Stand on any street corner in Odisha and you’ll probably be able to spot at least one image of the black-faced Jagannath deity, with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra; each figure is legless, with undersized arms and prominent eyes. The origins of this peculiar symbol are shrouded in legend. One version relates that the image of Lord Jagannath looks the way it does because it was never actually finished. King Indramena, a ruler of ancient Odisha, once found the god Vishnu in the form of a tree stump washed up on Puri beach. He carried the lump of wood to the temple and, following instructions from Brahma, called the court carpenter Visvakarma to carve out the image. Visvakarma agreed – on condition that no one set eyes on the deity until it was completed. The king, however, unable to contain his excitement, peeped into the workshop; Visvakarma, spotting him, downed tools and cast a spell on the deity so that no one else could finish it.
The Jagannath deities are also the chief focus of Puri’s annual Car Festival, the Rath Yatra – just one episode in a long cycle of rituals that begins in the full moon phase of the Oriya month of Djesto (June/July). In the first of these, the Chandan Yatra, special replicas of the three temple deities, are taken to the Narendra Sagar where for 21 consecutive days they are smeared with chandan (sandalwood paste) and rowed around in a ceremonial, swan-shaped boat. At the end of this period, in a ceremony known as Snana Yatra, the three go for a dip in the tank, after which they head off for fifteen days of secluded preparation for Rath Yatra.
The Car Festival proper takes place during the full moon of the following month, Asadho (July/Aug). Lord Jagannath and his brother and sister are placed in their chariots and dragged by 4200 honoured devotees through the assembled multitudes to their summer home, the Gundicha Ghar (Garden House), 1.5km away. If you can find a secure vantage point and escape the crush, it’s an amazing sight. The immense chariots are draped with brightly coloured cloth and accompanied down Grand Road by elephants, the local raja (who sweeps the chariots as a gesture of humility and equality with all castes) and a cacophony of music and percussion. Each chariot has a different name and a different-coloured cover, and is built anew every year to rigid specifications laid down in the temple’s ancient manuals. Balabhadra’s rath, the green one, leads; Subhadra is next, in black; and lastly, in the 13m-tall chariot with eighteen wheels and a vivid red and yellow drape, sits Lord Jagannath himself. It takes eight hours or more to haul the raths to their resting place. After a nine-day holiday, the sequence is performed in reverse, and the three deities return to the temple to resume their normal lives.
Conventional wisdom has it that the procession commemorates Krishna’s journey from Gokhul to Mathura; historians cite the similarity between the raths and temple towers to claim it’s a hangover from the time when temples were made of wood. Whatever the reason for the Car Festival, its devotees take it very seriously indeed. Early travellers spoke of fanatics throwing themselves under the gigantic wheels as a short cut to eternal bliss (whence the English word “juggernaut”, meaning an “irresistible, destructive force”). Contemporary enthusiasts are marginally more restrained, but like most mass gatherings in India, the whole event teeters at times on the brink of complete mayhem.