The Ratha-Yatra Festival at Jagannatha Puri

By Stephen Knapp

Jagannatha Puri, a town of 75,000, is one of the most important pilgrimage centers and one of the four holiest cities in India. These four cities are Badrinatha in the north, Dvaraka in the west, Ramesvaram in the south, and Puri in the east. Badrinarayan in Badrinatha was especially worshiped in Satya-yuga, Rama in Ramesvaram in Treta-yuga, Dvarakanatha in Dvaraka was especially worshiped in Dvapara-yuga, but Lord Jagannatha in Puri can be worshiped by everyone in Kali-yuga. In fact, the importance of Jagannatha Puri, sometimes called Purushottama-Ksetra, is explained in chapters 52 through 57 of the Uttarabhaga section of the Narada Purana. There we find it stated that simply by visiting Puri, which is rarely achieved except for those who have performed many pious acts, and by seeing the Deity of Jagannatha (Krishna), one can easily attain freedom from future births and reach the spiritual abode.

In the middle of this city is the large temple dedicated to Lord Krishna as Jagannatha, meaning "Lord of the Universe." From the Skanda Purana we get information that the original construction of the first Jagannatha temple was in Satya-yuga, millions of years ago. It is related that Lord Jagannatha told Maharaja Indradyumna that He first appeared in the Svayambhuva manvantara of the first part of Satya-yuga, on the full moon day, after being pleased by devotion. This is about 153 million years ago. Then Brahma installed the Deities in the temple. This appearance is celebrated by the Snana Purnima, or Snana-Yatra, which is the public bathing of Lord Jagannatha, His brother Balarama, and His sister Subhadra. The celebrated Ratha-Yatra festival is said to have started in the time of Svarochisha Manu, or the second manvantara period, and is predicted to continue until the end of the second half of Lord Brahma's lifetime. Even in the Ramayana by Valmiki Muni (Uttara Khanda 108.30) it is related that when Lord Rama was getting ready to leave this world he told Vibhishan, Ravana's younger brother, that in His absence he should worship Lord Jagannatha, the Lord of the Iksvaku dynasty.

The Skanda Purana also fixes the date of the Ratha-Yatra festival, which should be celebrated on the second day of the bright fortnight if the month of Ashadha, a day called Pushyami Nakshatra by astrological calculations. The Padma Purana describes (as related in Sanatana Goswami's Dig Darshini Tika to his Brihad-Bhagavatamrita, 2.1.159) that in Purushottama-kshetra, or Jagannatha Puri, the supremely blissful Personality of Godhead pretends to be made of wood. In this way, although the Lord takes on what appears to be a material form, it is completely spiritual by the causeless mercy of the Lord for the conditioned souls who cannot perceive the transcendental domain.

The main temple building, called Sri Mandir, was built in the 12th century by King Chodaganga Deva, though the site goes back much farther as described above. This is a huge complex where buildings house as many as 5,000 priests and assistants. The whole compound is surrounded by a thick stone wall 20 feet tall that encloses an area 665 feet by 640 feet. The wall has four large gates, one on each side. The additional smaller buildings were added after the 16th century. The main temple, which reaches 215 feet in height, is where we find the six foot tall Deities of Jagannatha, Balarama, and the shorter Subhadra. They stand on a five foot high throne facing the pilgrims as they enter the temple room. Outside the main temple hall are over 100 smaller shrines dedicated to the various demigods. There is an arati ceremony six times a day from 4 AM to 9 PM when devotees come in for darshan of the Deities, in which they sing, chant, or worship the Deities in ecstasy. As many as 50,000 people come to the Jagannatha temple in a day. Unfortunately, foreigners are not allowed into the temple grounds, but you can get a look at the temple from the roof of the Raghunandan Library across the street for a donation.

The temple compound also has a huge kitchen, employing over 650 cooks and helpers who make hundreds of vegetarian preparations for the 54 separate offerings that are given to the Deities every day. After the food is given to the Deities it becomes prasada, or the Lord's mercy. By taking such spiritually powerful food it is said that one becomes more and more spiritually surcharged and free from past karma. Much of the prasada is sold or given to people who depend on the temple. When I had my ricksha driver buy some for me, I got a basket with several clay pots filled with a variety of rice, vegetable, dahl, and sweet preparations. It was absolutely delicious and was enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two days. Taking this prasada at Puri is to partake in a tradition that goes back thousands of years and is considered especially purifying. It is said that only by Krishna's grace does one get the opportunity to receive the remnants of food offered to Him.


