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Here comes the juggernaut! Behind the scenes of Puri’s famous Rath Yatra festival

All eyes are on Jagannath at the annual Rath Yatra in Puri. But behind the festival is an army of sevaks, whose families have helped keep this temple tradition alive for generations

india Updated: Jul 17, 2018 15:56 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Rath Yatra,Puri,Jagannath
Bhois, the group of workers who do all the heavy lifting, fix the dwarbedha – an arched section on four sides of the chariot - on to Jagannath’s rath. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

“Come quickly. They are putting up the dwarbedha – an arched section on the sides – on Jagannath’s Rath,” calls out 66-year-old Purnachandra Mohapatra, as he watches a group of men haul up the heavy piece of woodwork. Faces taut with concentration, foreheads beaded with perspiration, they are part of an army of men working on the three massive wooden chariots that will carry lord Jagannath and his siblings, Balabhadra and Subhadra, for the annual Jagannath Rath Yatra or car festival in Puri, Odisha .

With roughly a fortnight left for the festival, the Grand Road in front of the Jagannath Temple is a site of frenzied activity. Logs and planks of wood lie everywhere. The wooden horses that will be attached to the chariots have received a fresh coat of paint. While new chariots are made every year, the wooden horses and charioteers for each rath and the smaller deities that adorn the chariots, are made once in approximately 12 years, when the wooden idols of Jagannath and his siblings that are worshipped in the temple are replaced with new ones. That ritual – referred to as Navakalebara or new-body ceremony – was last celebrated in 2015.

But when the chariots carrying Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra left the temple for the deities’ annual nine-day sojourn on Saturday, July 14, it was, as always, after months of hectic preparation that traditionally starts from Basant Panchami with the arrival of the first load of wood to the temple. “It begins with the temple administration writing to the state forest department for wood. Then, in April, the first co-ordination meeting is held between the district administration, the police and the temple administration. The festival draws devotees from across the world,” explains Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, chief temple administrator and principal secretary, school and mass education, government of Odisha. The construction of the chariots starts on Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious date in the Hindu calendar, roughly two months before the Rath Yatra.

The lore of Jagannath

In a book he wrote on the Jagannath Temple, former administrator and chief executive of the temple, Mahimohan Tripathy, refers to the legends and popular history associated with the deity. Jagannath (a form of Vishnu) he writes, is believed to have been originally worshipped as Neelmadhava by a tribal chief named Viswavasu in the Odisha region. Having heard about the deity, king Indradyumna (a central Indian emperor) sent a Brahmin priest, Vidyapati, to locate the deity. There is a long story about how he finally found and came to worship him. Tripathy writes that while legends claim that Indradyumna had constructed the first Jagannath temple and that it had collapsed with time, there is no historical evidence to support this. “The present temple was built in the 12th century AD by king Ananta Burman Chodaganga Dev. According to some scholars, Chodaganga started the construction of the temple, but it was completed during the time of his descendant Ananga Bhim Dev (III),” writes Tripathy. He adds, however, that there is still some debate as to who constructed the present temple. According to the temple website, “reliable materials in historical form are available from the 9th century AD when Sankaracarya visited Puri and founded the Govardhana Matha as the eastern dhama of India”.

The three raths of Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra, roughly a fortnight before the Rath Yatra. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

“The Rath Yatra festival is believed to be as old as the temple,” says temple public relations officer Laxmidhar Pujapanda. He adds: “During the yatra, Jagannath goes out of the temple to meet all his devotees. Though it is popularly said that Jagannath is going to visit his aunt, the chariots are actually taken to the Gundicha temple, approximately two-and-a-half kilometers away from the Jagannath temple. This is the place where Jagannath is said to have taken the form in which he is worshipped today. The chariots are stationed there for eight days, before returning on the ninth day.” The Gundicha temple is named after King Indradyumna’s wife, who is popularly believed to have initiated the Rath Yatra festival. Every year, a fortnight before the Rath Yatra, the Gundicha temple starts getting painted and decked up to welcome its annual guests, says an employee.

“But the Rath Yatra is more than a festival. There is an important social message here. People of all faiths join in pulling the raths. It is a great example of unity,” points out Puri-based scholar Dr Surendra Kumar Mishra. The fact that it is open to people of all faiths is significant, since non-Hindus are not allowed entry into the temple – former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not enter the temple during a visit because she was married to a Parsi.

Hindus only, please

A tablet near the temple entrance states that only “orthodox Hindus” are allowed entry into the temple. People of other faiths can view a replica of the idol of Jagannath placed near the main entrance to the temple. “It has been deliberated many times whether the temple should be opened to people of all faiths, especially because of the ISKCON followers (many of whom are foreigners who are not Hindu by birth). Maybe in the future…,” trails off Pradipta Kumar Mohaptra. He said this on July 3, before the Supreme Court (SC) asked the temple administration (on July 5) to consider whether people of all faiths may be allowed to enter the temple.

There was a time when Hindus belonging to scheduled castes and tribes were also not allowed into the temple, says Pujapanda.“This changed during the time of Gandhiji,” he adds. BR Ambedkar reportedly did not enter the temple during a visit in the 1940s, before the country’s independence. Ramkrishna Das Mahapatra, or Rajesh Daitapati as he is more commonly known, a senior temple servitor, however, says that even now priests at times stop lower castes devotees from offering puja.

A view of the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Apart from the sanctum sanctorum there are smaller shrines of many other deities inside the temple complex.

The temple has a history of high-handed and aggressive behaviour by priests, or pandas as they are locally known. The problem has been brought to the notice of the SC and reviews on travel sites alert tourists about possible exploitation. While Pradipta Mohapatra admits that in the past there have been a few complaints of harassment by pandas, he insists that the temple administration is committed to taking action against offenders and avoiding such situations. “CCTV cameras have been placed in many parts of the temple to ensure security for devotees,” he says.

