Puri, a major Hindu pilgrimage town, is the abode of residence of Jagganath, “lord of the universe”, one of the aspects of the god Vishnu or his avatar, Lord Krishna. The town is entirely dedicated to him. Puri is also one of the Char Dham, India’s four main pilgrimage centres. Devotion here reaches its peak at the Ratha Yatra (chariot festival).
The sanctum sanctorum of the temple of Puri boasts three singular statues, those of Jagannatha, Balabhadra (his brother) and Subhadra (his sister). These smiling idols with large round eyes are roughly carved from neem wood, considered sacred in India. In this, they are unique in India where the statues are generally made of metal or stone.
The origin of Jagannath worship, as well as iconography, is unclear and has been subject to intense debates. Some believe that animistic practices are the starting point of this cult.
According to the legend, the statue of Jagannatha is a reliquary containing the bones of Lord Krishna, recovered after his cremation.
Another specificity is that every twelfth year the statues of Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra are replaced with identical new ones, carved in a secret ceremony called Navakalevara (“new incarnation”).
The Jagganath temple is very strict; entry is forbidden not only to non-Hindus but also to anyone without Indian ancestors. There have been some conflicts over this. But a general view of the temple can be got from the Raghunanda library opposite. This old building is undergoing renovation and, for access to the view, the manager will ask you for a “small donation” and a word in the guestbook.
This annual festival is one of the biggest in India. It is celebrated on Ashadha Shukla Dwitiya (second day in bright fortnight of Ashadha month).It commemorates Jagannath’s annual visit to Gundicha Temple via Mausi Maa Temple (aunt’s home) near Balagandi Chaka, Puri.
As part of Ratha Yatra, the deities of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are taken out in a procession in huge chariots to Gundicha temple and remain there for nine days. Then the deities or Ratha Yatra return to the Main temple. The return journey of Puri Jagannath Ratha Jatra is known as Bahuda Jatra.
The Rath Yatra also takes place at the same time in two other cities in India: Udaipur (Rajasthan) and Ahmedabad (Gujarat). Although less impressive in number of participants, these two cities in north-west India can gather tens of thousands of devotees.
Before you leave Puri, it’s worth nipping down to Puri beach just for the seaside atmosphere, Indian style. You may also attend the beach festival which, as its very name suggests, is held on a beautiful beach namely Sea Beach, Swargadwara at Puri. Being a festival of various classical and folk dances of India, this festival offers a unique opportunity to the visitors to interact with the local populace and enjoy the bountiful charms of Odisha (Orissa). The festival is also marked by an exhibition of Handicrafts, Handloom and Sand Art.