The Appearance of Lord Jagannatha

The significance of Jagannatha Puri and the story of how the Deities first appeared goes back many hundreds of years to the time of King Indradyumna, who was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. It is related that one time in his court the King heard from a devotee about an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, named Nila-madhava. (Nila-madhava is the Deity form of Lord Vishnu.) The King very much wanted to see this form of the Supreme and sent many Brahmanas to search for Nila-madhava. All came back unsuccessful except for Vidyapati, who did not come back at all. He had wandered to a distant town which was populated by a tribe of people known as Shabaras of non-Aryan heritage. He had stayed in the house of Visvasu, and later, at Visvasu's request, married his daughter, Lalita.

After some time Vidyapati noticed that Visvasu would leave the house every night and return at noon the next day. Vidyapati asked his wife about this. Though her father had ordered her not to tell anyone, she told Vidyapati that Visvasu would go in secret to worship Nila-madhava. After repeated requests, Vidyapati finally got permission to go see Nila-madhava, only if he went blindfolded. But Vidyapati's wife had bound some mustard seeds in his cloth so that a trail could be left to follow later. When they reached the shrine, Vidyapati saw the Deity Nila-madhava after the Shabara took off the blindfold, and he felt great ecstasy.

The story continues to relate that while Visvasu was out collecting items for worship, Vidyapati saw a bird fall into the nearby lake and drown. The soul of the bird suddenly took a spiritual form and ascended back to the spiritual world. Vidyapati wanted to do the same and climbed the tree to jump in the lake. Then a voice from the sky declared that before he jumped he should tell Indradyumna that he had found Nila-madhava.

When Visvasu returned to worship the Deity, Nila-madhava spoke and said that He had accepted the simple worship from him for so many days, but now He wanted to accept the opulent worship that would be offered by King Indradyumna. When Vidyapati went back to tell the King, Indradyumna immediately went to find Nila-madhava but could not locate Him. So the King arrested Visvasu, but a voice told him to release the Shabara and that he should build a temple on top of Nila Hill where the King would see the Lord as Daru-brahman, the wooden manifestation of the Absolute.

After great endeavor, King Indradyumna built the temple at Sri Kshetra, now known as Jagannatha Puri, and later prayed to Lord Brahma to consecrate it. However, Lord Brahma said that it was not within his power to consecrate the temple since Sri Kshetra is manifested by the Supreme's own internal potency and is where the Lord manifests Himself. So Brahma simply put a flag on top of the temple and blessed it, saying that anyone who from a distance saw the flag and offered obeisances would easily be liberated from the material world. Nonetheless, after much waiting the King became anxious since Nila-madhava had not manifested Himself. Thinking his life was useless, the King decided he should end his life by fasting. But in a dream the Lord said that He would appear floating in from the sea in His form as Daru-brahman.

The King went to the shore and found a huge piece of wood that had the markings of a conch, disc, club, and lotus. This was Daru-brahman. But try as they might, the men could not budge the wood. In a dream the Lord spoke to the King and instructed him to get Visvasu and put a golden chariot in front of Daru-brahman. After doing this and forming a kirtana party to chant the holy names, and praying for Daru-brahman to mount the chariot, Daru-brahman was easily moved. Lord Brahma performed a sacrifice where the present temple now stands and installed a Deity of Lord Narasimhadeva, the Deity that is now on the western side of the temple.

From the wooden Daru-brahman, the King requested many expert carvers to carve the form of the Deity, but none could do so for their chisels immediately broke when they touched the wood. Finally the architect of the demigods, Visvakarma, (some say the Lord Himself) arrived as an old artist, Ananta Maharana, and promised that he would carve the Deity form of the Lord inside the temple in three weeks if the King would allow him to work behind closed doors. But after 14 days the King became very anxious because he could no longer hear the sounds of the carving. Finally he could stand it no more. On the advice of the queen he personally opened the doors of the temple to see what was happening. Then he saw the forms of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balarama, and Lady Subhadra. But because the King had opened the doors sooner than he was supposed to, the Deities were not completed; Their feet and hands had not yet been carved. Thus, the Supreme manifested Himself in this form.

The King felt he had committed a great offense for having opened the doors before the allotted three weeks had passed, so he decided to end his life. But in a dream Lord Jagannatha told the King that though he had broken his promise, this was just a part of the Supreme's pastimes to display this particular form. The King was told that this form, even though it appeared to be incomplete, was actually the form of the Lord that was meant to be worshiped in this age of Kali-yuga. Occasionally the King could decorate the Deity with golden hands and feet. Yet those devotees filled with love would always see the form of Lord Jagannatha as the threefold bending form of Syamasundara, Krishna, holding a flute. Thus, the Supreme appeared in this form so that people could approach and see Him, especially as He rides through town on the huge carts during the Ratha-Yatra festival.

