Religious fervour is sweeping Odisha as the temple town of Puri gears up to host an estimated 3-5 million pilgrims in a few days from now for the century's first Nabakalebara Ratha Yatra.
For some two years, Odisha had been gearing up for the most important festival in the local religious calendar that happens once in every 12 or 19 years. Nabakalebara involves the renewal of the wooden idols of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra.
The actual ritual began in May with groups of servitors going out far and wide to search for ideal neem trees to carve out the idols.
Thousands lined the streets as the fallen tree trunks were brought back to Puri in chariots. Once the new idols were carved out, an elaborate ritual of transferring the "celestial souls" from the old to new idols began.
The idols are being kept in a secret room for now. But devotees will get a chance to see them during this year's Ratha Yatra beginning July 18, adding to the significance of an yearly spectacle that normally attracts half a million pilgrims.
To live up to the special occasion, the government had earmarked about Rs 2000 crore for infrastructure development - ranging from laying new roads and rail lines to providing free wi-fi.
Like everything else, a few controversies have plagued the run-up to the event. But nothing yet has dampened the collective excitement.
Nabakalebara is the most important festival in Odisha's festival calendar and takes place once every 12 or 19 years in the temple town of Puri for renewing the wooden idols of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
An elaborate process is followed to identify the "daru" or sacred neem trees from which the news idols would be carved out. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
Thousands waited by the roadside to have a glimpse of the sacred wood as they made their way to Puri. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
This year, the neem tree for carving the idol of Lord Jagannath was found in a village of Jagatsinghpur district. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
With local TV channels giving 24/7 coverage, the first televised Nabakalebara drew huge crowds. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
Bada Danda (Grand Road) in Puri was chock-a-block as the sacred wood of Lord Jagannath made its way to the temple. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
At places along the route of the sacred trees' journey to Puri, devotees waited for hours to catch a glimpse of the procession. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
The servitors went out on bullock carts in search for the sacred wood. Once the new idols are carved out, the "souls" were transferred to the new ones. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
Odisha hopes to cash in on the Nabakalebara fever to attract tourists. Famous sculptor Sudarshan Patnaik is working his magic on the Puri beach to add to the attractions. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
The sacred wood being taken inside the Puri temple. The turnout has been unprecedented so far. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
A discordant note was struck by allegations of slip-ups in some rituals and links between ruling politicians and powerful servitors. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
Odisha observed a day's shut down as tempers frayed and politics threatened to overshadow the holy event. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
It is back to business now, however, with the authorities frantically seeking to spruce up Puri and finish infrastructure projects. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
Work is also on to finish the famous chariots that would roll out in full splendor in a few days from now. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)