Rath Yatra – The spectacular chariot procession of Odisha

In June 2023 I was fortunate to tour Odisha during the famed Rath Yatra festival, which is centred in the temple town of Puri and the Jagannath temple.

In this festival the presiding deities of the Jagannath temple – Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra are moved from the temple in a ceremonial procession on their huge, colourfully decorated Raths (Rath means chariot and Yatra means travel, In fact the English word juggernaut comes from Jagannath).  These chariots are drawn by multitude of devotees to the Gundicha Temple (home of Gundicha, the adopted mother of Lord Jagannath), two miles away from the main temple. After a stay of seven days, the deities return to their abode.

It’s estimated that more than a million people visit on the main day of the festival. I was eager to get a glimpse of the Jagannath. This involved gradually working my way forward towards the temple, along with many thousands (probably 100’s of thousands!) of other people. Though I have some experience with crowds in India, this was on entirely new and at times disconcerting scale. It was people as far as the eye could see. Luckily just before I turned back, there was a sudden clash of symbols and one of the three Jagannath’s chariot lurched forward, topped by 100’s of people and pushed by many more. An incredible sight!

My tour of Odisha also included time in the capital Bhubaneshwar and a visit to the World Heritage listed Sun Temple of Konark. Bhubaneshwar has many hundreds of temples dating back mainly from 6th to the 15th century BC, as well as the rock-cut cave temples of Udaygiri and Khandagiri, which date to the 1st BCE. The Mukteshwar and Rajlinga temples were particularly impressive, and being in the same part of the city make for an interesting walk along some narrow lanes with old houses. It’s important to note that some temples only allow Hindus to enter, however generally where this is the case there is a viewing platform, which gives you a good perspective of the scale of the temples. The stone vimana atop the Rajalinga temple is a sight to behold and understanding the engineering behind the construction was obviously well beyond me.

The Sun Temple on the other hand is no longer an active temple and therefore everyone is welcome. Again the scale is astounding, as is the intricacy of the stone relief work. The significance of such historic sites is not lost on me, and I greatly enjoyed slowly making my way around the complex, occasionally being stopped and asked to join a photo, and mostly sitting in the shade and soaking up the view and atmosphere. The list of World Heritage sites I have not yet visited in India is dwindling so their significance.

In between this triumvirate of temples we squeezed in a visit to a tiny village called Raghurajpur , known for its Pattachitra (cloth based scroll paintings), Talapatrachitra (etching and paintings on the palm leaf) and other crafts such as traditional masks and wooden toys. It was a quaint village with households lining the main street, each house doubling as a workshop and shop. It was free of the pushy sales you can get in the more popular places of North India. People eagerly invited us in but didn’t insist for too long. We ducked in to a few houses with no intention of buying anything, but in one of the workshops larger paintings were rolled out for us and I was immediately taken by the tribal motifs. I bought one, bargaining without any real gusto (I prefer to pay what’s asked), and considered several more (one of which I ended up buying later, via delivery to my hotel in Puri). I look forward to hanging these in the office.

And of course regularly interspersed throughout the travel in Orissa were delicious meals. Being a coastal state seafood featured heavily, including prawns, river and sea fish and crab. Of particular note was a yogurt and eggplant preparation, with subtle mango, called Doi Begun. We also enjoyed a substantial veg thali on Rath Yatra, with around 12 different vegetable and dal preparations, and a very naughty sweet called Khaja, consisting of finely layered wheat dough deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup, and finally dropped into a bowl of kher (it tasted better than it sounds). Overall there were tones of both southern cuisines such as Andhra and of neighbouring Bengali, especially the fish preparations. As with every region in India there are both distinguishing and common elements to the food – definitely a highlight of  travel in India!

I look forward to returning again to explore Odisha further.

Please get in touch on  mail@indiaunbound.com.au if you are interested in visiting Odisha and we’d be pleased to prepare a tailor made itinerary to suit your particular interests and requirements.