Recently, there were news reports that President Ram Nath Kovind and his wife were allegedly harassed by temple servitors during their visit there. But Pradipta Mohapatra denies this vehemently. “The President’s visit was peaceful and successful. We have received no complaints from Rashtrapati Bhavan,” he claims.

As for caste bias, Pujapanda gives the example of temple servitors to indicate its absence in the temple. “There are 119 categories of sevaks and they are drawn from across castes,” he says. Interestingly, it seems that though Jagannath’s sevaks are from across castes, they offer services that are traditionally associated with their castes. As Surendra Kumar Mishra explains, “The puja and preparation of the lord’s bhog are offered by Brahmin servitors. But there are those from the barber community who show him the mirror, cleaners, those who play music…”.

An exception is the daitapati sevaks, who are the ones allowed to be with Jagannath for a 15-day period preceding the Rath Yatra when the deity is said to be unwell and is kept away public view. During this period, it is the ‘low caste’ daitas, along with one Brahmin sevak, who serve the deity. “The idols are made of wood. Through a series of rituals the daitapati sevaks repair any wear and tear in the idols,” explains Pujapanda. The daitapatis are also the ones who identify and go to bring the wood needed to build the new idols when it is time to replace the old ones.

Caste is, however, a sticky subject here. According to Mishra, the daitas are low caste and the patis are Brahmins and these are two different groups of servitors. In a book on the temple and its culture, Rajesh Daitapati also explains that while the daitas are descendants of the tribal Viswavasu, the patis are the descendents of the Brahmin Vidyapati.

Building the Raths

It seems lineage is adhered to not only within the temple, but even while constructing the raths. “There are seven groups of workers – the viswakarma or those who do the actual construction, the kartias or those who cut the wood, the bhois or those who carry the wood, the lohars or ironsmiths, the roopkars who do the artwork on the chariots, the chitrakars who paint them and the tailors. In total they number more than 200,” says Pujapanda, adding, “most of the workers, at least the leaders of each group, have been doing this for generations”.

Fifty-nine-year-old Bijaya Kumar Mohapatra is a singer and teaches music at a school. But for two months before the Rath Yatra, he stops all that to work as the chief viswakarma of Jagannath’s rath. His father held the post before him. “It is seva. My nephews will carry on the tradition, since I don’t have a son,” says Bijaya. Women are not allowed to participate in the construction of the raths. While Bijaya’s father and grandfather were full-time carpenters, for him it is work that he does only for these two months. It is the same story for most of the lead sevaks. The 15-year-old son of the chief roopkar for Jagannath’s rath, Rajendra, joins him after school to learn the work. There is no doubt in the minds of the sevaks that the next generation will carry on the tradition.

FESTIVAL FACTS
Three wooden chariots are built for the Puri car festival every year. A look at what it involves.
  • Jagannath’s rath, Nandighosh, is 45.5 ft high. It has 16 wheels and its roof is covered with red and yellow fabric.
  • Balabhadra’s rath, Taladhwaja, is 45 ft high. It has 14 wheels and its roof is covered with red and green cloth.
  • Devadalana, Subhadra’s rath, is 44.5ft high. It has 12 wheels and its roof is covered with red and black fabric.
  • Seven groups of people, numbering over 200, work for approximately two months to build the three raths. The construction of the raths begins on Akhshaya Tritiya.
  • ₹4.85 crore was the budget for last year’s Rath Yatra festival. This year the estimated budget is ₹6 crore.
  • Approximately 865 trees are felled every year for the wood to build the three chariots.
  • Four kinds of trees can be used to build the chariots. These are locally known as Asana, Dhaura, Simli and Phasi.
  • Traditionally, the wood for building the chariots is sourced from the Nayagrah and Khordah forest divisions. Devotees also donate trees to the temple for the chariots.
  • In the early 2000s, the state government started the Jagannath Bana Prakalpa, a project to plant the trees needed to build the raths, says the temple administration.
  • For the past few years, the temple administration has been selling the wheels of the raths after the yatra - mainly to corporate houses – for display and worship. Wood from the rest of the rath is used as fuel to cook Jagannath’s bhog.

It’s not the money. The daily earnings of the workers vary between ₹350-₹450, with the leaders earning a few rupees more than the others. “We don’t call it wages, it’s khorak, what we need to subsist for the day,” explains one. Most of them earn more the rest of the year. And it is heavy work, especially for the bhois. Accidents are common – from people being injured by pieces of wood falling on them to suffering serious cuts. The temple administration does pay for the treatments but a worker speaking on condition of anonymity says that the paperwork is often so lengthy that they end up paying for themselves.

On the day of the yatra, many of the sevaks who build the raths may have no role to play. “The bhois walk with the raths to help steer the chariots,” says Pujapanda. The bhoi leader, Rabi, recalls how one of his men had lost a leg when it came under the wheel of the rath. It is unclear how many of these sevaks can mount the rath to pay their respects to the deity from close quarters. They may have to worship him from a distance like other devotees.

The sevaks don’t seem to mind. “When we (the main sevaks whose names are on the temple records) die, fire from the akhanda jyoti that burns before the mahabprabhu will be brought to light our funeral pyres,” says Purnachandra, eyes bright with the hope of reward in the other world. He is the chief roopkar of one of the raths. Of course, there are benefits in this world too. As with most religious organisations and places of worship, the association with the temple does bring with it a certain social prestige among peers, which an enterprising few may even be able to convert into more material rewards.

First Published: Jul 14, 2018 18:18 IST