Ratha Yatra has been going on for thousands of years in Puri, a city in the Indian state of Odisha. The glories of Lord Jagannatha, to whom this ratha yatra is dedicated towards, are spoken in various Puranas and other holy books.
Who is Lord Jagannatha?
Lord Jagannatha, whose name literally means ‘lord of the universe’, is mainly an important deity for Hindus, although Buddhists and Jains also worship him. Now a question may arise in our minds about who this mysterious lotus-eyed Lord Jagannatha is. According to the Ramanandi Sampradaya, he is none other than Lord Ramachandra. The bhaktas (devotees) of Lord Narasimha similarly consider Lord Jagannatha to be an incarnation of that half-man and half-lion form of Narasimha, so they worship him with this mantra:
Ugram Viram Maha Vishnum Jvalantam Sarvato Mukham
Nirisimham Bhishanam Bhadram Mrutyur Mrutyum Namamy Aham
Translation: “I bow down to Lord Narasimha, who is highly ferocious and brave and the emanation of Lord Maha Vishnu. He is full of effulgence, terrific and auspicious and the death of death.”
According to another popular belief in Puri and throughout India, Lord Jagannatha is none other than Lord Krishna himself. Ratha Yatra is a signification of Lord Krishna returning back from Dwarka to his original home in Vrindavana. The other two carts in the Ratha Yatra are Lord Baladeva and Krishna’s sister Subhadra returning with him.
You will be surprised to know that even some Muslims and Christians attend Ratha Yatra and consider Lord Jagannatha as a form of Lord Jesus Christ and Allah.
Many famous personalities in India have attended the Ratha Yatra festival, such as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He was known to dance and cry tears in separation because of his bhakti (devotion) to Lord Krishna.
History of the Ratha Yatra
Here is an extract from the Skanda Purana about the Ratha Yatra:
The Ratha Yatra is said to have begun in the Satya Yuga during the reign of Svarocisa Manu, the second of the fourteen Manus. Every year, Lord Jagannatha enacts the Ratha Yatra (Mahavedi Yatra) in order to see his appearance at the Yajna Vedi in the Gundicha Mandira (temple). (Skanda P. 29.25-44)
In Odisha, the Ratha Yatra festival is known as Jagannatha’s journey to Gundicha. Although outsiders call it Ratha Yatra, the residents of Odisha call it the Gundicha Yatra in honor of Gundicha Devi, King Indradyumna’s queen who purportedly initiated this festival. The songs of many Odia poets state that the Ratha Yatra started with the request of King Indradyumna’s wife named Gundicha.
The Ratha Yatra is also known as the Patita Pavana Mahotsava because non-Hindus get the opportunity to see Lord Jagannatha. This auspicious darshana (visit) is said to cleanse all sins and grant moksha (liberation).