Published on 18 July 2019 in OrissaPOST
The spectacular Ratha Jatra is perhaps the most iconic celebration of Odisha. Unsurprisingly, its influence is far-reaching. The chariot is a recurring motif in Odisha’s traditional art. The most remarkable example one can think of is the Sun Temple of Konarka, with its 24 wheels for the 12 months and majestic horses pulling the temple conceived as Surya’s ratha. While everyone knows Puri, Odisha actually has four elaborate chariot festivals each year.
Four places of our state are shaped like the four attributes of Vishnu : sankha (conch), chakra (wheel), gada (mace) and padma (lotus). Puri is called sankha khetra, Bhubaneswar is chakra khetra, Jajpur is gada khetra and Konarka is padma khetra. These shrines have nurtured four different sects from time immemorial : followers of Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti and Surya respectively.
The chariot of Lingaraja at Bhubaneswar is known as the Rukuna Ratha. Some scholars believe this festival predates even the Puri one. ‘Rukuna’ is a colloquial variant of the word Rukmini; but why is Shiva’s chariot named after Vishnu’s consort? Nobody knows for sure. Today, Lingaraja, Rukmini and Ananta Basudeba are taken in the chariot; a striking resemblance with the Puri triad. Is this an anthropomorphic recreation of the same? We can only guess.
A popular saying in Odia goes ‘rukuna ratha analeuta’. This is because the Rukuna chariot is never turned for the return journey, rather the seat is simply reversed. It is used as a metaphor for something one cannot go back on, or undo.
Jajpur’s goddess shrine is one of the most ancient shrines of Odisha. Biraja’s chariot is called Singhadhwaja ‘lion-bannered’. The event lasts nine days. The chariot here has no destination, a sharp contrast to the other chariots (notably this is the only feminine deity with a chariot) ; instead it circumambulates the temple itself. The path is circular, looping back into itself; not linear. Given the Tantric background of this place and geometrical symbolism so commonly employed therein, it is probably a metaphor for the goddess, symbolising feminine power, grace and nature itself.
Most of the history behind the grand sun temple of Konarka (originally called Padmakesara Deula) is an enigma. However, the discovery and subsequent publication of four manuscripts on the shrine by Pt Sadasiva Rathasarma of Puri along with Alice Boner in the 1970s revealed fascinating details. From these, we find details of how the Sun Temple had its own chariot festival. On the day of magha sukla saptami (considered to be the birthday of the deity) a ratha was made. The book of chronicles mentions that artisans from Puri would come over for this purpose. On the chariot a small bronze image of the deity was placed. The god was thus taken from a chariot-like temple to a temple-like chariot, reiterating that the ratha is meant to be nothing but a movable temple. Servitors would wait with twenty one lamps in their hands and when the sun rose out of the ocean the chariot would start its journey. Even today lakhs of people assemble to take a dip in the Chandrabhaga, as if in unknowing reveration of a long-gone festival of yore.
The grandest of all, Puri’s Ratha Jatra was and still is the most famous chariot festival. Perhaps the earliest representation in sculpture comes from a frieze originally in a temple in Dhanmandal, Odisha. It shows three chariots with deities being pulled by devotees. However, these rathas are pyramidal— modelled after the pyramidal pidha deula of Kalinga architecture. They have solid wheels. We know that now the rathas have curvilinear spires, resembling the towering rekha deula instead. The wheels have spokes like those at Konarka. We now have three rathas instead of six, which was the norm when the Malini river ran across badadanda. Thus many details have evolved in the course of time, but the ritual continues as always, untarnished.