The Jagannath Yatra is symbolic of unity in diversity, writes Mona Mehta
Much like a gopi from the Ragamala miniatures, Satyabhama, a 32-year-old Krishna devotee from Guyana, wore a green ghagra or long skirt and embroidered duppatta, teamed with a rust-coloured blouse. Swaying to the music of mridangam and cymbals, she chanted 'Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare', as she pulled the ropes of the Lord Jagannath's chariot in the yatra organised by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Old Delhi last fortnight. She was part of a big family of devotees from India and abroad who took part in the festivities.
Dressed in a pink long skirt, Radha, a 35-year-old devotee from Russia, too was a part of the procession. Yielding a big broom, she seemed to be enjoying clearing the road for Lord Jagannath's rath. Another devotee, Krishna Marga, 42, is here in India, thousands of miles from her home country in Brazil with her 11-year-old son, Agni. Elated to be a part of the procession, she says: "I was introduced to Krishna Consciousness at the age of 12; and after visiting India a couple of times in the past with my mother, I moved to Vrindavan a year ago and have put my son in the gurukul there." For the last eight years, she has not missed a single yatra — perhaps the only chance many devotees of foreign origin and non-Hindus get to have a darshan of Lord Jagannath, as Krishna is known in Puri.
Traditionally, the idols of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra (Balaram) and sister Subhadra are carried out of the 12th century Jagannath temple once a year on a nine-day trip to their aunt's place in chariots drawn by devotees. The yatra, which is replicated the world over from time to time, all through the year, is of great spiritual significance.
The Jagannath temple in Puri is one of those Hindu temples which bar foreigners and people from other faiths from entering its premises. But Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, has no reservations in meeting and mingling with people. A symbol of universal love and brotherhood, Krishna mentions in the Bhagavad Gita (12:13), that the first qualification of a competent and likeable person is adveshta sarvabhutanam, or the practice of identifying with all beings as oneself. Your spiritual life actually starts when you experience and live in unity, in oneness.
With the yatra, Krishna seems to be driving home this point — live in unity, without any boundaries — as He steps out of man-made restrictions on the sanctum sanctorum to unite with ordinary mortals.
"Mein Hindi nahin bolti," smiles Satyabhama and adds, "but I can tell you that I have come all the way from South America for the Lord's darshan and to be part of this congregation. It is a very purifying and spiritually uplifting experience."
Similar rath yatras are organised by ISKCON in many countries. Spreading the message of a unified world, Lord Jagannath's chariot is drawn through the town of Klang in Malaysia, where the natives perform the Kolattam, a stick dance, and a lion dance along with the procession. InSydney, the chariot is replaced by a cart with a 10-tonne truck chassis and tractor wheels. In Dhaka and in other cities of Bangladesh, the yatra was attended by 50,000 devotees this year. At the Trafalgar Square, London, the chariot procession is the longest-running street event which ran into its 42nd year this time. In Baltimore, US, the procession day has been proclaimed as "Hare Krishna Ratha Yatra Day" by the mayor, while New York witnesses the biggest ever rath yatra with over 15,000 people congregating through the day.
Through the annual yatras, Jagannath touches the lives of thousands, binding people from different regions and races into one big family — an eternal, omnipresent ambassador of Indutva.