International Car Festival – The Rath Yatra 

Written by Silpi Patnaik

Gargantuan wheels, wooden mobile stairs, exorbitant velvets and a choking amount of crowd amounts to the international Car Festival of The Trinity God, Lord Jagannath Balabhadra and Subhadra.  Fondly called as The Rath Yatra, this festival is held every year in Jagannath Dham, Puri, India. Come June and the air turns holy in Puri, spreading the breeze of holiness all over the world. Whether it is London or New York or any other small remote town in India, people across the globe try and celebrate the festival in whatsoever way possible. Iskcon News puts it very rightly, “Devotees believe that if they get the honor of pulling the ropes of the giant chariot carrying Lord Krishna, known as Jagannatha- Lord of the Universe, then at the end of this life, they will be granted eternal service to the Lord in the spiritual world.” It is precisely the spiritual need for redemption/Nirvana that drives people to participate in the Yatra and get a chance to physically touch the Lord of the Universe. 

Rath Yatra- How and Why 

The most revered Hindu deities, Lord Jagannath, Balabhdra and Devi Subhadra stay in the safe, guarded and controlled premises of their temple throughout.  There are zillions of people who crave for one single look of the Lord of the Universe, be in physical proximity to them and experience the powerful spiritual force that they generate. It is to fulfill this deep-seated spiritual need of people that the deities step out on their chariots and spare generous glances to the world.   

The Rath Yatra is indeed very elaborate. The chariots for the Gods are newly constructed every year with wood collected from a particular kind of Neem tree. The preparation for the 45 feet high Ratha/chariots begins couple of months in advance of the actual festival. On the day of Rath Yatra i.e. held annually on the second day of shukla pakhya (waxing cycle of moon) of Ashadha Maasa (3rd month in Lunar Calender), the three deities are brought out of their chambers and taken to their respective chariots in a grand procession called ‘Pahandi’. The deities go up into their chariots which are pulled by throngs of devotees waiting to be delighted by one glimpse of the Lords. The deities are taken from the main shrine to the Gundicha temple, their maternal uncle’s place, where they sojourn for nine days. This bracket of a week and two days is a phase of immense joy and festivity for the society in large.  It is the much-awaited grand carnival time when the streets of Puri get jampacked with hawkers selling unique things starting from pangolin-made jewellery to spun-sugar cotton candies and everything in between.  It is indeed the most hot, humid and happening time of the year.  

The Rath Yatra marks its end on the ninth day, the Bahuda Yatra or the return Car Festival. The devotees pull the three chariots back to the main shrine and the deities return to their home temple in similar grandeur and procession. The return journey is immediately followed by The Suna Besha (Golden Dress) when the deities get clothed in pure gold ornaments from head to toe right on their chariots. People consider this as a rare sight and make it a point never to miss the occasion. Finally, the devotees are carried inside the shrine, to the Ratna Simhasana (The Golden Throne) which is known as Niladri Bije. The deities resume their regular routine in the temple and so does the world outside.  

Rath Yatra 2020: Despite the Global Pandemic 

Since the international Car Festival in Puri pulls enormous amount of people for the grand celebration, 2020 Rath Yatra was initially withheld owing to the Corona pandemic. This temporary decision of breaking the age-old tradition created humongous amount of chatter around the subject. Devotees were heartbroken and the world considered this to be a sign of evil omen. Jagannath Temple authorities did toil hard to build the chariots and do the necessary preparations. After a series of discussions and cogitations the Supreme Court of India flew a green flag and ordered to conduct the event only amongst core people –“Sevayats”- of the temple. Gathering was banned, and general public was restricted from attending the event. Contrary to the usual scenario,  Rath Yatra 2020 happened in the most silent manner possible. Devotees miserably wanted to go close to the Lord of the Universe, but had to settle with getting his divine glimpse in their televisions through the live telecast sessions.  

A difficult time like 2020 definitely taught people across the globe that God lives deep inside our beings. It is probably because of this that we always close our eyes while praying to the Almighty. Staunch and die-hard devotees of Lord Jagannath stayed back home, carved their own little chariots, offered their prayers in their personal premises and got the most sought-after glimpse of the Lord deep in their souls when they closed their eyes.