In Puri, located in Orissa, the 'Rath Yatra' festival is an enchanting, ten-day affair. The Rath Yatra celebration at Puri is undoubtedly, the grandest observance of the Chariot Festival. The Puri Rath Yatra is world famous for the crowd that it attracts. Rathayatra has been celebrated annually in Puri for thousands of years and around two million people, comprising of devotees, tourists and pilgrims from across India and abroad, arrive at Puri every year to behold this spectacle. On the day of the journey, people get up early and offer prayers to Jagannatha and the other deities. Three beautifully chariots are lined up in front of the Puri temple and in them, the wooden images of Krishna, Balrama and Subhadra are taken out in procession in the late afternoon to their summer temple Gundicha mandir for a week. The ropes of the huge chariots are pulled by millions of devotees and pilgrims. When the chariots reach Gundicha mandir, the idols are installed. A week later, the idols are returned back in the same way and this ritual is called the Phera Rath Yatra. This day is a public holiday in Orissa. Children pull miniature wooden chariots with tiny idols installed on them along the streets. Shops and houses are decorated with flowers, lights and rangoli. Special dishes and sweets are prepared. Most people keep themselves away from non-vegetarian food. As this festival falls during the monsoon season, this is also a time for thanksgiving for the common people.
The Puri Rath Yatra and the Rath Yatra of Ahmedabad, Gujarat take place on the same day. In grandeur and popularity, the Rath Yatra of Ahmedabad stands next to the Puri festival. The Ahmedabad Rath Yatra has been taking place for more than 130 years. Akin to the Puri celebrations, the three chariots with the idols of Lord Jagannath (Krishna), Balarama (Balabhadra) and Subhadra are pulled by the devotees through the city. The procession starts from the Jagannath temple in Jamalpur locality in Ahmedabad city and passes through a 14 kilometer route. Thousands of devotees throng the streets to have a ‘darshan’ of the deities. A highlight of the Ahmedabad Rath Yatra is the procession of caparisoned elephants. Decorated elephants participate in almost all the important rituals associated with the festival. Another important feature is the participation of Akhada Sadhus and Mahants and the numerous floats with different themes. The day-long procession ends with the chariots returning to the Jamalpur Jagannath Temple. These days, the police use under the global positioning system to chart the course of the chariots on a map on the computer screen to monitor them from a control room. This is done to ensure the safety of the devotees.
A similar, but smaller celebration is held at Mahesh in the Hoogly district of West Bengal. The Rath Yatra of Mahesh has a historical reputation and attracts a huge crowd. It is the grandest and the oldest Rath Yatras in Bengal. The Mahesh Rath Yatra of 1875 is of special historical significance. In the 1875 celebrations, a young girl was lost in the fair. Many looked for her and even the then district magistrate Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya — the great Bengali poet and author of India's National song — himself went out to search for the girl. This incident inspired him to write the famous novel "Radharani".
The Rathyatra festival is not only restricted to India. It is also observed in many countries abroad where there is a presence of the Hindu community. The festival is celebrated even in Birmingham.
The Birmingham Rathayatra festival is organised every year by ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness') in Birmingham and supported by Birmingham City Council. Annually, the festival is celebrated in the city in August. A huge chariot with an idol of Lord Krishna installed on it is decorated with flowers and ornaments and pulled through the streets of Birmingham city centre in an energetic procession accompanied by soungs and chants from hundreds of Krishna devotees. The procession route ends in Victoria Square where there is a feast of delicious free vegetarian prasadam (food offering made to God). During the occassion, an artificial village of market stalls comes up. Lively stage show performances are held throughout the afternoon and incldes music, drama and arts. The event gives both non-white and white people an opportunity to enjoy the spectacle and also lets them know more about the culture and spirituality behind the festival and Krishna faith.
At present, the Rathyatra festival has become an annual event also in other places of the UK like London, Leicester, Brighton and Manchester. In San Francisco, the festival was first introduced n 1967 and it is still observed every year.
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