Located on the east coast of India, sixty kilometers from the Orissan capital of Bhubaneswar, lies Puri, one of the great pilgrimage sites dating back to ancient India.
Held annually on the “second day of the bright fortnight in the month of Asad” (June-July) according to the Vedas, Rath Yatra– the Festival of Chariots of Lord Jagannath– takes over the small coastal town, as upwards of a million devotees flock there to commemorate the journey of Jagannath- Lord Krishna incarnate- from Gokul to Mathura.
The throng fills the Bada Danda, the grand avenue, and pull three richly decorated wooden chariots- each towering over ten meters- resembling temple structures and containing the presiding deities of the main temple, Lord Jagannath, Lord Balarama and Goddess Subhadra, two kilometers through the packed streets, from the 12th century Sri Mandir temple to the temple of the trio’s aunt, Gundicha. This is the only day when devotees, who are not regularly allowed in the temple premises (such as non-Hindus and foreigners), can get a glimpse of the deities as they parade through the Bada Danda.
As a glimpse of Lord Jagannath on his chariot is very auspicious, thousands risk their lives fighting the enormous crowd. Those few who are able to touch the chariot or even the ropes with which it is pulled (considered by some to be the threads of salvation itself) are thought to be lucky enough to confer the results of countless pious deeds. After a nine-day sojourn at the Gundicha temple and countless festivities, the divine summer vacation is over and the three deities return to the temple of Lord Jagannath.
Indian Poets and scriptures have repeatedly glorified this special festival. There is a famous song still sung in the Orissan language, which says that on this occasion the chariot, its wheels and the grand avenue all become one with Lord Jagannath himself. It is said that when the British first observed the Rath Yatra in the 18th century, they were so amazed that they sent home shocking descriptions of the irresistable force of Jagannath, thus giving rise to the term juggernaut.
Though many foreign accounts of the festival have been dismissed by Orissan scholars as the incorrect and disrespectful statements of infidels, one such Friar Odoric (ca. 1321 AD) is quoted in Hobson Jobson as stating, “Many pilgrims who have come to this feast cast themselves under the chariots so that the wheels may go over them saying that they desire to die for their God and the car passes over them, and crushes them and cuts them asunder and so they perish on the spot.” The fact remains, however, that many Hindus believe that a death under the wheels of the chariot would bring them salvation. An issue of the Puri Gazetteer of 1929 mentions some suicides occurring in this fashion while scholars admit that evidence exists that points to many instances of people lying down their bodies before the chariots, allowing the wheels to crush them.
These days thousands of gun-toting policemen, para-military personnel, bomb squad and anti-terror squad personnel are deployed en masse with elaborate arrangements made, which in an effort to try to control the million strong crowd whipping itself up into a religious fervor, while also attempting to diminish the scores of pickpockets and other criminals that prey on the faithful, turns the entire city into a locked down fortress.
Allegations of poor crowd management were heard from Orissa State Congressional President Jayadev Jena, after a stampede in 2008 after six people died and dozens were injured, in which he stated, “the police take care of the important people and care less for the common devotees.” Despite such problems, Puri’s Rath Yatra remains one of the world’s most spectacular religious festivals and a remarkable congregation of over a million people.
(aditional text editing thanks to Brett Richardson)
**The video below was not used in the original piece so I am presenting it here, it was shot with my old camera a Nikon 8800, so the quality is not what I am used to now with the full HD of my 5D mk II , but hopefully it gives you some idea of the craziness and scale of the festival.**
Even having spent more than 2 years in India, I have almost never been scared there, but my forays into the crowd at Rath Yatra scared the s*%t out of me.
I’ve been to some big concerts before, at Wembley Stadium in England for example, with 80,000 people and felt the excitement, understood the raw power of tens of thousands of people together in the same place, focused on the same thing.
Rath Yatra was really different.
Maybe because it is a religious festival, inspiring the kind of devotion that rock stars would cut off their left testicle to inspire in their fans, or maybe because the number of people was so much larger.
To be in that mass of seething humanity, over a million people, the ‘group mind’ feeling was truely terrifying and humbling.
It remains one of the most awe inspiring things I have ever witnessed or been a part of.