The Ratha-Yatra Festival

During the Ratha-Yatra festival is the most popular time to go to Jagannatha Puri. This is usually in July when it is very hot. But thousands upon thousands of pilgrims flock to Puri to take part in this auspicious event, which is said to have been celebrated for thousands of years, making it one of the oldest and one of the biggest religious festivals in the world. This is the time when the Deities come out of the temple for all to see. It is also the time when as many as a million people gather in this small city with one purpose: to show their faith and devotion to God in the form of Lord Jagannatha.

As big as this festival is, it can be quite expensive. The only festival in the world that is bigger than this is the Kumbha Mela festival that draws many more millions of people. The Ratha-Yatra festival is financed primarily by the Orissan government with an annual budget of $50,000, which is a very large sum for India. But with the number of pilgrims that come to Puri each year, the temple and surrounding businesses also are benefitted with the extra financial income.

The actual construction of the carts begins two months before the festival day, on the third day of the bright fortnight of Vaisakha (April-May). More than 600 trees, or 400 cubic meters of wood, are needed for the construction, taken from the local forests along the banks of the Mahanadi River. Using the same simple tools and procedures as they have for the past hundreds of years, once the basic elements are made, such as the wheels, then the actual construction begins only a few weeks before the festival. When I saw the carts a few days prior to the festival, I doubted that they would be finished in time. However, the construction crew works on them night and day, and everything was ready the day before the festival.

In the main road in front of the temple huge stacks of wood are used to assemble the three chariots which will reach up to three storeys tall and will roll on wheels, each eight feet high. The chariots are painted with bright colors and the tops are covered with red, black, yellow, or green canopies. The colors signify which chariot is for which Deity. Lord Jagannatha uses red and yellow, Lord Balarama uses red and green, while Subhadra uses red and black. The Deities are also painted with particular colors that mean something. Jagannatha's blackish color represents faultless qualities; Balarama's white color signifies enlightenment; and Subhadra's yellow color signifies goodness.

Each cart is different. The cart of Lord Jagannatha is called Cakradhvaja or Nandigosha, which means tumultuous and blissful sound. Using 16 wheels, it rises 45 feet tall, and weighs 65 tons. It also carries a figure of Garuda on its crest, and is drawn by four white wooden horses. Balarama's cart is called Taladhvaja, meaning the sound of significantly powerful rhythm. It has 14 wheels, and is drawn by four black wooden horses. It carries Hanuman on its crest. Subhadra's cart is called Padmadhvaja or Darpadalan, which means destroyer of pride. It has a lotus on its crest, uses 12 wheels, and is drawn by four red wooden horses. After the Ratha-Yatra festival the wood from the carts is used as fuel for the big kitchen in the temple, which can last up to nine months.

About two weeks before the festival, the Deities of Jagannatha, Balarama, and Subhadra are given a ritual bath, which is performed on the front main wall of the temple, which allows everyone to observe it from the street below, or one of the surrounding buildings. This is called the Snana-Yatra. After this They play the pastime of getting a cold. They are then taken to a designated area and given special treatments and offerings. They may also be repainted at this time. About every 12 or 19 years the bodies of the Deities are replaced with new ones carved from a ritualistically selected Daru-Brahman in the form of a nima tree. This is known as the Nava-Kalevarna festival. It occurs when there is a leap (additional) month in the Vedic calendar that appears between Snana-Yatra and Ratha-Yatra. This was last performed in 1996, 1977, and 1969. After such an occurrence, the crowd that attends the Ratha-Yatra in Puri expands from the usual 700,000 or so to as many as two-and-a-half million.

As the Ratha-Yatra festival draws near, thousands of pilgrims come to Jagannatha Puri, but as many as a million or more people may be in town on the day of the festival. Some are top officials in the Indian government or other VIPs. Many people begin arriving in front of the temple near the carts on the morning of the festival. At first it is very interesting to wander about looking at the nicely decorated carts and all the pilgrims who have attended. But then the police begin cordoning off the area around the carts. Then there are only certain areas where people can get between the carts and the buildings. This creates bottlenecks which can be very dangerous when too many people are pushing on each other trying to get through. I saw people begin to panic at times because of the pressure on them, and worried mothers had to hold their babies above the crowd to make sure they did not get crushed.

