Although the origins of Ratha Yatra are described in ancient India’s vedic literature (including the Brahma, Padma and Skanda Puranas), details of the history of this “Festival of Chariots” are largely obscured by the mists of antiquity.
The colour, song, celebration and enormous masses of devoted participants amid the solemnity of the spirit of Ratha Yatra make it one of the world’s great spiritual gatherings and certainly one of the most exciting. The festival itself, along with its mystical and enormous Jagannath Temple place the Orissan host city of Puri firmly on the world map of great destinations for the devout and the curious alike.
The festival itself celebrates the fabled return of Sri Krishna, his brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra to their resident city of Dwarka 5000 years ago. The residents of that city, long bereaved over Sri Krishna’s absence greeted their return with much transcendental celebration. For devotees, this offers an unmatched opportunity to contemplate the pastimes of these divine personalities, share in elevated states of consciousness and directly engage in their worship.
The Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita describes how, 500 years ago, amid the roaring, blaring and sizzling of drums, horns and cymbals almost countless hosts devotees danced in bliss and spiritual fervour at this festival. There are also vivid descriptions of the great Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, revered by many as the incarnation of Krishna himself, dancing in great transcendental ecstasy in the company of his close associates.
The traditional festival consists of much celebration as the enormous rathas, or carts, are built. Following this, amid more ceremony and celebration, the deities of Sri Jagannath, Baladeva and Srimati Subhadra Devi are brought from the epic Jagannath Temple, decorated with many flower garlands, mounted in the carts and worshipped directly by the temple priests and collectively by hundreds of thousands of adoring festival goers.
The carts are then pulled on long ropes by the festival goers for some miles to the Gundicha Temple and, after nine days they are returned to Puri and their home in the Jagannath Temple.
Here in Australia the Festival of Chariots has its origins in a great parade held in Melbourne in 1974. At that time the global Founder Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, also known to his followers as Srila Prabhupada, attended. Accounts of the time tell of his elated approval and dancing in great ecstasy among his adoring disciples and friends.
Since that time the Festival of Chariots has been a regular celebration on most capital city streets (and even some regional streets) across Australia. The festival is eagerly celebrated not just by devotees of Sri Krishna but also a broad section of the Hindu and secular communities in appreciation of the great spiritual and cultural significance that it brings to this land.
The Festival of Chariots will have something for everyone. There will be a colourful celebration of culture and sacred ceremony, along with dance, song and a sumptuous vegetarian feast!