When the Lord of the Universe decides to bestow His mercy on everyone, no one can stop Him.
To watch the biggest religious festival in the world from the front row is a truly mind-blowing experience especially knowing that this is God coming out to see His people. From dawn on the day of Ratha-yatra, thousands of people convene on Grand Road, where the carts await the Lord’s public appearance. It’s something like Times Square on New Years Eve, plus two kilometers of road packed to the millimeter with people. Every year more than one million people assemble for Ratha-yatra in Jagannatha Puri. They patiently stand waiting, packed like sardines in a can, for 5 hours or more for the Lord to make His scheduled appearance at around 11 am.
Luckily I was not part of that gigantic crowd. I have a slight crowd-phobia, but who wouldn’t, in an Indian crowd of one million?! However, due to being with Krodhasamani, who is best friends with my wife Braja Sevaki and a famous Iyengar yoga teacher, I was nowhere near the crowd. samani knows the family of pandas who care for Jagannatha, descendants of the original sabara tribe that worshipped the Lord of Nilachala. With samani, I was watching the entire spectacle in a comfortable chair from a rooftop right next to the enormous carts that sat waiting for the Lord and His brother and sister to come and take Their seats. The carts are 10m high, including the canopy, and move on 8 huge wheels. I was amazed to hear that they are constructed from hardwood without a single nail everything is assembled according to ancient prescriptions.
Their Lordships Come Out
The first to exit the temple is Lord Baladeva. His appearance is signaled by an ear-splitting noise produced by hundred young priests banging gongs. They dance and beat their gongs dam-da-da-dam-da-da-dam in a waltz rhythm.
The noise is extraordinary. Over and above it, though, rises the huge roar from hundreds of thousands of people. It’s something like the roar when they score on Wembley, intensified by one hundred. Baladeva comes out surrounded by His devotees only the top part of Him is visible. He rocks and rolls as if intoxicated: indeed, His huge white eyes and red pupils underlined by His big grin from ear to ear does make Him seem intoxicated.
And mind you, we are talking of a deity carved from a solid two-cubic-meter block of hardwood. It must weigh several hundred kilos. It is not an easy task to manhandle Him along the ground as if He is walking. From the temple entrance to the cart is about 30 meters. The huge wheels put the floor of the cart two meters above ground. A ramp has been built for Him to reach His seat atop the cart, and what a scene it is to watch! They tell me every year is different sometimes the Lord just whisks up and takes His seat, other times His devotees have to struggle for half an hour to get him up the 05 meter-long ramp. Even though He is being carried by His devotees, He moves completely according to His own will. This year He was reluctant to get up on His cart. The devotees carrying Him were sobbing in frustration as they struggled to rock and roll Him up the ramp. It’s like walking up a 45-degree angle of wooden planks with a wood-block of 200 kilos. At no point is His lower half visible He is completely surrounded by a dozen or more devotees carrying Him. In the middle of their circle Baladeva is rocking back and forth and to the sides as He moves along at an excruciatingly slow pace, foot by foot. This year it took the pujaris half an hour to get Him up the five-meter ramp to His throne on the cart. I was simply in awe of their intense struggle . . . .
All the time this is going on, the gongs go on in a steady ear-splitting waltz and the crowds roar and cheer continuously. Actually, we are not talking crowds, as in several crowds convening here and there, we are talking of one single crowd of a million people.
Another thing that struck me was the crowd-control. The military had been called in: elite troups in blue army fatigues lined the edge of the crowd.
The officers in charge carried their side-arms, but the soldiers were armed with funny flat, short wooden batons, which were two thin pieces of wood strung together at the handle. They make a big slapping sound when they hit, like when you clap your hands, but they cause no damage. When it came time to pull the Lords’ carts, the crowd was surging forward to get to the 100m long pulling ropes. The soldiers beat on the heads of the surging crowd, making loud slapping sounds but hurting no one. It’s like being tapped on the head with a roll of newspaper. But it kept the people at bay. So funny 🙂
The Indians are so funny. And so devoted. The crowd stands patiently and waits for 5 hours for the Lord to come out so they can see Him. Many people told me they don’t come to see the Lord; they come to be seen by the Lord.
And, indeed, when Jagannatha looks at you with those huge round eyes and grinning mouth, it does some wonder to the heart. It is a kind of liberation.
The next one to come out is Lady Subhadra. Ever the lady, She swiftly moves right up the ramp and takes Her seat on the cart. She doesn’t walk, but is carried on the heads of Her devotees quickly and efficiently.
In the meantime the pujaris begin to attach 5 huge horses made out of solid blocks of hardwood to Baladeva’s cart. The size of small ponies these wooden horses struck me with wonder and incomprehension: they were carved and depicted in all their glory with raised hooves and colorful detail. To get them all tied to the front of Baladeva’s cart was a whole process I watched with interest. It was fascinating to behold the teams of devotees numbering in the hundred milling around the cart making the awesome spectacle possible.
Now Jagannatha suddenly decided to appear. This year everything happened at a much slower pace than usual. It was nearly 2 pm and still He had not reached His cart. When the Lord of the universe appears, the exultant crowd erupts in a tremendous roar of joy. The percussion group of 100 devotees go crazy on their gongs, beating them with intense vigor. Like His brother, Jagannatha moves at an excruciatingly slow pace, as if unwilling. It takes Him close to an hour to walk the 50 meters to get on His throne. The devotees handling the Lord are all descendants in families that have served Jagannatha for thousands of years. Each family is entrusted with a specific service for each deity.
The Deities Take Their Seats
Finally Their Lordships Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra have taken Their seats on the carts and the procession is about to begin. Now it’s nearly 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Not till after 6pm have They finally gone, down Grand Road towards Gundicha. They are drawn by the horses and by thousands of people at the ropes. Jagannatha is drawn by black stallions, Baladeva by white, and Subhadra by four brown mares. When the three carts have been wheeled off, the time has reached 6 o’clock, and we climb down the stairs from our rooftop and head back to our hotels. We opted not to follow the mass of people who are going with Jagannatha down Grand Road for the 2 kilometer procession to Gundicha. Here the Lord will stay outside the temple the whole night to give His people an opportunity for darsana.
The next night samani and I return to Gundicha to see the Lord one last time before He enters the temple grounds, where He will stay for ten days before “return Ratha.” When we arrive we see queues of people reaching all the way back along Grand Road to the Jagannatha temple. They stand patiently and orderly for hours, waiting to climb the stairs onto the Lord’s carts to see Him in person, up close. We don’t want to stand in a line for hours like these faithful bhaktas to see the Lord. Instead we try and catch a glimpse of Him from the ground. It’s quite impossible, for our vision is blocked by a steady stream of people milling about closely to the Lord.
However, when we stand in front of Baladeva’s cart, there is a tiny lull in the stream of people, and Baladeva is looking at us with His wild expression. The few seconds I am able to behold Baladeva on His cart surrounded by His loving devotees makes an indescribably wonderful impression on the heart. We don’t stay until the Lord enters Gundicha, we are too tired, and so we go back to our hotels. That night I feel myself enveloped in an ecstatic, comforting blanket of Lord Jagannatha. What a wonderful experience to see Krishna in Puri. Jai Jagannatha!
Jahnudvipa Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Jayapataka Swami Maharaja. He, along with his wife, Braja Sevaki Devi Dasi, published Mayapur Journal and Mayapur Magazine for several years.