Excerpts from the book “Festivals of India”
Published by National Book Trust, India.
Festivals bring large numbers of people together in a spirit of joy or devotion, or both. But there is one festival that combines joy and devotion with physical rigour. This is the Car Festival of Lord Jagannath at Puri, in Orissa, popularly known as the Rath Yatra. On this occasion devotees join hands to pull the massive chariots of their deities over a three-kilometre distance.
The festival, of course, is no longer confined to Puri, where it originated in the remote past. In the month of Ashadh, according to the Hindu calendar, on the second day of the lunar fortnight that falls during June-July, the Car Festival is held in many cities and towns of India and recently, even abroad.
While enthusiastic cries of “Jai Jagannath” and the sound of gongs, drums and other musical instruments rend the skies, Sri Jagannath proceeds to his destination, Gundicha Ghara, accompanied by his elder brother Balabhadra and younger sister Subhadra. The three deities ride on different chariots.
After a fortnight’s stay at Gundicha Ghara, the three deities return to their temple on their chariots, amidst great festivity. As at Puri, the temporary halting place of the three deities everywhere else is also called Gundicha Ghara.
At Puri, the Gundicha Ghara – the apartment of Queen Gundicha – is the site where the image of Lord Jagannath was carved from a log by a mysterious craftsman. When all the deities in the ancient temples of Orissa and elsewhere in India were made of stone, why was the image of Lord Jagannath carved in wood?
There is a story to this:
Long, long ago there was a pious king, Indradyumna. He had a strange feeling that not far from Puri an idol lay hidden which had the living presence of Lord Vishnu in it and that the time had come for this presence to be made known to everyone. Indeed, so strong was Indradyumna’s conviction that he began building a magnificent temple for the idol. (It was unusual to build a temple before the image of the deity had been made or found, but still more unusual was the prayer offered by the king to the deity. The prayer was that his dynasty should end with him lest his descendants grow proud of his achievements and do nothing worthwhile thereafter.)
The king sent four learned men in four different directions to look for the hidden idol. One of them, a young Brahmin called Vidyapati, lost his way in the forest and arrived at the dwelling of Visvavasu, a tribal chieftain. He fell ill there and was looked after by the Chieftain’s beautiful daughter, Lolita, with whom he fell in love and then married.
Vidyapati, however, did not forget his mission. He noticed that every day, before sunrise, Visvavasu picked a handful of flowers and disappeared into the forest for an hour. Neither rain nor storm would prevent him from doing this.
“Where does your father go?” Vidyapati asked Lolita one day.
“I am not supposed to tell anyone, but how can I hide anything from you?” she said. “Inside a cave which no one is allowed to enter is our ancestral deity, Nilamadhav. Only father, like his father and grandfather before him, has the right to worship the deity.”
Vidyapati insisted on visiting the cave. Thanks to Lolita’s entreaties, her father agreed to lead him there, but only after the latter had agreed to go there blindfolded. Unknown to his guide, however, Vidyapati had a handful of mustard seeds, which he scattered along the path to the cave.
His eyes were uncovered inside the cave. The vision of Vishnu immediately flashed before him, even before he had seen the idol. He knew that this was what the great temple at Puri was waiting for.
After a few days Vidyapati bade farewell to Visvavasu and Lolita, promising to return soon. The monsoon had set in; the mustard seeds he had scattered had sprouted by now and showed him the way to the cave. He picked up the small idol and set off for Puri. Visvavasu learnt of the loss only the next morning.
King Indradyumna was overwhelmed with joy when Vidyapati arrived with the image. He wanted it to be placed within a larger image but in what shape and form was the new image to be made?
In a dream the king was instructed that it should be of wood. He was also told that the log from which it was to be made had drifted near the coast, borne by the waves. But however hard the king’s men tried, the log could not be dragged ashore.
The king was deeply distressed. Then, while meditating he saw a vision of Visvavasu in a state of great anguish. The king immediately went to the forest and apologised to Visvavasu who, in turn, was convinced that the Lord’s wish had been fulfilled when the image was taken to Puri.
With Visvavasu’s help, the log came ashore as if on its own!
The King was now bothered about the shape of the new image. The master craftsmen of his kingdom told him that they were accustomed to making idols of stone or metal but never of wood!
Just then a haggard-looking stranger, stooping with age, came to him and offered to make the idol. But he insisted on one condition-no one was to disturb him until he had finished his work.
Something in the man’s eyes and voice impressed the king. He agreed.
However, Queen Gundicha Devi, Indradyumna’s wife, was very curious. Everyday she would press her ear to the door of the room where the carpenter worked and listen to the sounds of his hammer and chisel. But one morning no sound came from the room. All was quiet the following day, too. The queen thought this rather alarming and wondering if the old man had died, she pushed open the door. The astonished carpenter looked up and immediately disappeared, leaving his work incomplete.
He was none other than Visvakarma, the architect and sculptor of the gods.
