This year, the Rath Yatra will commence in Odisha on the 12th of July. Before you head on to attend the grand festivity, read about the significance of the festival and the deity it is associated with.
WHO IS LORD JAGANNATH?
Lord Jagannath is a Hindu deity whose name roughly translates to “Lord of the world”. He is celebrated and revered across India as the ninth avatar of Lord Vishnu. He is a particularly important deity in the North-eastern part of the country, mainly in Odisha and West Bengal.
Considered an incarnation of Vishnu, Lord Jagannath is known to be a compassionate, benevolent, kind, and empathetic deity. In fact, he is often painted in the same dark blue/black colour as Vishnu and his other avatar, Krishna. However, Lord Jagannath does not have hands, legs and ears. This representation stems from the belief that Lord Jagannath is omnipresent and can experience reality everywhere without having to be necessarily present in a tangible form.
There are quite a few mythological tales associated with Lord Jagannath’s origins. Even though the accuracy of each account can be disputed, each tale presents a refreshing perspective on Lord Jagganath and speaks volumes about his popularity amongst devotional masses.
Devout Hindus as well as Indian writers and poets (Sarala Das, Jagannath Das and Balaram Das), claim that Lord Jagannath finds mention in the Puranas and other sacred Hindu scriptures. He is described as an eternal incarnation of Lord Vishnu who has been present since ancient times. However, other sources claim that Lord Jagannath is a tribal deity who was later accepted as a Hindu God.
The Savara tribe, which occupies parts of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, worshipped a deity akin to Lord Jagannath. Like his sculpture which lacks limbs, Savaras too prayed to a khamba (pillar)- shaped wooden deity. This deity later evolved into Lord Jagannath who has become one of the most revered Gods in Hindu mythology.
Image by Krupasindhu Muduli
Another story claims that Lord Jagannath emanated from the dead body of Lord Krishna. After his death, Lord Krishna’s body looked like a dead log and was subsequently identified and picked up by a nomadic community. The aborigines built a shrine for the wooden body and began praying to him as Lord Jagnnath.
SHREE JAGANNATH TEMPLE, PURI
The Jagannath temple at Puri in Odisha is one of the biggest shrines dedicated to Lord Jagannath and is an integral part of the Char Dham pilgrimage journey. The temple was constructed by King Ananta Varman Chodaganga Deva in the twelfth century. It houses three deities- Lord Jagannath, his sister, Subhadra, and brother, Balabhadra. Instead of worshipping this avatar of Vishnu with his spouse, the temple at Puri is unique because it is the only shrine dedicated to worshipping Vishnu with his siblings. While Lord Jagannath is painted black, the other deities are coloured in lighter shades. Another interesting feature, all deities are made out of wood, not metal.
The temple has four entrance gates and a sudarshan chakra mounted atop its main structure. It is claimed that a certain supernatural force occupies the temple that defies scientific logic. For instance, the flags placed on top of the temple always flow in the opposite direction of the wind and the temple virtually casts no shadow at any given time of the day. While it is difficult to ascertain whether these claims are merely hearsay or fact, devotees of the Lord believe that these incidents reflect the sacred power of Lord Jagannath.
Rath Yatra- Approximately a dozen festivals are celebrated in honour of Lord Jagannath in Puri. The most popular and significant one is the Rath Yatra which takes place once every year in June and July (in the Hindu calendar month of Jyestha with two full moon days). During this festival, the idols of Lord Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra are placed on three separate exquisite chariots and carried to the Gundicha Temple which is located a few kilometres away from Jagannath Temple. The journey of the three idols is celebrated and masses of devotees gather to pay their respects to the deities and accompany them on their journey. This journey is viewed as Lord Jagannath’s visit to his maternal aunt and a brief sojourn at his home. On the ninth day of the festival, which is marked by Niladri Bije, the three deities return to their sanctum in Puri.
Rath Yatra at Puri