The Rath Yatra or 'Car Festival' is celebrated just before the rains start and the season of pre-monsoon festivals comes to a close. Lakhs of devotees throng Puri in Orissa around June for the week-long celebrations.
The town of Puri has been famous for many centuries for its temple of Jagannath, the 'Lord of the Universe'. The word 'Juggernaut' is a distortion of the correct name of Lord Jagannath, which is one of the several names of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu. Together with him are worshipped his elder brother Balarama and their sister Subhadra. The Rath Yatra commemorates the journey of Lord Krishna from Gokul to Mathura when he went there to visit his mother's sister for seven days.
Nowadays the preparations for the yatra start several months in advance. The three rathas or chariots, one each for the two gods and their sister, are beautifully carved. The chariot of Lord Jagannath has 16 wheels, Balarama's has 14 wheels and Subhadra's has 12 wheels. These chariots are massive in size, rising to heights of 40 to 45 feet. They are painted in different colours—Lord Jagannath's is yellow, Subhadra's is painted with stripes of red, while Balarama's is blue. The chariots are gaily decorated with flowers, flags and festoons and the large canopies over them are made of applique work, which is the traditional craft of Orissa.
Seven days before the Rath Yatra day, which falls on the second day of the bright fortnight of Asadha (June-July), Lord Jagannath is said to have taken ill. The devotees pray and make offerings for a speedy recovery. After seven days the Lord gets well and is declared fit for his journey!
On the appointed day and at the auspicious time, the ruler of Puri sweeps the place near the chariots. After this ritual, the images are ceremoniously carried to the chariots and then the yatra begins. There is a mad scramble for the sacred ropes with which the chariots are pulled. Many fall and get hurt but they keep trying for a hold of the ropes, as pulling the Lord's chariot is considered a sacred duty and a meritorious deed.
The images of the temple of Puri are unconventional in that they are unfinished. According to legend, Vishvakarma, the divine architect, was requested to make the images by one of the kings of Orissa. Vishvakarma agreed to do so, provided that he was not disturbed until the work was completed. The king agreed and Vishvakarma locked himself in a room. Many days passed but Vishvakarma did not come out. Unable to restrain his curiosity, the king peeped into the room. Vishvakarma at once abandoned his work, leaving the images without hands or feet. The king regretted his folly and prayed for forgiveness. Brahma, the God of Creation, accepted his prayers and assured him that after installation the images would be respected and worshipped even though they remained incomplete. The pilgrims who come for the Rath Yatra, carry back with them brightly painted, but exact replicas of the incomplete images of Lord Jagannath, Balarama and Subhadra.
The Rath Yatra festival is nearly 800 years old, but it is as spectacular today as it was in the past. It is one of the grandest festivals of India and is famous all over the world.