The Ratha-Yatra festival can be both spiritually ecstatic and physically exhausting. Though July is in the monsoon season, if the rains have not arrived yet, it gets very hot. When it is hot, you will be soaked with sweat a few hours after the sun comes up. In fact, from where I was, I saw dozens of Indian people who had collapsed from the heat and had to be carried away from the crowd on stretchers. The heat can take a lot out of you, especially when in a crowd of many thousands. So it is best to have a source of water with you, like a canteen.

A good place to be during the festival, if you do not want to be on the street amongst the people, is on a rooftop. But you have to make reservations and pay for your seats several days in advance. Even then there may not be any guarantee that you will get the seats you want.

I have been at Jagannatha Puri to attend two Ratha-Yatra festivals, once in 1991, and another in 2001. At each one things happened at different times of the day. In 1991 it was around eleven in the morning when the temple priests came out to sanctify the carts. In 2001, everything got started much earlier, and the priests came out before 9 AM. They walk up the gangplanks to the platform on the cart and sprinkle holy water around while circumambulating it three times and chanting specific mantras for purification. Later, the priests bring out the small Deities that will also ride on the cart.

When the big Deities are brought out, first there is Lord Balarama, then Lady Subhadra, and then Lord Jagannatha. Each time excitement suddenly fills the air and many men blow conch shells and bang on drums and cymbals to announce the arrival of the Deities at the main gate of the temple complex. Then the smiling face of Lord Balarama appears through the doorway and the crowd shouts and chants, "Jai Balarama. Baladeva ki jai!" Generally, however, unless you are situated on a tall building, you cannot see the faces of the Deities because there are so many assistants that help move Them. But you can easily see the huge headdress They wear. Once the Deity is on the cart, the headdress is torn off and distributed amongst the people as prasada.

Daityas, strongly built men who lift the Deity, carry Lord Balarama. It is described that they move Him from one large cotton pillow to another, however, I couldn't see any. Lord Balarama is five feet and five inches tall and has an arm span of 12 feet. When carried, there are five men on each arm, with up to 50 men pulling in front and 20 offering support in the back. All of these carriers are Daityas, members of the Dayitapati family who are descendants of Visvavasu. Gradually, taking about a half hour or so, Lord Balarama moves from the temple gate to the chariot and is placed on it so everyone in the crowd can see Him. Then Subhadra, who is less than five feet tall, is also carried from the temple to Her chariot. And finally Lord Jagannatha is brought out. He is five feet and seven inches tall with an arm span of 12 feet, and also needs many assistants to be moved.

In 1991 it was around two o'clock, when the King of Puri arrived in a procession, walked up the planks to the platform and swept the cart with a gold handled broom, and then sprinkles sandalwood scented water on them. He circumambulates the platform three times and is assisted by the priests. He does this to each of the carts. In 2001, however, this took place around 10 AM, and everything that year happened in a much more timely manner.

It should be pointed out here that the way the King sweeps the carts is an example of how the festival has changed over the years. If you read accounts of the Ratha-Yatra festival as described in the Caitanya-caritamrta, there are some major differences in the festival we find today compared to 500 years ago. The King used to sweep the street in front of the carts as they paraded down through the town. The reason he no longer does this is related in a story I was told. It seems that at one time years ago a King of Puri, Purusottama Dev, was to marry a princess who was the daughter of a king, Maharaja Sallwo Narasingha, from the district of Kanchi. When the Ratha-Yatra festival was to take place, the father of the princess was invited, but sent his minister Chinnubhatta Godaranga instead. When he attended, the King of Puri performed the devotional tradition of sweeping the road in front of the carts. The visiting minister, however, rather than being impressed with the devotion of the King for Lord Jagannatha, did not approve of him sweeping the road, even if it was for the Lord. When he reported this to King Sallwo Narasingha, the king objected to the idea of his daughter marrying the King of Puri since he was merely a street sweeper. Purusottama Dev was extremely angry that he, as the servant of Lord Jagannatha, would be insulted for his service like that. So he gathered his troupes and went to Kanchi to teach King Sallwo a lesson. Unfortunately, King Purusottama Dev was badly defeated.

On returning to Puri in such a downcast mood, he stopped at the simple cottage of Saikatacharya, a great ascetic, householder devotee of Lord Jagannatha. This devotee pointed out that the King had forgotten to ask permission from Lord Jagannatha before he went to attack King Sallwo. With this realization, the King returned to Puri and visited the temple of the Lord, crying over his defeat, asking why the Lord had let this happen. He spent the night in the temple, and with doors closed, before the night came to an end, the King heard a voice asking why he was so distraught over such a simple thing. The voice said to go gather his troupes again, and that we two brothers, Jagannatha and Balarama, would go along to fight on the King's behalf. As the news spread, many people, both old and young, joined the King's forces to fight with Their Lordships. However, as they went, the King was filled with some doubts whether Their Lordships were really going with him.

