India is a land of varied cultures, traditions and beliefs which reveal our rich heritage. Amongst these contrasts, what binds us together are countless festivals, with the festive spirit profoundly imprinted in people’s hearts and souls.
Festivals mark those unique times, that connect the dots between our past, present and future. The culture and history from the past touch our present moment in the form of an ecstatic spirit of celebration and creates a distinct legacy for our future generations.
Following this legacy, every year during the rainy season of June and July the air of Puri, Odisha (India) is filled with warmth and affection shown by the devotion of thousands of pilgrims. Millions of people gather in this holy town from all over the world to get one glance of Lord Jagannath – ‘The God of the Universe’ and celebrate the Ratha Yatra.
Going back in time, I remember as a child being mesmerized by the Jaganath temple, especially the wooden idols of the lord and the ecstatic crowd. Till date, nothing has changed and each day in the sanctum of the Jagannath temple, the idols of Jagannath alongside his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra are worshipped. And, during the time of the Ratha yatra the triad is brought out of the temple and placed in three huge, beautifully decorated chariots.
The chariots are structured from raw wood by a community of people called the ‘Vishwakarmas’. The artisans then paint and sculpt these structures in beautiful chariots which are carried to Gundicha Temple during the yatra.
Gundicha was the queen of King Indradyumna who built the Jagannath temple after being blessed with the vision of God. It is believed, that Lord Jagannath was pleased with the queen’s devotion and bestowed a blessing upon her, promising to visit her palace (now a temple) once a year for a few days’ stay.
So, every year this carnival takes place and the atmosphere is filled with enthusiasm, energy and praises in the form of shouts of ‘Jai Jagannath’. Even one touch of the Ratha or the ropes carrying it, is considered sacred. It is believed that on touching them all sins are absolved.
This journey is an expression of our diverse background and unique history. Not only that, it is also the divine grace of God in the form of his deities touching us all. The most fascinating part of this feast is that the lord himself goes out of the temple to meet his devotees. In the past, people who were not ‘Orthodox Hindus’ have been denied entry to the premises a few times. But, during this parade, even the followers who are not able to pay reverence to the lord due to religious norms and cultural restrictions can meet him. This signifies, however much the power of a divine being be associated to a place of worship, that power has a wider reach as well.
And likewise, this festival is not only restricted to India but is celebrated with equal gusto and passion in USA, South Africa, Italy, Tokyo, Russia and many other places where there are temples of Lord Jagannath. A flavor of the Ratha Yatra can also be seen in Australia in cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, some of which are led by ISKCON.
This year the yatra is scheduled to start on June 23. But, amidst all the chaos and uncertainty of the present times, it is not sure if the Ratha yatra will take place or not. While the authorities decide what is safe for the people of the city, we must stay hopeful and keep our fingers crossed.
Even if it comes to the most unfortunate times of the yatra being cancelled, we need to remember that – ‘Our beliefs can outshine our traditions for a while.’
By Archita Baweja
(Archita Baweja of Melbourne is an engineer by profession but a writer at heart)