The Lord Jagannath and the Rath Yatra of Puri
When a friend of mine asked me to comment on rath yatra of Puri, Odisha, India, and its specialties, I was at a loss for words. I know for sure; there is just so much information to talk about; every element associated with the festival has a side story. Some of them may sound out of the world and irrational as well. But, there is just simple faith involved, and you cannot question faith. I will explain rath yatra is all about Odisha, her history, culture, and heritage, an all-encompassing melting pot.
The Seam of the Nation
If you make a deep dive into Odisha history and land, you will realize the state was independent for substantial periods. It only got conquered by King Ashoka the Great, who became a peace-loving person on acquiring Odisha and turned into Buddhism. Later she came under the rule of Mughals, Marathas, and British. It was the corner state with no direct administrative influence. Thus, she maintained a unique identity of her own.
The Tribal Influence
Odisha has a thirty percent tribal population. It must have been higher in the past. The land had a Tantrik following due to tribal nature worshippers and the influence of the occult from Buddhism. Shaivites came to prominence subsequently and established their presence over cities like Bhubaneswar with hundreds of Shiva temples. However, Lord Jagannath has a strange story in Odisha. He appeared as Neel Madhav (a glowing Blue stone-like substance) in a tribal village as an incarnation of Vishnu. The King of Puri was instructed in his dream to construct a temple and relocate the God. However, the tribal chieftain was rather possessive about their God and didn’t want to part with Him. A minister of the King of Puri, a brahmin by caste, married the tribal chieftain’s daughter. He later stole God’s image and brought Him to Puri.
The Caste Barrier
When Lord Jagannath remained in the temple, only the Brahmins worshipped Him. The poor tribal chieftain and his descendants, a mixed-race between brahmins and tribals, were devoid of their duties to God. The King of Puri was asked in his dreams to conduct a car festival when the Lord shall visit His aunt Queen Gundicha. The descendants of the tribal chieftain carry out all the activities of this festival. There is no barrier of caste during this festival. On the day of the car festival, the King of Puri sweeps the chariots like a sweeper using brooms of gold.
But, due to this mixed worshipping of Brahmins and other castes, the Brahmin community (known as Pandas) was considered unfit to conduct the Ashwamedha yagna. So a later King relocated 10000 brahmins from Kanauj and relocated them in specialty villages in Odisha. These are known as Shashani Brahmins. There are still social barriers to marriage across Shashani brahmins and Pandas.
The Mughal and other Muslim rulers in India had a rather unsettling time in Odisha. For substantial periods, Odisha’s local rulers never cared for the central leadership. However, the Odisha King had a humiliating defeat from Jahangir’s army. Due to the riches, the Puri temple has always been under the eye of the storm. The Lord had to be kept hideouts in many different places. The car festival has been canceled during these times. Abandoning the car festival is considered a bad omen. Locally in Odia, the Muslims were called Jabans or a lower caste. Many of the Muslim raids A Muslim Chieftain Kala Pahad raided Odia temples; he would break all the noses of the carvings on the temples affecting their beauty.
Then there was Bhakta Salabega, a Jaban by birth, who was a great devotee of the Lord; the rath yatra could not proceed as the Lord didn’t move out because Salabega could not reach the event on time. So the King sent his chariot to search for Salabega and bring him to the Lord.
The Lord’s Family
The Rath Yatra is a festival of Lord Jagannath and his siblings. His concert and owner of all riches, Goddess Laxmi, is not involved in the event. So much so there is a family drama on some days of rath yatra where the Goddess’s crew destroys the Lord’s chariot and goes back to the temple. Moreover, the Lord is not permitted entry into the temple when he returns by the Goddess’s team till they are appeased with many gifts and rasagollas. With Bengalis claiming a right on the recipe of rasagolla, there will be a counterclaim from Odias as a part of the Jagannath culture.
The Lord Jagannath and the Rath Yatra are beyond simple events for Odias. It has been part of storytelling, an event of unification, retold every year the unified culture of Odisha. History or mythology must be kept outside of the scrutiny of modern morals. Every year as the car festival is celebrated, why Odias do things differently as part of Jagannath culture. In some sense, they review their past. Some glorious and some just to be accepted as a past they have been through.