While the King and his army went onward, far ahead were two soldiers that rode on one black horse and one white horse. They stopped to quench Their thirst at a small village near Chilika Lake by buying some yogurt from a devotee named Manika. She offered Them yogurt, but when she asked for payment, they said They had no money. Instead They gave her a jeweled ring and told her to give it to King Purusottama Dev, who would then give her payment.

After some time, the King caught up to the lady, who flagged him down to give him the ring and asked for payment for the soldiers' drink. The king was shocked to see the ratnamudrika ring of Lord Jagannatha and then regained his confidence that, indeed, Their Lordships had certainly come with him. In payment for the ring, the king gave her the whole village, which is still named Manikapatna. After this the king and his troupes were victorious over King Sallwo, and he also took King Sallwo's daughter as well. However, he did not marry her after the insult her father had given him. He instructed his minister to see that she get married to a qualified sweeper. After one year, at the next Ratha-Yatra, the King again performed his sweeping ceremony. At that time, the king's minister announced that the king was the most qualified sweeper, since he swept for Lord Jagannatha, and that the princess, Padmavati, should marry him. Then Maharaja Purusottama Dev married the princess and she later gave birth to a great devotee of Lord Caitanya, who became known as King Prataparudra. Anyway, at some point after this, the King of Puri discontinued sweeping the streets and now sweeps the carts.

The festival parade also used to start in the morning and then stop at noon near the Jagannatha Vallabha Gardens where the Deities would get offerings of food, worship, etc., from the many devotees. There would also be many groups of people singing devotional songs, and though you will still see some people in kirtana groups, there were very few in 1991, while there were several big kirtana parties in 2001, including a large one consisting of the devotees from the Iskcon temple in Mumbai (Bombay).

After the King has swept the carts, they quickly begin to disassemble the gangplanks that lead up to the cart and begin to fasten the wooden horses that point the direction. Many thousands of devotees surround the carts and the people in the front take up the long, thick ropes to pull the chariots down the main road to the Gundicha temple, where the Deities stay for a week. Then the leaders on the carts that ride near the wooden horses direct those who are pulling the ropes to take up the slack. When everything is ready, a whistle is blown by the chariot driver and a hundred people on each of four ropes begin to pull. Then the numerous priests and assistants on the carts that ride along begin to bang on the gongs and cymbals, and suddenly the cart lurches forward and begins to move.

Once the carts get going, you mostly hear the spectators simply shout out, "Jayo, Jai Jagannatha," and raise their hands in the air and watch the cart go by. Many police have to guard the chariot wheels to make sure no one gets too close and is crushed under them. In 1991 it was after five o'clock before Lord Balarama's cart got started and loudly rumbled down the road and soon reached the Gundicha temple. In 2001 it started by about 10:30 AM or so. Subhadra's cart began to move a while later.

Lord Jagannatha's cart did not get started until after six o'clock in 1991, which was quite late, but got started by 11 AM in 2001. However, both times it did not make it to the Gundicha temple until the next day. The people pulled it about two-thirds of the way before it almost ran into some shops on the side of the road. So Lord Jagannatha spent the night wherever the cart had stopped. The following morning the people redirect the cart and continued with the Ratha-Yatra to finish pulling it to the Gundicha temple about two miles down the road from the main temple where the Deities stay for a week before returning to the temple in a similar parade.

Sometimes the chariots mysteriously stop, though everyone is pulling hard. In fact, it is not unusual, as in the case of this festival, that a chariot may stop completely and stay there overnight and then continue the next day. Sometimes if there is difficulty, the local government minister will pray to Lord Jagannatha for forgiveness from whatever offenses the residents of the town may have committed. Then the chariots begin to move again as if they move only by the will of Jagannatha.

The parade is a fascinating event in which to participate and see. But when the chariots get rolling, the crowd gets very intense. You either have to get out of the way to let them by, or struggle, as you get pushed this way and that, to move with the crowd as it goes with the cart. Many people try to pull the ropes and it is not easy, and can be dangerous, to get a place nearby.

