India's Chariot Festival Celebrates Communal Harmony

Behind the cheerful chaos of India's many festivals lies its deeply syncretic core. Like the annual chariot festival where millions of Hindus across North India celebrate a triad of deities coming out of their temple homes, ably helped by Muslims who join in the festivities not because religion demands it, but because tradition and mutual respect call for it.

This year too barriers melted as Indians got together to celebrate the 'rath yatra', as it is more popularly known, in various Indian towns, but most spectacularly in the eastern state of Orissa where Lord Jagannath and his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra are worshipped. 

And in Orissa, it is in the coastal town of Puri where the festival really comes into its own with devotees driven to a frenzy to catch a glimpse of the three deities as they come out of their 12th century abode, the Jagannath temple, and slowly make their way through the streets in a time- honoured tradition.

Though there is a strict restriction preventing non-Hindus from entering the world famous temple in Puri, it is not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the many Muslims who help make the festival what it is.

In the Orissa town of Paradeep, for instance, both Hindus and Muslims pulled the elaborately designed chariots.

"This communal harmony comes at a time when both good news and goodwill have become rare commodities and violence, hatred and indifference to the dignity of human life have made people cynical," said researcher Prasanta Kumar Padhi.

"Both Hindus and Muslims are active members of the rath yatra committee. Our Muslim brothers cleaned the village road for the smooth arrival of the chariots and they also dragged the sacred ropes of the chariots from the Jagannath temple," said Mustaq Khan from the village of Deulasahi near Paradeep.

Of the 2,500 residents, nearly 800 are Muslims, and the two communities have been participating in this manner since time immemorial.

"Some Muslim carpenters were also engaged by the village committee to build the chariots. Members of both communities provided the timber for the construction of the chariots," said another village resident Dayanidhi Das.

And this spirit of amity is not restricted to the rath yatra alone.

Hindus in the village also participate in festivals observed by Muslims.

"Hindus join in our Eid and other festivals. The two communities also attend each other's marriages and other ceremonies," said Sahid Khan.

Damodar Panda, the chief priest of the Paradeep Jagannath temple, said, "Both communities have always lived peacefully in this village. As per Hindu traditions, Muslims are not entitled to enter temples. But here we allow the entry of any person irrespective of caste, creed and religion."

India's inclusive spirit also came into play in some areas like Mayurbhanj district in Orissa where women take over from the men to pull the chariot of Goddess Subhadra.

"We are very happy that we have the privilege of pulling chariots of Devi Subhadra. I come here every year along with my two daughters to participate in the procession," said Shrabani Ghosh, a devotee from West Bengal.

"Orissa should be proud of the women of Mayurbhanj... women are getting the same power as men. It is very impressive," added Pramod Rath from Maharashtra.

The convivial spirit only adds to the fun of the festival that has so often been described as the "god's day out".

This year, as in previous years, the rituals in Puri began at 9.30 a.m. when Lord Jagannath (literally lord of the universe), Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra came out of their 12th century abode to go to the Gundicha temple about three kilometres away amidst chants of hymns and the rhythmic beat of traditional instruments.

The frenzied devotees surged forward for a glimpse of the deities on three chariots as fine sunny weather greeted the huge crowds.

Devotees danced to the beats of gongs and chants of 'Haribol' and 'Jai Jagannath' as the three gigantic chariots, preceded by gigantic intricately carved wooden horses, rolled down the Grand Road.

The chorused chant of hymns, beating of the traditional drums and other musical instruments and the roar of the teeming crowds were loud enough to drown the roar of the waves by the seashore.

While Taladhwaja, the chariot of Lord Balabhadra, and Devadalana, the chariot of Devi Subhadra reached the Gundicha temple by evening, Nandighosha, the chariot of Lord Jagannath couldn't reach the Gundicha temple, known as his birthplace.

Legend has it that the gods step out of their home and return to it nine days later through the city so that people irrespective of caste, creed and religion can get a glimpse of them.

"The unique annual event has caught on in different parts of the country, but the celebration at Puri continues to be special as the triad comes out to see their devotees, some of whom are normally barred from entering the temple," Surya Narayan Rath Sharma, a Jagannath cult researcher, told IANS.

Inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, hundreds of priests went through a series of intricate rituals to prepare the deities for the occasion.

"In the morning, after a few initial rituals inside the temples, the three chariots parked in front of the Lion's Gate were consecrated. Thereafter, the three deities were taken out in a colourful procession. The scene of bringing the deities down the 22 steps of the main staircase in a swaying manner amidst gong beats was a feast for the eyes," said Suresh Mohapatra, chief administrator of the Jagannath temple administration.

One of the high points was the moment when frenzied devotees started pulling the 43-foot-high Taladhwaja, which has 14 wheels. Next came the turn of Devadalana and finally, the 44-foot-high Nandighosha, which with 16 wheels proceeded towards Gundicha Temple.   


More by :  Hemant Kumar Rout

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