Sunday, June 20, 2004

The yatra of the God who lives like a man

Lord Jagannath, whose birthday is celebrated on the day of the full moon in June (Jyestha), is loved like a mortal by his devotees, writes Bibhuti Misra

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists throng Puri for the rath yatra
(Above & below) Thousands of pilgrims and tourists throng Puri for the rath yatra

Although a religious festival, The ratha yatra stands apart from other such celebrations due to the emotional involvement that fills the air with colour and joy. Jagannath is the Ganadevata, the lord of the people, because there are no barriers between his devotees and himself. The daily chores of the Lord are patterned like those of a temporal being. Awakened by hymns at dawn, he is given a bath and dressed in fresh clothes. After breakfast, he gives darshan to the waiting devotees. A mid-day meal is followed by a siesta, after which he is ready for yet another darshan. Following supper, he listens to the songs of the devadasis and is lulled to sleep.

His birthday is also celebrated on the full moon day of the month of Jyestha. Though a God, Jagannath is mortal, so in a periodical ritual called Navakalevar (meaning new body) the god sheds his old body and takes on a new one. Such is the affection of devotees that the sight of euphoric devotees hugging him and tearing his floral crown during his procession of ahandi to the chariots is an unforgettable sight.

The rath yatra (Car festival) in Puri, Orissa, might be world famous setting a model for such car festivals all over the country and even outside, courtesy ISKCON. Nowhere else in the world is the rath yatra held the way it is observed in Baripada, northern Orissa. Here, women have the exclusive right of pulling the chariot! The 430 year-old car festival at Baripada is considered second in importance only to Puri. While the festival at Puri is for 10 days, at Baripada it is for 13 days.

Women charioteers

Legend has it that Baidyanath Bhanja, the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj, had gone to Puri in the sixteenth century to have a ‘darshan’ of Lord Jagannath; but was denied entry into Puri. The disappointed king did penance on the outskirts of Puri and Lord Jagannath came in his dream and ordered him to construct a temple at Baripada where the Lord would appear to give darshan to his devotees. The ruler Baidyanath Bhanja built the temple for the Lord known as Haribaldev temple in 1575 AD. It stands as a symbol of the religious fervour of the Bhanja rulers of Mayurbhanj and all the rituals and religious services are held here in the manner of those at Puri temple. The car festival here thus dates back to 1575. Unlike Puri, the pulling of the chariots is done in two phases. On the first day, the 14-wheel Taladhwaja (as is the chariot of Lord Balabhadra) moves first followed by the 12-wheel chariot of goddess Subhadra known as Devidalana which is pulled only by women. Lord Jagannath’s chariot, the 16-wheel Nandighosh is pulled on the second day. The return journey also follows the same pattern. Since then, pulling this chariot has been the sole preserve of women who do it with great enthusiasm amid rhythmic sound of songs and blowing of conch-shells.

Bawdy songs

A ritual that, in recent years, has received brickbats is the practice of the charioteers belting out no-holds-barred bawdy songs during the journey of the Lord’s chariot! Known as dahuka, his songs are known as dahuka geeta. According to popular belief, Lord Jagannath’s chariot would not budge an inch unless the dahuka perches atop the chariot to belt out the songs full of ribaldry. Hereditarily engaged in the service of Lord Jagannath the dahuka is believed to be born in a family of prostitutes. His songs have a rich mixture of local slang and he establishes a direct rapport with the onlookers by calling attention to them with his famous call Bhagate-ho (O devotees of the Lord) at the beginning of every song. He is trained in such songs and the accompanying body movements by his father and he is supposed to pass the training to his child.

Yatra safety

The flow of pilgrims pouring into the seaside holy town of Puri during the ratha yatra (car festival) had caused a number of accidents, claiming many lives. Lord Jagannath’s chariot Nandighosh has 16 wheels while Lord Balabhadra’s Taladhwaja has 14 wheels and goddess Subhadra’s Darpa dalana has 12 wheels. While Taladhwaja is the toughest to handle, turn or manoeuvre, the Darpadalana is the most finely balanced. So it is the Taladhwaja that causes most problems. In 1990, it rolled straight into the shopping area shortly after the starting point near the temple and seven of its wheels collapsed. The accident was reviewed and some measures introduced to check recurrence in future. Apart from the imbalance of the chariots themselves, snapping of the ropes with which they are pulled was one of the common reasons for accidents till the 1990 ratha yatra. The ropes used to snap all of a sudden, causing injuries to the devotees pulling the 70-tonne chariot. This was taken care of when thick ropes (usually marine ropes from Calcutta) were substituted by thinner and stronger ones. Another measure to stop the collapse of wheels was introduction of iron braces and circles since the wood, not always properly seasoned, cracked up often.