Jagannatha Puri Rathayatra: A Front-row View

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A visitor witnesses the spectacle and the devotion of the famous ancient festival that's now reenacted around the world.

To watch the biggest religious festival in the world from the front row is a truly mind-blowing experience, especially knowing that this is God coming out to see His people. From dawn on the day of Rathayatra, thousands of people convene on Grand Road in Jagannatha Puri, Odisha, where huge chariots await the Lord's public appearance. It's something like Times Square on New Years Eve, plus two kilometers of road packed to the millimeter with people. Every year more than one million people assemble for Rathayatra in Puri. They patiently stand waiting in a gigantic, tightly packed crowd for five hours or more for the Lord to make His scheduled appearance at around 11:00 A.M.

I have a slight crowd-phobia, so a crowd of one million people definitely made me uncomfortable. Luckily, due to being with Krodhashamani Dasi, who is best friends with my wife, Braja Sevaki Dasi, and is a famous Iyengar yoga teacher, I was nowhere near the crowd. Krodhashamani knows a family of pandas (priests) who care for Jagannatha. They're descendants of the original Shabara tribe that worshiped the Lord long ago, before the temple was built. With Krodhashamani, I was watching the entire spectacle in a comfortable chair from a rooftop right next to the enormous chariots that sat waiting for the Lord and His brother and sister to come and take their seats.

The chariots are ten meters high, including the canopy, and move on eight huge wheels. I was amazed to hear that they are constructed from hardwood without a single nail—everything is assembled according to ancient prescriptions.

Lord Baladeva's "Walk"

The first to exit the temple is Lord Baladeva. His appearance is signaled by an ear-splitting noise produced by a hundred young priests banging gongs. They dance and beat their gongs—dam-da-da, dam-da-da—in a waltz rhythm. The noise is extraordinary. Above it, though, rises the huge roar from hundreds of thousands of people. It's something like the roar when a football team scores at London's Wembley stadium, intensified a hundred times.

Baladeva comes out surrounded by His devotees. Only the top part of Him is visible. He rocks and rolls as if intoxicated. Indeed, His huge white eyes and red pupils underlined by His ear-to-ear grin do make Him seem intoxicated.

And, mind you, I'm talking about a deity carved from a solid two-cubic-meter block of hardwood. He must weigh several hundred kilos. It is not easy to move Him along the ground as if He is walking.

From the temple entrance to the chariot is about thirty meters. The huge wheels put the floor of the chariot two meters above ground. A ramp has been built for Him to reach His seat atop the chariot—and what a scene it is to watch! Puri residents tell me that every year is different: Sometimes the Lord just whisks up and takes His seat; other times His devotees have to struggle for half an hour to get him up the five-meter-long ramp. Even though His devotees are apparently carrying Him, He moves completely according to His own will.

This year He was reluctant to get up on His chariot. The devotees carrying Him were sobbing in frustration as they struggled to rock and roll Him up the ramp. It's like walking up a forty-five-degree wooden plank with a woodblock of two hundred kilos. Because the dozen or more devotees carrying Him surround Him, His lower half is never visible. In the middle of their circle Baladeva rocks back and forth and to the sides as He moves along at an excruciatingly slow pace, foot by foot. This year it took the priests half an hour to get Him up the ramp to His throne on the chariot. I was simply in awe of their intense struggle.


The Gongs and the Roaring Crowd

All the time this is going on, the gongs continue their steady ear-splitting waltz and the crowds roar and cheer. Actually, it's not several crowds convening here and there, but one single crowd of a million people.

Another thing that struck me was the crowd control. The military had been called in. Elite troops in blue army fatigues lined the edge of the crowd. The officers in charge carried side arms, but the soldiers were armed with short, wooden batons, two thin pieces of wood strung together at the handle. They make a big slapping sound when they hit, like when you clap your hands, but they cause no damage.

