In the four quarters of India there are four important temples collectively known as "CHARDHAM" (four abodes). They are BADRINATH in the North, where the Lord is worshipped as Bardrinarayana; PURI in the East, where He is worshipped as Jagannath Mahaprabhu, Lord of the Universe; DWARAKA in the West where He is worshipped as Lord Krishna; and RAMESWARAM in the South where He is worshipped as Lord Shiva.
The marvelous sea town of Puri on the Bay of Bengal in the state of Orissa, in India is well known as the land or abode of Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu.
The Aagamas describe a number of festivals such as Rathotsava (Ratha-Yatra). Brahamotosava is another important festival of the temple conducted annually. This festival is believed to be conducted by Lord Brahma himself in honor of the presiding deity of the temple. Ratha Yatra generally marks the climax of the Brahmotsava. In this festival the deity is taken around the town in the beautifully decorated chariot of the temple. The chariot is drawn by the devotees to the accompaniment of divine music and vedic chanting. The world famous Ratha Yatra of Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu at Puri is the most spectacular event which attracts devotees from all parts of the world. The chariot represents the Mount Meru and the ropes, the serpent Vasuki,that symbolizes the Universe and the Cosmos. The Ratha Yatra at Puri is observed on the second day of the bright fortnight of Aashaada (June-July) month each year. Ratha Yatra is more than a thousand year old in tradition.
Planning and preparation for the festival starts many months earlier. Every year three new chariots are constructed.
Currently, 92 carpenters, 81 helpers, 22 black smiths, 22 painters are engaged in the construction of the chariots. 1200 meters of green, red, black and yellow cloth is used in this artful work to cover the chariots (Ratna Mandaani). 250 feet of coir rope cable is employed to pull the chariot along the 3 km road. The chariot is 12 meters high with 16 wheels of 2 metre diameter each. Balabhadra's chariot has Taala-dwaja; emblem of Taala flower, Subhadra's chariot bears the emblem of Devadaana or Padma-dwaja, emblem of the lotus; Jagannath Mahaprabhu's chariot carries the emblem of Nandighosh also known as Kapi-dwaja. Thousands of devotees draw/pull the chariots.
The most prevalent ancient story about the construction of the temple of Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu at Puri runs as follows: King Indradyumna, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu was searching for a good carpenter to make the idols of the deities. No suitableperson was found, but at last an old carpenter came forward to make the deities. He put forth several stipulations to work; no one was to see him at work; no one was to disturb him; he was to be locked up inside a large room without any windows for 21 days. King Indradyumna agreed to all the conditions and the work commenced on an auspicious day. The Queen Gundicha, also a devotee of Lord Vishnu, was listening to sounds of constructions daily. When one day she did not hear any sound from inside the sealed room, she became anxious, since no provision for food was made for the old carpenter. She prevailed on the king to check on the old man, to make sure he was all right. Heeding to her request he ordered the doors to be opened prematurely. When the doors were opened, to everybody's surprise, the carpenter had disappeared, deserting the partially sculpted idols, although there was no exit from the chamber.
According to our Shastras (Vedas and Upanishads), the creator is not separate from the created. The Lord himself manifested as the carpenter, craved the idols and merged with the idols when the doors were open. This supports the Shastras, as the created and the creator are the same. Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu is none other than the Para-brahman. The symbolism of the ultimate Para-brahman is very much incorporated in the idol of Jagannath Mahaprabhu. Nobody knew how to perform the Prana-Pratishta of the Lord Para-brahman. King Indradyumna along with sage Naarada traveled to Brahma-Lokha and requested Lord Brahma to guide him in doing the Praana-Pratihsta.
Lord Brahma graced the occasion of this auspicious inception. Another popular legend runs as follows: King Indradyumna, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu wanted to build a temple for the Lord of the Universe, Jagannath Mahaprabhu, as the story goes. The king asks Viswakarma, the architect of the celestial gods, to create these idols. Viswakarma agrees to carve the idols on condition the no one see him work. However the anxious king goes to see the sculptor at work, and this enrages Vishwakarma, who leaves the work half completed, and thus the idols were left with no hands or feet. No amount of apology or begging by the king changes Vishwakarma's adamant decision. Finally Lord Brahma came to the king's rescue and brought life into these idols, which are worshipped to this day as Lord Jagaanath, Balabhadra and Subhadra.
The year 1996 was a special year for the Ratha Yatra; the three idols of Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu, Balabhadra and Subhadra were newly sculptured. This event is called "Nabakalebar" or the symbolic ascent and decent of Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu, which is held every 12 to 19 years. The new idols are made from seasoned wood of selected neem trees.
Silpa Sastra covers the arts of sculpture, iconography and temple building. The images of Gods are generally made of stone, wood, clay or metal. In order for a silpi (sculptor) to bring an image to life, he not only requires great talent and skill but the material of finest quality. From ancient times, Hindus have worshipped plants and trees and regarded flora and fauna as sacred. Neem has also great medicinal values and is least decaying. Prior to starting any renovation work, during the Jeernoddharana, the divine presence of the Murtis (Vigrahas) must be transfered to the holy waters contained in the Kumbhas (kalasaas), if the repair work lasts less than a month. Aagama sastras recommend wood carved figures as transfer media for the divine powers, in place of Kalasaas, if the repair work lasts for a longer period of a year or more. Kalasa and the carved image remain in a miniature temple structure known as a Baalaalaya.