The Deities spend the first two nights on the carts outside the Gundicha temple, or wherever else They may be if They do not make it there the first night. During this time, pilgrims can climb up on the carts and see the Deities very closely and even embrace Them. But the priests are quick to charge everyone a certain number of rupees for this opportunity, which makes for a very good business for the priests. When I climbed a cart and was about to give a "donation," as many as five of the attendants grabbed the money at once before I let go of it. And when I did not let go of it right away, they started to get very angry. This was after I had been assured that I could climb the cart to see the Deity of Lady Subhadra and there would be no charge, and I would also be allowed to take a photograph. I indeed was allowed to see Lady Subhadra and even embrace Her, which is a rare event for any pilgrim, what to speak of a Westerner. But after I had given my donation, I took out my camera to take a photograph and a guard immediately came over and objected and ordered me to get down off the cart. So that brought an abrupt end to the episode. Nonetheless, if one can overcome this businesslike atmosphere, it can still be a very devotional and memorable event. And you can also go up on the carts of Lord Jagannatha and Lord Balarama as well, if you can handle the crowds and the many priests who ask for donations, or who want to direct people, sometimes forcefully with the use of sticks. Some people simply stay on the ground and offer prayers and small ghee lamps from a distance. Others climb all three carts to get the personal darshan of all three Deities.

The Deities are then taken inside the Gundicha temple only on the third night. After the Deities' stay at the Gundicha temple, They return a week later to the main temple in a similar parade that is attended by fewer people. This can be a time when you can get much closer to the carts and walk more easily with the parade, providing you have time to stay in Puri for this event. Again, the Deities come out of the Gundicha temple as before and are placed on the carts with much fanfare from the devotees. Then again the King of Puri comes to cleanse the carts, and shortly thereafter the carts are ready to be pulled in a most festive parade back to the main temple. The return trip usually happens all in one day. However, again the Deities stay outside on the carts for two nights, allowing everyone who wants to climb up on the cart for a close darshan. Then on the third night there is the Suna Vesa festival in which the Deities are dressed in gold outfits. Again, the city becomes extremely crowded as people want to see the Deities in the golden ornaments. These include gold crowns, hands and feet, golden peacock feather, gold earrings, different golden necklaces, and ornaments such as a silver conch and gold disk for Lord Jagannatha and golden club and plow for Lord Balarama. These are all solid gold, and all together weigh up to one ton.

No one is allowed on the carts for the gold festival except for the intimate servants of the Deities. The way the crowd works for this festival is that they approach the carts from the main road. The closer to the carts you get, the thicker the crowd becomes. You are then directed by numerous police to walk with the crowd around the front of the carts and then down a side street. The police will also not let you stop along the lanes, but make sure everyone keeps moving. As you walk, you can then look toward the Deities to see Them in Their unique gold ornaments. They look especially powerful dressed as They are like this. Your darshan is only as long as it takes for the crowd to move, and then you must continue on, or come back around again, all of which can take an hour to make it through the crowds. Then as you come back around, the street is divided into two lanes, one for those approaching the carts and the other for those leaving. So you have to continue a ways away before you can begin to come back around. Getting directly in front of each of the carts is the only way you can have a direct line of sight toward the Deity during this event.

After this, the Deities stay on the carts one more day and are then taken into the main temple the following evening, as They were when taken into the Gundich temple. Then the Ratha-Yatra festival is completely finished until next year.

The Internal Meaning of the Ratha-Yatra Festival

The meaning of the Ratha-Yatra parade is steeped in religious sentiment. The form that Lord Krishna takes as Jagannatha is the manifestation of His ecstasy that He feels when He leaves the opulence of His palaces in Dwaraka, represented by the Puri temple, to return to the town of Vrindavan and the simple and pure spontaneous love the residents there have for Him. Thus, there is no difference between Lord Krishna and Lord Jagannatha. So in the mood of separation from His loving devotees, Jagannatha mounts His chariot and returns to Vrindavan, which is symbolically represented by the Gundicha temple. In this way, the esoteric meaning of the Ratha-Yatra parade is that we pull the Lord back into our hearts and rekindle the loving relationship we have with Him. Many great poems and songs, such as Jagannatha-astakam, have been composed describing the event and the highly ecstatic devotional mood one can enter while participating. Many verses are also written in the Caitanya-caritamrita that describe the pastimes Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu had during these Ratha-Yatra festivals 500 years ago.

