Rath yatra, lokaronyo, maha dhumdham
Bhaktara lutiya pore korichhe pronam,
Poth bhabe aami deb, rath bhabe aami,
Murti bhabe aami deb, hasen antarjami
Although the prophetic words penned by Tagore depict the essence of superstitious belief winning over spirituality, this poem has become a permanent insignia of the festival of Rath Yatra in Bengali literature. Even Bankim Chatterjee’s Radharani is set in the context of the annual festival that is surely one of the ‘baro mashe tero parbon’ of Bengalis.
Rath Yatra is an annual event associated with Lord Jagannath. Apart from Puri, the festival is celebrated with great pomp at the Jagannath temple in Mahesh in Hooghly district, West Bengal. Nearly 2-3 lakh people come to see the month-long fair. Lord Jagannath goes to Serampur Gundicha Temple and remains there till Ultorath, when the Rath Yatra festival ends.
The Rath Yatra ceremony
This festival is held two weeks after Snan Yatra, a festival which consists of taking a holy dip in the Ganga.
After the festival of holy dip the temple is closed for two weeks, during which the idols of the deities are recoated with varnish and polish. The temple is opened for worship following a ritual called jagna. This opening ceremony is called Nabajauban Utsav.
The following day the deities are mounted on a huge rath (chariot), with the idol of Lord Jagannath at the top. The chariot is a mammoth four-storied structure constructed of iron and wood.
The chariot is led in a procession, which leaves the village of Mahesh and proceeds to a place called Kunjobati, which according to legend is the abode of the deity’s aunt. The deities along with the chariot halt for nine days in this place after which it returns to the temple. This return journey is called Ultorath (that is, ‘return of the rath’).
History of Mahesh Rath Yatra
In the fourteenth century, a Bengali saint Drubananda Brahmachari went to Puri for pilgrimage. He had a desire to offer bhog to Lord Jagannath with his own hand. He was not permitted to do so by the temple authorities. With his dreams shattered, Drubananda decided to fast until death.
On the third day, the Lord visited him in his dreams. The Lord asked him to go back to Bengal and search for a place called Mahesh on the banks of the Bhagirathi. There he would find a huge Daru-Brahma (neem trunk). He was asked to make idols of Balarama, Subhadra and Jagannath with the trunk. Drubanada did as he was asked to.
The temple was visited by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu a couple of years later and he appointed Kamlakar Piplai as the mahant (that is, head priest) of the temple. It was Piplai who was responsible for starting the festival in Mahesh.
The Iron Chariot
The chariot at the temple in Mahesh is made of iron. It is made in traditional Bengali Nabaratna style, for example, it has nine churas or ‘towers’. The iron rath, with its nine towers, rises to a height of 50 feet and weighs 125 tonnes. Two copper horses and wooden swans are fixed at the front. Running on 12 wheels of diameter 4 feet each, the rath was made at a cost of Rs 20,000 and has been in operation since 1885. The four-storied rath is fitted with two wooden horses and a chariot driver. Apart from that, the first stage contains wooden figures of Chaitanyalila, and the second and the third stage contains Krishnalila and Ramlila, respectively. The top stage houses the gigantic wooden idol of Lord Jagannath.
Written by: Agnivo Niyogi for Team M3.tv