Rath Yatra (Chariot Festival) or Jatra in Puri, Odisha is an annual celebration of the Lord Jagannath’s (Lord of Universe) journey towards his aunt's house,. Though it is a Hindu shrine , the chariot festival is not associated with any particular denomination of Hinduism entirety, though there are several common aspects with Vaishnavaism, Saivism, Shaktism, Buddhism and Jainism.
The celebration and observation of the Puri Rath Yatra Festival date back to the period of the Puranas and the descriptions of the same can be found in Brahma Purana, Padma Purana, and Skanda Purana and Kapila Samhita.
It’s more than five thousand years old and over the years all the rituals have remained unchanged and being followed customarily. During this world renowned festival, Lord Jagannatha, his brother Lord Balabhadra and sister Devi Subhadra are worshipped. This year Ratha Yatra was celebrated from 6th to 14th July.
The three chariots that are the highlights of the Yatra are pulled by ropes. The chariot of Lord Jagannath which is 45.6 feet high, with 18 wheels and is referred as Nandighosa. Balabhadra’s chariot is 45 feet high with 16 wheels and is called Taladhvaja. The chariot of Subhadra known as Devadalana has 14 wheels and is 44.6 feet high. All these chariots are decorated with various designs and colors by the artists of Puri that showcases their enthusiasm for the Yatra.
The making of the Rathas for the annual festival begins on the Akshaya Tritiya day. The main ceremonies associated with Puri Rath Yatra festival is spread over a month and several rituals, like Snana Purnima and Anasara, take place during this period.
The Snana Yatra or Snana Purnima (Bathing Festival) takes place on the full moon day in the month of Jyestha (May – June). On this day, the three deities are bathed in 108 pitchers of water.
After the elaborate Snana Yatra festival, the three deities stay away from public view and this is known as ‘Anasara.’ It is believed that after such elaborate ritualistic bath the deities catch fever and therefore they do not return to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple.
The idols of the three deities then make an appearance after 15 days of ‘anasara’ in a new appearance known as ‘Navaya Yauvana Vesha.’ The wooden idols of the deities are given a fresh coat of paint.
Chhera pahara is the most famous ritual where the Gajapati King sweeps all around the deities and chariots. He then cleanses the road with a gold-handled broom and sprinkles sandalwood water and powder. The custom signifies that in the eyes of Lord Jagannath every devotee is equal - be it the king or a commoner.
At the Gundicha Temple (Lord Jaganath aunt’s house), the deities stay for a period of nine days and enjoy their vacation. On their way back to the Temple, the deities are offered Poda Pitha when their chariots halt at the Mausi Maa Temple. This sweet is a kind of baked cake that is meant to be consumed by the poor sections only.