To explain the internal meaning of Ratha-Yatra further, Lord Jagannatha is the embodiment of Lord Krishna's love for Srimate Radharani. While Lord Krishna was living in Dwaraka, he felt great separation from Radharani and the residents of Vrindavana. On the day of one solar eclipse, He traveled to Kuruksetra with His brother Balarama and His sister Subhadra on His chariot. There He met Srimate Radharani and other residents of Vrindavana, all of which wanted to take the Lord back to Vrindavana. While traveling and thinking of this meeting, He entered mahabhava, the highest sentiments of loving exchange. In that state, His eyes dilated like fully bloomed lotuses, and His hands and legs retreated into His body. In this way, the form of Lord Jagannatha is called radha-viraha-vidhura, the separation from Radharani, and also mahabhava-prakasha, the manifestation of mahabhava for Radharani. Lord Caitanya was the embodiment of Srimate Radharani's love for Lord Krishna. So Lord Caitanya taking Lord Jagannatha from the main temple to the Gundicha corresponds to Srimate Radharani's wanting to take Lord Krishna from Dwaraka back to Vrindavana, the place of spontaneous and ecstatic love of God.

It is also explained that by participating in this festival, chanting and dancing, or helping pull the ropes of the chariots, one becomes free of many lifetimes of karma. One can even become liberated due to the spiritual potency of Lord Jagannatha's presence. One of the ways this happens is explained as follows: at the very end of one's life when the memories of his activities pass through the mind, when he remembers the amazing Ratha-Yatra festival his mind stops and focuses on that event. Thus, he dies thinking of Lord Jagannatha and is liberated from material existence and returns to the spiritual world, just like a yogi is transferred to the spiritual strata when his mind is fixed on the Supersoul at the time of death. This is why thousands of pilgrims come to Jagannatha Puri every year for Ratha-Yatra.


Other Places of Spiritual Importance in Jagannatha Puri

While in Jagannatha Puri, there are many other places of interest that pilgrims come to see, so I will describe a few of these. About a quarter mile from the Jagannatha temple, walking toward the beach, is Siddha Bakula. This is where, 500 years ago, the great saint Haridas Thakur used to live and chant the Hare Krishna mantra 300,000 times a day and where Sri Caitanya would visit him. Since Haridas could not enter the Jagannatha Temple, being of a Muslim family, Lord Caitanya took the stick He had used as His toothbrush and stuck it in the ground. It immediately grew into a beautiful shade tree, under which Haridas Thakur lived. Sanatana Gosvami had also stayed here for a time as well.

Haridas attained such an elevated position of ecstasy from chanting the Hare Krishna mantra that even though a beautiful prostitute came to tempt him with sex, he was not interested. Thus, he is called the namacarya: the master of chanting the holy names. In 1991, a small shrine was found here, along with the old and bent tree under which Haridas would chant. However, since then, as found in 2001, there is a nice temple and plenty of walled protection for the tree at this place. The tomb of Haridas Thakur, where you'll also see beautiful Radha Krishna Deities as well as an image of Haridas, is located next to Purusottama Gaudiya Math near the beach. This is an important place of pilgrimage.

A 15 minute walk from here is the temple of Tota-Gopinatha. The Radha Krishna Deities here are especially beautiful, and it is accepted that Sri Caitanya ended his life by entering into the Deity of Tota-Gopinatha. Also near this area is the old house of Kashi Mishra. It is now used as part of a temple and has nice diorama exhibits of Sri Caitanya's life. It is here we find the Gambhira room, which is where Sri Caitanya lived for 12 years. Through a small window you can see Sri Caitanya's original wooden sandals, water pot, and bed.

A short walk to the east of the Jagannatha temple is the Gaudiya Math temple and the place where Srila Bhaktisiddhanta took birth. A little farther east is the Jagannatha Vallabha Garden, which is almost across from the Balagandhi temple which used to be where Lord Jagannatha would stop during His Ratha-Yatra parade to accept food offerings from all the devotees. At this garden, Sri Caitanya had many pastimes and is where He saw Lord Krishna manifest Himself. A little ways away from the garden is Narendra Sarovara, a small lake where many festivals have taken place with Sri Caitanya and his associates. Even now many pilgrims will visit and take a holy bath in this lake. The Govinda Deity from the Jagannatha temple is brought here for festivals where He is given boat rides. There is also a little temple with Lord Jagannatha Deities located here. So if foreigners want to see Lord Jagannatha they can usually come here for darshan, unless it is during the Ratha-Yatra festival.

Farther down the main road of town near the Gundicha Mandir is the very old temple dedicated to Lord Narasimha, which we can enter to view the Deity. This is also where Sri Caitanya engaged in many kirtanas with his close associates. Not far away is Indradyumna Lake where Sri Caitanya once manifested His Mahavishnu form showing His associates His supernatural qualities as an incarnation of God.

