Everything You Need to Know About Lord Jagannath And The Sacred Rath Yatra of Puri

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.

Jagannath-Puri

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.


ORIGIN


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.

Lord-jagannath
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.

Jagannath-puri-temple

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.

FESTIVALS


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-puri
Rath Yatra at Puri

Snana Yatra- The snana Yatra is another major festival celebrated during the Hindu calendar month of Jyestha. Before the three deities begin the rath yatra, they are carried out of the sanctum and placed in another mandap located within the temple compound. Here, the three deities are bathed with more than 100 containers of water and then dressed in fine fabric. For two weeks after the bath and festivities, the temple remains closed to the devotees because it is believed that the deities have caught cold due to the intense bath ritual. Both, the snana yatra and the rath yatra are integral aspects of the Nobo Koliboro which is believed to be an occasion marking the rebirth of Lord Jagannath.


Other festivals celebrated in honour of Lord Jagannath include Sayana Ekadashi, Dakshinayana Yatra, Uttarayana Yatra, Dola Yatra, Chandan Yatra and a few others. These festivals are celebrated in different months of the year, usually depending on the solstice, seasons and lunar calendar.


HISTORICAL ATTACKS AND CONTROVERSY


Due to its significant position in the Hindu pilgrimage, the Jagannath temple at Puri has been a site of repeated attack and looting. The temple has been invaded as many as seventeen-eighteen times since its establishment. The first attack took place in 1340 by the Sultan of Bengal. Even though many people were killed and injured in the incident, the idols could not be stolen or vandalized. Successive attacks were made by other Muslim sultans and rulers such as Feroze Shah Tughlaq, Ismail Ghazi, Mirza Khurram and Sulamain. Mughal rulers such as Jahangir and Shah Jahan also plundered the temple. Due to its sacred status and plundering by mainly Muslim rulers, the temple has been a site for religious/ communalist tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

Rath-yatra-history