Rath Yatra

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Rath Yatra (Jagannatha Festival, Car Festival)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: June-July; Hindu month of Asadha
Where Celebrated: India
Symbols and Customs: Chariot

ORIGINS

The Rath Yatra festival celebrates the god Krishna and is part of the Hindu faith, which many scholars regard as the world's oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and Rath Yatra

philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

The Rath Yatra festival celebrates Jagannatha, a form of the Hindu god Krishna worshipped primarily in the state of Orissa, India. Jagannatha means "Lord of the World." The Jagannatha Temple in Puri, one of the largest Hindu temples in India, is a pilgrimage site for his worshippers and the focus of Rath Yatra, a major festival observed at the end of June. Wooden images of Jagannatha, his brother Balabhadra, and his sister Subhadra are carried in procession in three huge CHARIOTS or carts that resemble temples and are called raths. Jagannatha's is the largest-as high as a three-story building-and all three chariots are drawn along the processional route by thousands of devotees.

Early on the morning of the festival, 108 pitchers of water are drawn from a well reserved for the occasion, and the images of Jagannatha and his siblings are washed with reverence and placed in their respective chariots. These huge, ornate vehicles are then dragged from the temple to Gundicha Mandir, the god's summer house, a distance of about a mile and a half. Seven days later, the chariots return to the temple, where they are disassembled and their materials used to make religious relics.

At one time, worshippers would throw themselves under the wheels of the chariot as it moved forward in the belief that they would be guaranteed a holy death. Nowadays this practice has been forbidden, but people still flock to Puri to take part in the procession and the feast that follows. Similar festivals are held in other Indian cities where there are temples dedicated to Jagannatha, but participation in the procession at Puri is considered to be the greatest honor.

The Jagannatha Festival is very popular because distinctions among the castes are suspended on this day. All Hindus are considered equal, and everyone has to eat the food prepared at the shrine by low caste men.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Chariot

The main chariot containing the image of Jagannatha has a yellow-and-orange striped canopy forty-five feet high, with sixteen wheels seven feet in diameter. As it is pulled through the city along the established processional path, devotees have an opportunity for darsana or "sight" of the god. They may toss flowers, break coconuts, or sprinkle the image with water as the cart passes before them. Because the moving chariot represents an inexorable force that can crush anything in its path, Jagannatha's name has entered the English language as the word "juggernaut."

The journey of the huge chariot commemorates Krishna's journey from the village of Gokul, where he had been raised by cowherds, back to Mathura, the city of his birth, where his divine mission was to kill the wicked king, Kamsa.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Crim, Keith R. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Eliade, Mircea. The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

WEB SITE

ISCKON www.rathayatra.co.uk Rath Yatra
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Rath Yatra

June-July; second day of waxing half of Hindu month of Asadha
Rath Yatra is an outpouring of tens of thousands of pilgrims to honor Jagannath, Lord of the Universe, in Puri in the state of Orissa, India. Jagannath, worshipped primarily in Orissa, is a form of Krishna (though the term applies also to Vishnu), and the Jagannath Temple in Puri is one of the largest Hindu temples in the country.
During the festival, wooden images of Jagannath, his brother, Balbhadra, and his sister, Subhadra, are taken in procession in three huge chariots or carts that look like temples and are called raths . They go from the Jagannath Temple to be bathed at Gundicha Mandir, a temple about a mile away; the gods are installed there for a week before being brought back to the Jagannath Temple. This is such a popular festival because all castes are considered equal, and everyone has to eat the food prepared by low caste men at the shrine.
The main chariot has a striped yellow-and-orange canopy 45 feet high with 16 wheels, each seven feet in diameter. It is occupied by scores of riders and pulled by thousands of devotees. Because the moving chariot becomes an inexorable force that could crush anything in its path, the name of the god entered the English language as " Juggernaut ."
The festival is also known as the Jagannath Festival, or Car Festival . Others are held in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh State, in Mahesh, a suburb of Calcutta, West Bengal State, and other areas, but the most impressive Rath Yatra is at Puri.
CONTACTS:
Department of Tourism, Government of Orissa
Paryatan Bhawan, Museum Campus
Bhubaneswar, Orissa 751 014 India
91-674-2432177; fax: 91-674-430887
www.orissatourism.gov.in
SOURCES:
BkHolWrld-1986, Jul 12
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 537
DictWrldRel-1989, pp. 304, 368
RelHolCal-2004, p. 170
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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