictated the account of his travels while in a Genoese prison. In his own account of 1321, Odoric reported how the people put
the "idols" on chariots, and the king, queen and people drew them from the ‘church’ with song and music. In its essence, the festival commemorates Jagannath's annual visit to Gundicha Temple via Mausi Maa Temple (maternal aunt's home) near Saradha Bali, Puri.
As part of Ratha Yatra, the deities Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and younger sister Devi Subhadra, along with Sudarshan, are taken out in a procession out of the main shrine of Jagannath Temple and placed in the Ratha (Chariot) which are ready in front of the Temple. This process is called as 'Pahandi'. The procession starts with 'Madan Mohan' then 'Sudarshana' Balabhadra, Subhadra, and Jagannath Deva. After that, Gajapati Maharaja, the king of Puri, who is also known as the first servitor of the Lords, does 'Chhera Pahanra' (the holy cleaning of the chariots). Finally, the devotees pull the chariots up to the Gundicha Temple, which is also known as the birthplace of the Lord.
There are three chariots made for Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subadhra each. Each of these three chariots have distinct designs, colours and qualities.
Lord Jagannath’s: chariot is called as Nandighosha. This chariot is one of the tallest and grandest. It has a a height of 44' 2" and length and breadth of 34'6" x 34'6". There are 16 wheels attached to this Rath and it utilizes 832 wooden pieces. Bright red and yellow canopies are attached to the chariot featuring the famous applique work of Pipli. Garuda is the guardian of the chariot and Daruka is the charioteer. There are 4 white horses attached to the Rath, these are- Shankha, Balahaka, Suweta and Haridashwa.
Lord Balabhadra’s: chariot is known as, ‘Taladhwaja.’ This chariot has a height of 43' 3" and length and breadth of 33' x 33'. It has a total of 14 wheels and 763 wooden pieces used in its creation. Red and blueish-green canopies are attached to the chariot featuring the famous applique work of Pipli. Vasudev is the guardian and Matali is the charioteer. A palm tree is also placed onto the chariot. There are 4 black horses attached to the rath, these are- Tribra, Ghora, Dirghasharma and Swornanava.
Goddess Subhadra’s: chariot is known as, ‘Darpadalana.’ This chariot has a height of 42' 3" and length and breadth of 31'6" x 31'6". It has a total of 12 wheels and 593 wooden pieces are used in its construction. Red and black canopies are attached to the chariot featuring the famous applique work of Pipli. There are 4 red horses attached to the rath, these are – Rochika, Mochika, Jita and Aparajita.
Every Rath has 2 gatekeepers, one accompanying deity and 9 parshvadevata or subsidiary deities. What leaves the devotees awestruck and mesmerised at first glance is the decoration of the Rath. Every single part of the Rath is splashed with strokes of colour and patterns. The cloths with the applique work feature various patterns and motifs. These motifs feature floral patterns, greenery and other mythical designs like Rahu and Chandra. The wood is carved with designs inspired by Odisha temple architecture. The frames and wheels of the chariots are also colourfully painted with traditional designs. Moreover, several flower garlands are also placed at the front of the Raths. The two brothers,Balabhadra and Jagannatha are decorated with large, elaborate floral decorations called ‘tahia’. These are like huge crowns or tiaras fixed at the back of their heads. These are made of various white, orange and lotus flowers, leaves and pieces of cork that are then fixed to a semi-circular heart shaped bamboo frame. Chumki flowers are also added to the chariots in order to enhance their beauty and magnificence.
Each chariot also has a crest banner and is tied with 4 ropes made of coconut fibres at the front part of the chariot.The intricacies in the designs of all three chariots showcase how socially and culturally significant these Raths are. It also displays the diligence of the craftsmen and their attention to the smallest of details. Every single portion of these Raths is designed and created with utmost love, devotion and precision.
Despite being widely acclaimed and supported through the government initiatives, there are still a few challenges that are faced during the production of the Raths of Puri.The main challenge is the availability of raw materials. Since wood is the basic raw materialthat is used for constructing the chariots, every year approximately 1000 trees are cut from 12 different species to derive the wood for the chariots. Though several programs have been launched for the replenishment of these trees, it is believed that the supplies are still falling short. Moreover, specific varieties of trees take about 20 years to replenish. This creates a huge problem for the craftsmen of the chariots and the Jagannath temple authorities. It is believed that wood will not be a major problem since it can be derived from 14 other forest areas, however the increasing urbanization, mining and deforestation raises several questions about the depleting forest cover.