When it came time to pull the chariots, the crowd surged forward to get to the hundred-meter-long pulling ropes. The soldiers beat on the heads of the surging crowd, making loud slapping sounds but hurting no one. It's like being tapped on the head with a roll of newspaper. But it kept the people at bay—and kept me laughing.

The crowd was so devoted. People stand patiently and wait for five hours for the Lord to come out so they can see Him. Many people told me they don't come to see the Lord; they come to be seen by the Lord. And, indeed, when Jagannatha looks at you with those huge round eyes and grinning mouth, it does some wonder to the heart. It is a kind of liberation.

Next to come out is Subhadra Devi. Ever the lady, she swiftly moves right up the ramp and takes Her seat on the chariot. She doesn't walk, but is carried on the heads of Her devotees quickly and efficiently.

Yoking the Horses

In the meantime the priests begin to attach four huge horses made from solid blocks of hardwood to Baladeva's chariot. The size of small ponies, these wooden horses struck me with wonder and incomprehension. They were carved and depicted in all their glory with raised hooves and colorful detail. To get them all tied to the front of Baladeva's chariot was a complex process I watched with interest. I was fascinated to behold the teams of devotees, numbering more than a hundred, milling around the chariot and making the awesome spectacle possible.

Now Jagannatha suddenly decided to appear. This year everything happened at a much slower pace than usual. It was nearly 2:00 P.M., and still He had not reached His chariot. When the Lord of the universe appears, the exultant crowd erupts in a tremendous roar of joy. The percussion group of a hundred devotees goes crazy on their gongs, beating them with intense vigor. Like His brother, Jagannatha moves at an excruciatingly slow pace, as if unwilling. It takes Him close to an hour to walk the fifty meters to get on His throne. The devotees handling the Lord are all descendants in families that have served Jagannatha for thousands of years. Each family is entrusted with a specific service for each deity.

The Procession Begins

Finally Their Lordships Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra have taken their seats on the chariots and the procession is about to begin. Now it's nearly four o'clock in the afternoon. Not till after 6:00 P.M. have They finally gone, traveling down Grand Road towards Gundicha Temple. They are drawn by the wooden horses and by thousands of people at the ropes. Jagannatha is drawn by black stallions, Baladeva by white, and Subhadra by four brown mares.

When the three chariots have been wheeled off, we climb down the stairs from our rooftop and head back to our hotels. We opted not to follow the mass of people who are going with Jagannatha down Grand Road for the two-kilometer procession to Gundicha. There the Lord will stay outside the temple the whole night to give His people an opportunity for His audience (darshana).

Deep Impressions

The next night, Krodhashamani and I go to Gundicha to see the Lord one last time before He enters the temple grounds, where He will stay for ten days before the return Rathayatra. When we arrive, we see queues of people reaching all the way back along Grand Road to the Jagannatha temple. They stand patiently and orderly for hours, waiting to climb the stairs onto the chariots to see Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra in person, up close.

Unlike these faithful bhaktas, we don't want to stand in a line for hours to see Lord Jagannatha. Instead we try to catch a glimpse of Him from the ground. It's quite impossible. A steady stream of people milling about close to the Lord blocks our vision.

When we stand in front of Baladeva's chariot, however, there is a tiny lull in the stream of people and Baladeva is looking at us with His ecstatic expression. The few seconds I am able to behold Baladeva on His chariot surrounded by His loving devotees makes an indescribably wonderful impression on my heart. We don't stay until the Lord enters Gundicha. We are too tired, and so we go back to our hotels. That night I feel myself enveloped in an ecstatic, comforting blanket of Lord Jagannatha. What a wonderful experience to see Krishna in Puri! Jaya Jagannatha!

About the Author: 

Jahnudvipa Dasa

Jahnudvipa Dasa, a disciple of Jayapataka Swami, joined ISKCON in 1982 in Copenhagen, where he spent five years as a brahmachari distributing Srila Prabhupada's books. After getting married, he served at Radio Krishna, a radio station in Copenhagen. He still does occasional service there.