Spanning across nine days, the festival of Jagannath Rath Yatra has been celebrated for approximately 500 years. As much as the festival displays splendour and grandeur, it is first and foremost a lesson on humility and devotion.
Jagannath comprises of the words Jaga meaning universe and Nath which means Lord. As one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Lord Krishna is referred to as Jagannath. This festival is celebrated in honour of Lord Krishna (Jagannath), his brother Balram or Balabhadra, and his sister Subhadra.
According to legends, it is believed that Lord Jagannath wishes to visit his birthplace every year and hence the procession is taken out annually from his residing temple of Jagannath to his aunt’s place, the Gundicha Temple located 2.5 km away. After a stay of nine days, the return journey made is called Bahuda Yatra.
Lord Krishna’s maternal uncle, Kansa invited him and Balram to Mathura and had plotted to kill them. Kansa sent Akrur with a chariot to Gokul. This day of departure of Lord Krishna and Balram is celebrate as Rath Yatra.
Another legend in Dwarka tells the story of the day when Lord Krishna, accompanied by Balram, took Subhadra their sister, for a ride on a chariot to show the beauty of the city.
A final legend states that this was the day when Lord Krishna became Arjuna’s sarathi (charioteer) that launched the battle of Kurukshetra and the discourse of Bhagwad Gita.
The three idols of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balram, and Goddess Subhadra are taken from Jagannath Temple to the Gundicha temple. Lord Jagannath’s rath (chariot) called Nandighosha (also known as Garudadhwaja or Kapiladhwaja) is about 44 feet tall and has 16 wheels. Lord Balbhadra’s rath called Taladhwaja or Langaladhwaja is 43 feet tall and has 14 wheels. While Goddess Subhadra’s rath is 42 feet tall and has 12 wheels.
All the decorative three chariots are pulled by over 500 devotees each (over 2000 in all) with the help of strong ropes made from jute and accompanied by chants and blowing conche shells. Before the day of the procession, the idols are bathed with 108 buckets of water which is known as Snana Purnima and are placed in isolation. This ritual is known as Ansara.
On the day of the procession, the holy ritual of Chhera Phara is performed by the royal successor of Odisha, where the king sweeps the chariots that have gold handles. He then decorates the chariot with flowers and cleans the ground on which the chariot will move, followed by a sprinkling of sandalwood. The king then brings the deities from the temple and places them in the chariots.
The procession moves to Lord Krishna’s aunt’s place – the Gundicha Temple and the idols remain there for a span of nine days. After this, the return journey called Bahuda Yatra, commences. In the evening when the deities reached back to Jagannath temple, they wait outside until the next morning. On the next day, the ritual of Suna Vesa takes place where the idols are adorned with new clothes like babies. After this the idols are placed again into the sanctum sanctorum, marking the end of the Rath Yatra of Jagannath, Puri.
The following mool-mantra can be recited during the pooja:
।। नीलांचल निवासाय नित्याय परमात्मने
बलभद्र सुभद्राभ्याम जगन्नथाय ते नमः ।।