The king thus decided to install the image as it was in the temple, with Nilamadhav lodged in its Navipadma or navel. Nilamadhav came to be known as Purushottama and, later, as Sri Jagannath. To this day, when the old wooden image is buried and a new one installed, usually every twelve years, the Navipadma is transferred to the new image secretly. Even the priest carrying out the transfer does so with his eyes shut.
Not only did Vidyapati become an important attendant of the Lord, but even the sons born to him and the tribal princess Lolita and their descendants became priests. They are called Daitapatis-the line that began with their legendary inter-community marriage.
It is evident from this legend that Sri Jagannath was originally the only deity in the Puri temple; it is still not known when the two other deities, Balabhadra and Subhadra, were installed beside him.
Since Sri Jagannath is a form of Vishnu and Sri Krishna perhaps his most popular incarnation, many of the rituals observed in the Puri temple are associated with events in the life of Sri Krishna. Thus, the annual Car Festival represents Sri Krishna’s journey from Gokul to Mathura.
We do not know exactly when the Car Festival began. There are records to show that the tradition dates back to over a thousand years. Although we know that the present impressive temple was built in the twelfth century, by the Ganga kings, notably Chola Ganga Dev, we do not know when the temple that it replaced was built.
While so many old temples have lost their importance, and the splendour of the festivals associated with them has gone, the Puri temple and Car Festival continue to generate undiminished enthusiasm. In recent years the crowds at the Car Festival have exceeded a quarter million. In earlier times devotees would occasionally throw themselves in front of the chariot of Sri Jagannath, for it was believed that to be crushed to death under its sixteen wheels was to go straight to heaven.
Hence we have the English term ‘juggernaut’, a moving force that crushes anything that comes in its way.
Many legends depict Sri Jagannath as a friend, philosopher and guide to his devotees. One interesting legend associated with the Car Festival concerns Purushottam Dev, the fifteenth-century king of Kalinga (the Orissa of today, with several adjoining areas).
Travelling through south India, the young king saw princess Padmavati of Kanchi and was smitten by her. He sent an emissary to her father asking for her hand in marriage. The proposal was accepted and the minister of Kanchi proceeded to Puri to finalise arrangements for the wedding.
It was the time of the Car Festival. The rituals began, with the king sweeping that part of the chariot where the deity was to be placed. This signified that even the king was a humble servant of the Lord. (The custom continues-the descendants of the former kings of Puri still performing the rite.)
But the Kanchi minister thought such sweeping was an act unworthy of a king. “We cannot make a sweeper-king our son-in-law!” he said to his master, whereupon the king of Kanchi withdrew his consent to the proposal. The infuriated Purushottam Dev marched upon Kanchi, but was defeated. On returning to Puri, he prostrated himself before Sri Jagannath, praying for victory or death! The Lord assured him in a dream that he would win on a second expedition.
A further assurance of victory was provided soon. As he rode behind his army near Lake Chilika, a milkmaid signaled to him to stop. " A little before the army passed, two riders, one dark, the other fair, ate my curds and gave me this ring, assuring me that a rider would soon follow who would pay me my dues and recover the ring. They were in a hurry to reach Kanchi, to fight on behalf of our king!” she said.
The king recognised the diamond ring-it was the one he had recently offered to Jagannath. He was sure that the riders were none other than Jagannath and Balabhadra!
The king won the battle, took princess Padmavati prisoner and returned to Puri. But that was not compensation enough for his earlier humiliation. He ordered his minister to give the princess in marriage to a sweeper!
The minister was a wise man. He let a few months pass. It was once more time for the Car Festival. As the king climbed the chariot and stooped to sweep its platform, two tender hands put a garland round his neck. Behind the young girl stood the minister. “My Lord,” he said, “where could I find a more eligible sweeper to win the hand of princess Padmavati?” Thus the princess of Kanchi became the queen of Kalinga.
Some historians believe that the images in the Puri temple were originally Buddhist symbols, representing the Buddha and the Buddhist Dharma and Sangha. Puri, according to them, was Dantapuri, housing the tooth of the Buddha (which the Navipadma contained). Buddhism, no doubt, once held sway over the region. But Tantrism and Jainism too had periods of influence before and after the Buddhist era. It is possible that the temple was a centre for different religions at different periods, absorbing everything and eventually developing a unique personality of its own.
Great mystics like Shankaracharaya, Ramanuja (both founded monasteries at Puri), Nanak and Tulsidas saw in the strange deity at Puri divine qualities. Chaitanya Dev is believed to have disappeared while gazing at Jagannath. While the figures of the deities are examples of primitive tribal art to some, to others they epitomize the ideas of modern art. But do they contain an inner splendour which only mystics can detect? Religious poets have written lyrics attributing great beauty to the images.
Perhaps Jagannath represents not only the past and present, but also the future. One of the last rituals at night in the temple is the musical recitation of the Gita Govinda by Jayadev, containing a narration of ten incarnations of Vishnu, the last being Kalki, the Avatar of the future. Kalki will destroy all that is barbaric in man, paving the way for the emergence of perfection. Perhaps the present ‘incomplete’ form of Jagannath awaits fulfillment in the consciousness of the man of tomorrow.