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Through the streets of Puri to the Mausi Maa Temple|Mausi Maa Temple Dihatelasara, India

Rath Yatra is one of India’s largest and most important festivals, drawing more than a million pilgrims and devotees to the streets of Puri.

The significance of this “festival of the chariots” derives from the fact that it’s one of the only times that three wooden deities leave the temple of Jagannath, allowing non-Hindus and visitors to see them. The three figurines that make the trip are Jagannath (considered to be the lord of the universe and an incarnation of Vishnu, the god of preservation), his older brother Balabhadra, and their sister Subhadra. They travel more than a mile in elaborately constructed, 45-foot-tall wooden chariots on Bada Danda—Puri’s main street—from the Jagannath Temple to the Gundicha Temple, where they stay for nine days.

During the procession, drums beat, gongs bang, and conch shells blow as a mass of devotees pull the deities’ colorful, domed chariots through the street. Pilgrims vie just for a glimpse of the gods, since they’re associated with extreme good fortune, and the righting of wrongs.

Rath Yatra’s History and Tradition

Though this is now a through-and-through Hindu festival, the tradition of placing idols on grand chariots and pulling them is originally Buddhist in origin dating all the way back to the 5th century, when Indians would pull a chariot with Buddha’s figure on it through the streets.

Some of Rath Yatra’s traditions come from this little anecdote: One day Jagannath, along with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, made a journey to visit Queen Gundicha’s temple. Along the way, the three siblings stopped at their aunt’s home, the Mausi Maa Temple, for snacks—Jagannath’s favorite was the podo pitha, a sweet pancake typical of the Odisha region, so now you’ll see Rath Yatra’s celebrants eating and offering these same pancakes.

The chariot-riding idols that represent the deities are made of wood, and are replaced every 12 years. Interestingly, Jagannath’s figure never has any arms or legs. That’s because the god appeared to one of India’s kings in a dream, telling the monarch to construct an idol in his figure. So the king hired a carpenter to carve one, but the king said that if anyone saw Jagannath’s figure while it was still a work in progress, the carpentry could not progress any further. Even so, the king got impatient and took a peek before the carpenter was done crafting Jagannath’s limbs, so now they’re always missing.

These days, the building of the massive chariots—which takes exactly 58 days—begins on Akshaya Tritiya, an auspicious time on the Hindu calendar. The construction involves lots of rituals and numbers: Jagannath’s chariot is made out of 832 pieces of wood, Balabhadra’s gets 763, and Subhadra’s just 539.

Why So Many People?

Rath Yatra has an unbelievably high attendance rate—close to 1 million Hindus and tourists from all over India and the rest of the world converge in Puri for the yearly march. Why? Because it’s an extremely sacred event considered among the most auspicious one can attend. Over the years, poets, saints, and scriptures have consistently praised the good fortune associated with attending Rath Yatra and the benefits its deities bestow upon pilgrims.

To see the chariots is a way of purging your sins—and while that alone is reason enough for many, many people to attend, Rath Yatra pilgrims also believe that bowing at the foot of one of the chariots—or better yet, touching one—can counteract a lifetime of suffering.

There is a dark side, though, to having that amount of people in one relatively small place. Know, if you go, that the huge crowd means you’re putting yourself at a certain amount of risk. In the midst of the mass hysteria that accompanies the beginning of the procession, it’s not uncommon for people to get trampled and die underfoot of these dense crowds—or to get run over by one of the chariots—while vying for the chance to get close to the gods. (Relatedly, Jagannath’s name is the etymological root of the word “juggernaut,” which means “unstoppable force.”)

Not everyone who celebrates Rath Yatra, though, heads to Puri. The festival has become a big source of entertainment for those who stay at home. Many Indian and foreign television stations broadcast the event live, as do lots of websites, adding to the festival’s international reach.

A Sacred Place

Rath Yatra is an event of great religious significance for Hindus, yes, but what of the place? Jagannath Temple, where Rath Yatra’s procession commences, is of huge importance too, as one of the four Hindu char dhams. This quartet of temples—the other three are in Badrinath, Dwarka, and Rameswaram (all in India)—comprises the spiritual places that each Hindu must visit at some point during his or her life in order to attain salvation.

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