The most splendid of the innumerable festivals celebrated around the year in the holy city of Puri, the Ratha Yatra is the grand culmination of a series of celebrations spread over the summer and the monsoon month. Akshaya Tritiya tithi marks the beginning of the construction of the Rathas(chariots) for them ceremonial journey and sojourn of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra at the Gundicha temple for a week.
On the full-moon day of the month of Jyestha (May-June) in the Snana Yatra, the Bathing Festival, when the three deities move in colourful processions to a platform in the outer enclosure of the temple, the Snana Vedi, the bathing platform, where they bathe with one hundred and eight pitchers of perfumed water drawn from a temple well once a year. After the ritual bath, the deities assume the special elephant form, recalling the legend of the Lord’s affection for a devotee, whom He proved that he was, in fact, another manifestation of Lord Ganesha. At the end of the Snana Yatra day, the holy triad, supposedly afflicted with fever, do not return to their pedestal in the sanctum. They stay away from the public view for a period of fifteen days, called Anasara, after which they appear in their Navayauvana Vesha, literally a renewed youth, on the new moon day of the Month of Ashadha. During this fortnight the icons get a fresh coat of paint which gets washed out on the day of the Bathing Festival. During this period the Sevakas, temple servants, also symbolically convalesce with the deities and eat only fruits and other restricted diets. Cloth paintings, representing the deities called Anasara Pati, are displayed beyond the enclosers hiding the deities for the devotees to see and worship.
Finally comes the Ratha Yatra on the second day of the bright fortnight of the month Of Ashadha when the three deities, come out of the temple in a spectacular procession called pahandi. The deities, colossal wooden statues, adorned with giant floral crowns, called Tahias, are literally pulled, pushed and dragged in the rhythmic movement to the accompaniment of the beat of cymbals, drums and chanting of their names in chorus by devotees in frenzied ecstasy. After all the deities are seated in their respective chariots starts the Chhera Pamhara the ritual sweeping of the chariots with a golden broom by the Gajapati King of Puri, the foremost servant of God, the Adya sevaka of Lord Jagannath. The King comes from his palace on a richly decorated palanquin. Chhera Pamhara on is a symbolic rite which proclaims that the King like others is but a humble servant of the real sovereign, Lord Jagannath.
The most exciting part of the Rath Yatra is the pulling of chariots by thousands of people who lay their hands on the sturdy ropes and drag the massive structures along the Bada-Danda, the grand road. The Chariot of Balabhadra moves first, followed by those of Subhadra and Jagannath. The chariots grind forward slowly until they reach the Gundicha temple where the three detities rest for a night on their own chariots, adorned with the Dasavatara costumes.
They enter the Gundicha temple on the next day in the usual Pahandi style and stay there for seven days. Goddess Laxmi, who gets angry for being left out at the temple, proceeds to the Gundicha temple to meet her Lord, Jagannath, on the Hera Panchami day, the fifth day from the Ratha Yatra. After having a stealthy look at her Lord, she returns to the temple, damaging a part of Jagannath’s chariot in anger and disgust.
The deities, after a seven-day stay at Gundicha temple, their garden house, commence their return journey, the Bahuda Yatra, On the tenth day of bright fortnight of Ashadha. The return of the chariots takes place in the same order as in the rath yatra. Balabhadra chariot moves first, followed by those of Subhadra and Jagannath. On his way back, Jagannath stops for a while at Ardhasini temple, popularly called Mausi Ma temple of the temple of Aunt. He accepts from the aunt His favourite rice cake, Poda Pitha. The three chariots pulled by thousands of devotees, reach back the Simhadwara in the late afternoon of the Bahuda day and deities remain seated on their chariots.
On the next day the Bada Ekadasi, the three deities, are attired in costumes of glittering gold and are worshipped by thousands of devotees. This form of the deities is known as the famous Suna Vesa. On the Dwadasi day, the three deities go back to their original place, the Ratna simhasana, literally the jewelled platform, with the usual fanfare and the Pahandi style. Their arrival into the Sanctum sanctorum marks the end of the Ratha Yatra the grand festival of Chariot.
The three Chariots of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath are constructed each year with Sal wood, customarily brought from the ex-princely State of Dasapalla, by a specialist team of carpenters who have hereditary rights for this.
Lord Jagannath’s Chariot is called Nandighosha. It is forty-five feet square at the wheel level. It has sixteen wheels, each of seven feet diameter, and is decked with the red and yellow covering of cloth. The Chariot of Lord Balabhadra, called the Taladhwaja, has fourteen wheels, each of seven feet diameter, and is covered with red and blue cloth. Its height is forty-four feet.
The Chariot of Subhadra, known as Darpadalan is forty-three feet high with twelve wheels, each of seven feet diameter. This Chariot is decked with the coverings of red and black cloth. Around each of the Chariots are nine Parsvadevatas, the guardian deities, and four horses. Each chariot has a Charioteer called Sarathi. Matali, Daruka, and Arjuna are the three charioteers attached respectively to the three Chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra.
Carpenters who excel in woodcarving still produce these chariots for the car festival, and also carve ornate images of deities upon them. While on the other hand applique work can be seen during processions of the deities in their various ritual outings. Items like Chhati, Tarasa and Chandua are used for the purpose. However, the applique work in its colourful best is most prominent in the cloth cover of the three chariots of the presiding deities in which they travel every year during the Ratha Yatra.
As per tradition, the colour scheme of the three covers is predetermined. The chariot of Balabhadra known as Taladhawaja has a cloth covering of bright green and red colour, while that of Subhadra known as Padmadhwaja or Darpadalana has a cover of bright red and black.
The chariot of Lord Jagannath called Nandighosha has a cover of bright red and yellow. The basic design of all three is similarly being a combination of narrow and wide stripes while on the four sides above the openings, there are applique mythical motifs like Rahu, Chandra as well as motifs from nature like flowers etc. It is these colourful applique covers which identify the chariots of the three deities from far away by the millions of pilgrims thronging the Badadanda or the extra-wide main road of Puri in which the lords make their annual sojourn in the car festival.
Seats and pillows in applique are also made for ceremonial use by the deities during the annual ritual of bathing festival (Snana Jatra) and is locally known as ‘Chakada Kama’ with motifs of 27 stars and geometrical forms in applique work with motifs of fish, frog etc. on black cloth is used in the ritual dress of the Deities of Puri temple, locally known as the ‘Gaja Uddharana Vesha’, incarnation of Rescuer of Elephant. Applique cover is also made for caparisoning the dummy horses in the ‘Horse Dance’ or Ghoda Nacha during Chaitra Festival in Puri and other places.