Lore of the Ratha Jatra


Odisha is a land with an ancient linkage to the sub-continent’s protohistory, contrary to popular belief the Odia language has many loan words from Persian, Arabic, Prakrit, Pali, Greek and from various dialects of the myriad indigenous people who have inhabited this land. This clearly shows that Odisha has always been at cross roads of civilisation. A maritime power with a strong land army to match Odisha or Kalinga’s influence on South Asia is beyond doubt indelible. But what binds these people? Numerous Temples of Lord Jagannath and mysterious idols are spread across maritime route through sailors and travelers who had visited Puri. There have been claims about this God, which some say was found in a cave or as some scholars speculate could be a Jain Tirthankara or as some suggest a part of Krishna’s unburnt body. Coupled along this, were stories of how the three deities came out to meet their devotees annually in a grand Ratha or what we call as the ‘Car Festival’. No fancy Cadillacs’ here folks. The Ratha is all wood and clothing- an example of the level of skill that these craftsmans had in the past.

The city of Puri is a seaside town where millions of people visit annually and is also a ‘Dham’ in the Hindu religion. The city boasts of the largest temple of the Jagannath cult and is the seat of ‘Lord Jagannath’ literally translated as Lord of the Universe. If you are as inquisitive as we at Coffee Bytes are, there is a treasure trove of material to research on the internet about the temple and the deities. Especially, the visual history of the Ratha Jatra. From early paintings made by Officers of the British East India Company or rare film footage from the early twenties of the Ratha Jatra. One can find many beautiful images, films and photographs of how the Ratha Jatra has evolved. That, kind of gives us the idea for our next year’s article on the Ratha Jatra. If you think that a ‘Visual History of Ratha Jatra’ would be a great feature then visit our website at www.coffeebytesindia.com and leave us a message.

Ok, back to what we were talking about- Yes, its true one of the most iconic rituals of Jagannath Cult is the annual car festival or popularly called as the ‘Ratha Jatra.’ It’s a mesmerizing sight to view a sea of humanity all eager to get the glimpse of the Lord of the Universe. Today the Ratha Jatra is no longer confined to Puri but is celebrated all across the world in various cities in the West just like in Puri.

Ratha Jatra is the annual sojourn of the three deities of Puri to their aunt’s home to the end of the road at the Gundicha Temple. The journey attracts lakhs of people from all across the world to Puri.

The Ratha Jatra, for anyone with a likeness towards history is a snap shot into the multi-cultural Odia people and their customs. Since Lord Jagannath has a strong linkage (if not origins) with tribal cultures it gives us an insight into the various tribal customs that have also gone into the formation of this mosaic of the Jagannath cult. So if you travel to various parts of the state during the Ratha Jatra you would get a glimpse of a slightly changed but intrinsically same version of the Ratha Jatra.

One such example is Keonjhar, which has a very interesting claim to fame being, the tallest Ratha, in the entire state even taller than the Puri, Jagannath Ratha Jatra. At 74 feet, the Ratha is a top draw for lakhs of people across Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Angul, Dhenkanal districts and not to mention the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. The uniqueness of Keonjhar is, prominence is given to Lord Balabhadra as the reigning deity of ‘Khetra.’

The roots of the cult of Jagannath in Keonjhar also has a really cool origin story adding to the many lores of Ratha Jatra. As the legend goes King Laxminarayan Bhanjdeo had a dream where he saw an idol Shree Baladevjew (an incarnation of Lord Balabhadra) lying on the banks of the Baitarini river near Bancha village in Anandapur block which was later installed in a temple constructed for the idol in 1671 AD. The rulers also built a temple where the idol was found, called the Dadhibaman temple where the triad are still worshipped as one deity. Interesting isn’t it? Well there’s more.

The Keonjhar Ratha Jatra has a huge participation by the Juanga and Bhuyan tribal leaders who take care of the various rituals of Lord Baladev and the other deities. Interestingly the three deities are placed on a single Chariot.

“Tribals play a major role in the entire Ratha Jatra of Keonjhar. The Juanga & Bhuyan chieftains who visit the King of Keonjhargarh during the Ratha Jatra from various villages which are also known as ‘Pidh’. They present the ruler with gifts like various village produce, acchar, gram and pulses which we accept happily and we in turn present them with dhotis, banyan and sarees. They can perform a ritual called as the ‘Bandhana’ after which we leave for the Baladevjew Temple. This ritual shows how deep our bond is with the tribal people all because of Lord Balabhadra, Goddess Subhadra and Lord Jagannath to whom we are all devoted”, Says Dhananjay Narayan Bhanjadeo who shall perform this year’s ‘Cherra Paharra’.

Interestingly the idol of Goddess Subhadra is red in colour rather than the usual yellow and that there is no procedure of  ‘Nabakalebara’ as is done in Puri. We also spoke over the phone to Prasanna Nanda the Rajpurohit of the Keonjhar Royal family who gave us the following details. “As people arrive to the temple, Lord Baladev and the other deities are in ‘Bhadrasana’ and we as priests including Rajkishore Panda, the Badapanda of the temple, conduct the rituals as they were done for the past seven to eight hundred years. I would like to point out here that the method in which pushpanjali is offered to the Gods here- we use amla leaves (Indian gooseberrys) nowhere else would you find this practice.” Says a jovial Prasanna Nanda.

After the various rituals are over, the priests and chieftains carry the deities on their shoulders to inspect their Ratha and conduct the ‘Dhadhi Pahandi’. Here one can see how delicately and affectionately their Gods are carried towards the Ratha. Enroute at each stoppage, the deities and the Ratha are offered ‘Bidiya Pan’ which is a pan that does not contain any masala rather it contains ‘Karpura and Supari’.  Afterwards they are taken around the Ratha thrice (to view how it has been built) and finally taken onboard. The ‘Cherra Paharra’ is completed by a member of the Keonjhar Royal family and the chariot can now be pulled.

“The Ratha Jatra is something we look forward to all year. Do you know the rope that we use for pulling the Ratha is called the ‘Siyali Doudi’ is made from the siyali (Maloo) creepers which are found abundantly in the forests of Keonjhar. Our village folks throughout the year collect these creepers, dry them and beat them into flattened streams which are then braided together as a rope. A process which engages our entire community of Bhuyans and we feel pride in rendering this service”, Says Kunja Dehury a leader of the Bhuyan community in Keonjhar.

There are many such important Ratha Jatras in Odisha which celebrate Lord Balabhadra, Lord Jagannath and Goddess Subhadra in myriad of ways independent and uniquely distinct in nature from Puri. Lord Jagannath truly binds the people of Odisha whose various customs and sub-rituals all add flavour to the Ratha Jatra. Yep! folks think of it as a huge celebration of humanity and its diverse formats of religion.

If you liked this article then on this Ratha Jatra do look up our facebook page for videos and photos as we cover the Keonjhar Ratha Jatra at the invitation of the ruling hill chiefs of Keonjhar and the royal family of Keonjhar. Fingers crossed at what more interesting trivia we may find. Meanwhile we know that ‘Kalianana’ is smiling upon us all.

By Aditya Nag

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