The most celebrated and respected festival of Odisha, Ratha Yatra or the Car Festival, the Festival of Chariots, is held with religious grandeur at Puri, the south-east seashore town in Orissa. The presiding deities of the main temple, Sri Mandira, Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra, with the celestial wheel Sudarshana are taken out from the temple precincts in an elaborate ritual procession and seated on three colorfully decorated huge chariots, which are then drawn by hundreds and thousands of devotees on the Bada Danda(Grand Road) to the Gundicha Temple, some three kilometers away to the North. After a stay for nine days, the deities return to their abode in the same way.
The Return Journey is called Bahuda Jatra. Ratha Jatra is held on the 2nd day of the bright half (Shukla Pakshya) of the month of “Asadha”(in Oriya Calendar) which falls in June-July every year. This Ratha Jatra(Car Festival) is also known as Gundicha Jatra, Ghosa Jatra, Navadina Jatra, Dasavatara Jatra and by a variety of other names, but this is the grandest festival of Orissa. Everything is on grand scale befitting the great Lord. Full of spectacles, drama and color, the festival is a typical Indian festival of huge proportions. It is also the living embodiment of the synthesis of the tribal, the folk, and endemic with the classical, the elaborately formal and the sophisticated elements of the socio-cultural-religious ethos of the Indian civilization. For the devotees and believers, it is considered the most auspicious occasion.
Rathe tu vamanam drishtwa punarjanmam na vidyate. This shloka implies that a glimpse of the Vamana, the dwarf form, an incarnation of Lord Jagannatha, is to ensure emancipation, release from the cycle of birth and death. A glimpse of Lord Jagannatha on the chariot is considered to be very auspicious and saints, poets and scriptures have repeatedly glorified the sanctity of this special festival. The sanctity of the festival is such that even a touch of the chariot or even the ropes with which these are pulled is considered enough to confer the results of several pious deeds or penance for ages. Jatra literally means travel or journey. Normally, it is the representative deities of temples more popularly known as Utsava Murti in south and Chalanti Pratima or Bije Pratima in Orissa, partake in these journeys. It is rarely that the presiding deities come out of the sanctum for such ritual journeys. The Ratha Jatra is one such rare occasion. This is also a rare opportunity for the non-Hindus who are debarred from entering into the temple to see the deities and even touch them. The Jatra for the Ritual Journey take two forms – one involving the short circumambulation around the temple and other involving a longer journey from the temple to some other destination. The Jatra is considered as an important part of festivities and ceremonies of each temple and is considered as a special and sacred occasion. Ratha Jatra being unique among all Jatras is the grandest festival of the supreme divinity who has manifested himself in the Kali Yuga to emancipate humanity and to relieve them from their sufferings. Lord Jagannatha is identified fully with Vishnu and Krishna.
The concept of the chariot has been explained in the Kathopanishada in the following words-
Atmanam Rathainam viddhi sareeram Ratham eva tu
Buddhim tu saaRathaim viddhi marah pragrahameva cha.
(Meaning:-The body is the Chariot and the soul is the deity installed in the chariot. The wisdom acts as the charioteer to control the mind and thoughts.)
The Skanda Purana glorifies the sanctity of the Ratha Jatra in the following words-
Gundicha mandapam namam Jatrahamajanam pura
Ashwamedha sahasrasya mahabedi tadadvabat.
(Meaning: Those who are fortunate to see the deities of the Srimandira in the Gundicha Temple, the final destination of the procession of the chariots, derive the benefits of a thousand horse sacrifices, an immensely consecrated deed.)