About 14 miles from Jagannatha Puri is the Alarnatha temple at Brahmagiri. Lord Alarnatha is a four-handed form of Lord Vishnu. Whenever the Jagannatha Deities in Puri would be removed from the altar before the Ratha-Yatra festival for two weeks, Sri Caitanya would stay here. This is a temple where, at the end of the kirtana hall in front of a Deity of Sadbhuja, there is a large stone slab with the imprint of Sri Caitanya's body. Once when He fell onto the stone in an ecstatic trance, the stone melted leaving the imprint of Sri Caitanya's body as we find it today. Across from the Alarnatha temple is another Gaudiya-Math temple that was established by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. It is also here where we find the small Alarnatha Deity that was uncovered during excavations around the main Alarnatha temple. However, once when Srila Bhaktisiddhanta was staying at his temple, the priest at the Alarnatha shrine had a dream in which the Lord came to him and said that He wanted to accept the worship of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta. Then the priest brought the small Alarnatha Deity to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta who worshiped Him, and where the Deity has remained since then. Also in this town of Bentapur we can see the birthplace of Ramananda Raya, a close associate of Sri Caitanya.

Nineteen miles north of Jagannatha Puri is Konarka, a most interesting temple to Surya, the sun-god. Although it is very old and no longer used for worship, many people come here every day. A Surya temple was here as long ago as the 9th century, but the present temple was built in the 13th century to resemble a huge chariot and has 24 gigantic stone wheels all around it. There are also carvings of seven strong horses who pull the chariot, and the temple is covered with many panels of stone figures depicting many aspects of life, such as scenes with hunters, soldiers, ascetics, maidens, birds, elephants, etc. There are also three green chlorite deities of Surya in niches on the outside of the temple, reached by ascending flights of stairs. The interior has been filled in and blocked up to help support it. Outside the temple grounds are many shops who sell food or the usual gamut of nick-nacks.

About six miles from Puri is the Saksi-gopala temple, located between the Jagannatha Puri and Khurda Road Junction railway stations. A new station called Saksi-gopala is there where people get off to visit the temple. The Saksi-gopala Deity is the Gopala Deity who walked from Vrindavan to Vidyanagara, a town located 20 to 25 miles from Rajahmundry on the banks of the Godavari River. How this happened was that two brahmanas were traveling and visiting the holy places. One was poor and young and was serving the older and richer brahmana. The older one was so satisfied with the charitable service of the younger brahmana that he vowed in front of the Gopala Deity that he would give his daughter to the younger brahmana to be his wife. Later, when they returned home, the older brahmana hesitated to fulfill his promise due to pressure from his family. There was some controversy about this between the two brahmanas and in a meeting with the people of the town it was agreed that if the Deity Gopala would come to testify as a witness, the older brahmana would give his daughter as promised.

The younger brahmana went back to Vrindavan and related the situation to the Gopala Deity who finally agreed to walk. He told the brahmana that He would follow him and that the sound of His ankle bells would indicate He was there, but if the brahmana turned around to look, He would walk no farther. So for 100 days they walked toward Vidyanagara, then the sound of the Deity's ankle bells ceased to sound. The brahmana looked back and the Deity was standing there smiling. The brahmana went to gather the people of the town who were amazed to see the Deity. Then the older brahmana agreed to give his daughter in marriage as promised and a temple was built for the Deity. Later the King of Orissa, Purusottama, was insulted by the King of Kataka (Cuttack). So Purusottama fought and defeated the King of Kataka and took charge of the city. He then brought the Gopalaji Deity from Vidyanagara to Kataka and built a temple there. The Deity also stayed in the Jagannatha Temple for some time, but then was moved to a village about six miles from Puri, called Satyavadi. Some time after that a new temple was constructed where we find the Saksi-gopala Deity today. Though the temple does not allow foreigners inside, many people visit this temple with the understanding that whether the Supreme is in the spiritual realm or expands Himself in the material realm in the form of a stone Deity, He can change what is spiritual into material and vice versa whenever He wants. This is why a stone Deity can do what is considered miraculous things, like walk, talk, etc. Thus, it is accepted that the bona fide Deity of the Supreme is nondifferent from the Supreme Himself.

These are some of the significant events and places that we can find in and around the town of Jagannatha Puri.

[Click here] to see some most interesting photographs of the amazing Ratha-Yatra festival at Jagannatha Puri of June, 2001. 

[This article and more information at  www.stephen-knapp.com]

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