Traditionally, Puri Temple, at Jagannath Mahaprabhu has chosen wood as the choice material for the deities, in place of the popular stone or metal. Perhaps this is how the ancient arts of wood carving and painting are traditionally preserved in Orissa, which was started by the Lord Himself, and Viswakarma, in creating artistic divine idols in accordance with Silpa sastra.
On Ratha Yatra day, after the completion of all the rituals for the Lords, both in the temple and on the chariots, Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu, Balabhadra and Subhadra and Sudarshan are taken out from the "Rathnavedi" of the magnificent main temple in a ceremonial procession called "Pahandi Bije". They are placed in their respective gigantic rathas, standing in front of the temple. Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu and Balabhadra have separate chariots.
Goddess Subhadra and Sudharshan are placed in one chariot in the middle. On the occasion of the car festival day, when the Lord is taken ceremoniously to his seat on the chariot, any human being of any caste, creed or religion can go to the Lord, stand very close to him, embrace and offer worship to one's heart content. The Raja of Puri called Gajapati Maharaja, is the head of the temple management. The Maharaja of Puri is brought to the chariots, to perform the duties of a sweeper. He holds in his hand a golden broom to sweep the ground around the deities. This is called "Chera Pohara". Thus the Ratha Yatra preaches the gospel that in the eyes of the Lord, all human beings are equal, irrespective of their social status.
Lord Sri Jagannath Mahaprabhu moves in the joyous company of his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra who also share with him the gem throne (Ratna Simhasana) in the sanctum sanctorum of the main temple. Traditionally the chariot of Balabharda moves first, the chariot of Subhadra and Sudharshan follow and the chariot of Jagannath Mahaprabhu moves last. Thousands of devotees hold the 250feet of the holy coir-cable and pull the chariot along the 3 kilometers grand road to Sri Gundicha Mandir. Here the deities are rested for seven days and are carried back to the main temple.
The act of pulling the chariot, however insignificant ones contribution is, said to confer great merit, thus the faithfuls turn out in thousands seeking salvation. It is a festival of joy that dispels sorrow and melancholy from life. It is divine joy out of which the universe was created. Even as the ocean receives into itself all the river waters flowing into it, so should a man receive into his inner being all the so-called "eternal" joys and mix them with the ocean of "Aananda" (joy), which is Himself. Any joy that comes out from outside must become one with the self as plenary "Aananda", joy. When that consciousness dawns, the little joys of the world will not require to be sought after, which will soon be only a fraction of the universal bliss, one always enjoys. Eternal joy sustains, joy within, the joy to be one with the Self and the Supreme. This is the message of this magnificent festival, Ratha Yatra.
Ratha Yatra is also held in the other parts of India. In the South the famous temple of Sri Rangam and Tiruvarur have similar car festivals at other times of the year. In fact almost all temples have a Ratha Yatra on a smaller scale, Puri being reputed for the grandest of them all. In Tiruvaarur, the Deity Thyagaraja is taken in procession around the temple, and invariably when the chariot gets stuck on the road, it would take many days for the chariot to be drawn back to the temple.
Chariots used to be pulled by the devotees, but in the recent past, motor driven chariots and rubber tires enable the smooth travel of these huge structures.
Ratha Yatra has also become a celebration in North American temples of which Sri Ganesha Temple of Nashville is one. It is an annual celebration held usually around the June-July. A picturesque Ratha has been imported from India for this purpose. Many devotees come to Nashville from far and near to partake in these festivities. On Ratha Yatra day, after prescribed rituals, deities are taken in ceremonious procession by the devotees, to the accompaniment of music and mantra chanting. The Ratha is pulled by several devotees to Gundicha and deities return back to the main temple after nine days. Speakers from India are invited to speak on Jagannath Mahaprabhu philosophy at this time. Bhajans, music and Orissa dance performances mark the special occasion. People share the prasad offered to Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu and enjoy the dinner at the temple.
Our Sastras say that once you see Lord Jagannath Mahaprabhu with devotion on the Ratha, you will be liberated from repeated cycles of birth and death and attain Moksha or salvation. Kathopanishad describes the life of a human being as a journey. Any journey has a destination to reach. The destination is the goal of the journey. The aim of life is to reach that goal, and that goal is limitless and full. All the equipment to carry on this trip has been provided to man. Man's chariot is his body; the horses are the sense organs; the reins are the mind; which control the sense organs. The charioteer is in the form of the intellect. With the help of this chariot, everybody is constantly traveling in life reaching different places, attaining different goals.
The journey of life is fulfilled only when one reaches that desired goal. So one must understand the ultimate goal, the desired end of life to be achieved. When the goal is clear and kept in view, the journey will be directed and followed appropriately and the goal can be achieved. The goal of life to be achieved is called Saadhya. The means by which the Saadhya is achieved is called Saadhana (spiritual pursuits). The person trying to reach a desired goal is called Saadhaka. At the beginning, the Saadhaka is a seeker. When the goal is achieved, the seeker becomes Siddha. When the seeker accomplishes the desired end, he or she is no more a seeker. The person becomes Siddha Purusha.
Yatra means journey. Ratha is the Gnani's, body, mind, sense complex, provided to complete the journey to reach the desired goal in view, that is to reach the desired end. Only then is the journey complete. When the goal is not clear, the journey is misdirected. One will be wandering everywhere without reaching the ultimate goal.
It may be of interest to note that the English word 'Juggernaut' meaning a large heavy truck or an object that crushes whatever is in its path (symbolically all egos) actually came from the name 'JAGANNATH MAHAPRABHU" and the event of the huge car procession in Puri in Orissa. Contributions by Dr. M. Satpathy , Mr. N. R. Srinivasan