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Published: July 17th 2010
100s of carpenters from a special caste are employed for months leading up to the festival to prepare the chariots to age-old detailed plans
In a moment of perhaps sheer madness (but you have to be in it if you want to experience the weird and wonderful), I decided that I should attend the Ratha Jatra in Puri. Living in Bhubaneshwar - just 40 or so kilometers away, gave me little excuse than to go to this famous event.
Ratha Jatra, the Festival of Chariots of Lord Jagannatha is celebrated every year in this temple town in Orissa, on the east coast of India. The presiding deities of the main temple, Sri Mandira, Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, with the celestial wheel Sudarshana are taken out from the main temple precincts in an elaborate ritual procession to their respective chariots.
Hindus travel to Puri for this festival from all over India to participate in the cacophony of music and percussion. Stories abound from ancient times, about some fanatics throwing themselves under the massive wheels of the chariots to die a death in hope of attainment of eternal bliss.
The chariots are built anew each year for the event - a task that takes months in advance with hundreds of skilled wood workers making the elaborate (and huge - 15 metres
Big wheel of fortune!
Moi holding up a wheel!! I think 16 of these per card (x3) with axles the size of telegraph poles
high) structures from specially grown forest timber. The building follows rigid specifications laid down in the temple's ancient manuals. The huge, colourfully decorated chariots, are drawn by hundreds and thousands of devotees on the Bada Danda, the grand avenue to the Gundicha temple, some two miles away to the North. There they go to visit Lord Jagannatha’s aunt at a garden house. After a stay for seven days, the deities return to their abode in Srimandira.
After the festival, the chariots are broken and bits are used for firewood in the kitchens (every day in Puri, Brahmins prepare huge pots of food for visiting pilgrims) or sold to pilgrims as relics.
The entire city of Puri is caught up with dances in sync with mesmeric devotional song, and people claim that diseases vanish just by the touch of the ropes of the huge chariots, and that all their troubles end at the mere sight of the dark elusive god.
For believers this is the most sacred festival of the year.
Jagannath is believed to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu, who is the Lord of Puri. Many believe that the custom of placing idols on grand
chariots and pulling them is of Buddhist origin. Fa Hien, the Chinese historian, who visited India in the 5th century AD, had written about the chariot of Buddha being pulled along public roads. History has it that when the British first observed the Rath Yatra in the 18th century, they were so amazed that they sent home shocking descriptions which gave rise to the term 'juggernaut', meaning "destructive force". This connotation may have originated from the occasional but accidental death of some devotees under the chariot wheels caused by the crowd and commotion.
What is absolutely amazing to me is that in the stampede that occurred when the wooden chariots carrying the presiding deities of the 12th century shrine were moving past the royal palace, only one person (a 65 year old woman) was killed and 3 others were injured.
Some of the points of personal interest were:
1. The constant stream of ambulances cutting through the crowd - often at the risk of running people over to save the person inside!
2. The mane ‘first aid Camps’ with of course their mandatory “banner” to make the occasion. Kate (my Aussie friend) and I got herded into
Painting by James Ferguson from British Raj days of the Puri Car festival
one (as token foreigners) to have a picture taken (in front of their banner) and another one taken with a visiting Haryana Minister (looking so typically the Indian VIP politician).
3. Kate and I also got invited to give an interview for a Singapore based TV program - which we did with due aplomb.
4. The shocking (but par for the course) way many sad Indian men cannot help themselves (well they can of course the bastards) from taking the opportunity to grope a foreign woman in a crowd. My 4 female colleagues all experienced this - from rampant breast squeezing to anal fingering. Not nice!
5. The way various groups danced in formation down the main street prior to the main event - to me it resembled (specially the topless Hare Krishna men doing very practiced dance steps) the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras - would have fit easily into that event (sweaty mean bearing their chests and dancing wildly about).
6. Being able to stop for a sucking mango experience (see blog on Mangoes!!).
7. Being persuaded by the addicted Kate to eat Kulfi at every opportunity (Kulfi being a spiced traditional
Kate and a newfound friend prior to the stampede when things were pretty casual still
ice cream type of thing but more yummy than ice cream).
8. The way Annmarie (another colleague) successfully gained free access to a balcony (far from the maddening crowd) to have a prime view of the chariots - this on the basis of her argument about being a volunteer here to assist India. Well done there Annmarie.
9. The way that when the chariots did pass - the crowds of Brahmins aboard were waving merrily again reminiscent of a Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras float (actually strike out “Lesbian” because this whole thing was so male dominated - and certainly I saw NO women on the chariots).
10. The peculiar and bloody dangerous practice of those same Brahmins throwing half coconuts out to the crowd - Lucy, another colleague, was struck on the head by one and it could have been bloody ugly. These things are like cricket balls only with sharp edges!!!
11. The typical way that when you asked locals about what time the chariots were gonna roll - you got many conflicting answers. We were there before 9am. So the answers were: 9 am; 11 am; 12 am; and 2 pm. Actually they
there were a number of these 'mini' chariots - some very devotional I am sure but there was a spot of business planning by some of these young guys - as Hindus placed money on the small chariot in return for a supposed blessing from Lord Jagganath
did start rolling at 2 pm but it was dark before all three had reached the destination which is only a klm or two up the road.
12. The conjurer we came across (street entertainment) who called upon Lord Jagganath to enable his assistance to have a huge knife plunged through his throat (under a cloth of course) and be able to get up and walk around before having it removed again (under a cloth). Very good trick - and quite realistic effects (now was that plain tomato sauce or chilli sauce?).
13. Not so humorous - the way Kate and I nearly got trampled to death during the stampede when the first chariot resumed movement quite early in the piece. It’s amazing to witness the way an otherwise ecstatic crowd enjoying a day out can turn nasty in no time at all. Later we were in a side alley (strategy being to be out of the main mayhem and further stampedes) - but that lane also turned ugly spontaneously it seemed when bottlenecks formed without warning. We both truly felt that we were going to sustain serious injury being crushed against the wall. I kid you not.
How to pass the time in between Chariots
This scene included Police rough-handling people to get them to move and one poor young woman distraught having had her gold necklace ripped off her by an opportunistic thief in the crowd.
All in all a FULL on day - VERY tired at the end having been on my feet from 8.30 am to about 5 or 6 pm. But worth the experience ALTHOUGH not that keen to repeat the risk of death.
My friend Bijoy (who grew up near Puri and spent 7 years doing his PhD at Cornell in the USA which he claims drove him crazy because of all the order and neatness in that country) says in relation to the mayhem of the festival (and this is his general philosophy): “with chaos, everything is still rolling, no?”
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