The annual Rath Yatra or the Chariot Festival of Lord Jagannath is held every year according to
Hindu Calender of Asaadh Shukla Paksha dwitiya tithi ( 2 ND day of the darker forthnight of Asaadh
month,ie. Rainy season) in Puri, a coastal town of Odisha. On this day, Lord Jagannath along with his
siblings Lord Balbhadra ,Devi Scharubhadra and Sudarshana Chakra (his weapon) set out on a 9 day
sojourn to his maternal aunt(mausi’s) place at Gundicha temple, located around 3.9 km from the
famous Jagannath Temple of Puri. Lakhs of devotees from across the country and abroad throng the
holy town of Puri to catch a glimpse of their revered deity, Jagannath Mahaprabhu. One of the most
significant facts about the festival is that each year the chariots are newly made and the construction
begins on the auspicious day of Akshay Tritiya. The top of the chariots are beautifully decorated
with colourful drapings each marking the respective chariots of the three lords. The Chariot of Lord
Jagnnath is named ‘Nandighosha’ which has 16 wheels, the one belonging to Lord Balabhadra or
Jagannath ji’s elder brother is called ‘Taladhwaja’ which has 14 wheels. Goddess Subhadra’s chariot
is known as ‘Darpadalan or ‘Devadalan’ and has 12 wheels.
The return journey to Jagnnath Temple is accomplished on the 10th day called ‘Baahuda Yatra’(return journey) where again lakhs of people pull the chariots of their dear deities back to the their home. After returning, the deities, however don’t immediately enter into the sanctum sanctum of the temple but remain on the chariot for few more days and some other rituals like ‘Suna Bhesa’ or the Golden attire of the deities take place on the chariot itself, a visual delight for the revellers. The day they enter the temple marks what is called ‘Niladri Vijay’ (or the Lord’s entry into the holy Jagannath Temple which is also called Niladri).
What is the significance of this grand ceremony? Why do the lords come every year to meet their devotees outside the temple whereas we don’t witness any such thing with any other deity anywhere else in India? Its because, like any other Hindu temple, non Hindus are strictly prohibited
into the Jagannath Temple. Hence, Lord Jagannath himself comes to meet thousands of such deities
who otherwise couldn’t see him round the year. This shows the magnanimity of Jagannath culture
imbued with the values of secularism, pluralism, inclusivity and tolerance, exactly what Sanatana
Dharma teaches us. Jagannath literally means Lord of the Universe. He is all pervasive, omni present
and the ruler of the universe. Another significant message to the society through this Yatra is to take
a break from our routine lives and visit our relatives, spend quality time with them and maintain
good relations with our loved ones. So, Rath Yatra is not merely a religious congregation, but an
amalgamation of cultural and spiritual values underlying social solidarity communitarian ethics.
On 18 th June 2020, the Supreme Court of India stayed the scheduled Rath Yatra on 23 rd June 2020 due to the prevailing novel Coronavirus Pandemic apprehending large scale gathering might escalate the spread of the contagion thereby imperilling public health. This comes as a rude jolt to crores of Jagannath devotees in Odisha as well as in India. This is so because preparations were on full swing, chariot making almost completed and everyone was hopeful that the Yatra would be allowed to
happen by employing social distancing norms. The Court ruling evoked mixed reactions with both the central and state governments maintaining studied silence on this issue. The servitors and the
priests of the temple were a disappointed lot with many of them accusing the Odisha government of being hand in glove with the judiciary to stop the annual Yatra. They are of the view that the
government could have allowed only the servitors and Police force to pull the chariots by disallowing general public and hence mass gathering could have been averted. This would not have atleast discontinued the tradition. Similarly, many people have expressed disappointment and rue that this has hurt their religious sentiments. Jagannath Sena, a voluntary organisation has warned to organize protest on this issue. However, in the past too, on many occasions Rath Yatra was not held for 32 years due to various reasons like aggressions by Mughals and Afghans. This time, an invisible enemy, a virus is creating ruckus around us. So, what could have weighed on the minds of the judges? Public safety vis a vis religious sentiments or tradition vis a vis objective ground reality?
Well, let’s not forget that Lord Jagannath is the supreme judge of this universe. Nothing can happen defying his wishes.