Sahi Jatra is believed to have begun in 1230 AD. According to records, in the 11th century, during the reign of Chodoganga
Deva, King of Puri, many ‘ kota ‘s (forts), bastions and ‘jagagharas’ (gymnasiums) were developed to safeguard the temple town of Puri from invaders. ‘Sahi’ means locality. There are seven very old sahis in the holy town today on both sides of the main road and 42 by-lanes around the Jagannath temple of Puri. These Sahis have permanent jagagharas(Gymnasium). The presiding deity is Goddess Durga or Lord Hanuman. There is a distinct insignia and flag to distinguish each sahi. These sahis once defended the temple of Lord Jagannath. That is why, during Sahi Yatra, traditional weapons are taken out. During Sahi Yatra, the local amateur actors enact the roles dressed in elaborate costumes. They go in a grand procession on the main street accompanied by caparisoned elephants, horses, flag bearers, barbers holding torches of flames swinging to the inspiring and rhythmic music of drummers and a band of musicians playing clarinets, trumpets and conch shells.
Each street is assigned a different episode to enact, and the story moves from street to street beginning with the birth of Lord Rama, his killing of demons, the episode when Laxman slashes the nose of demoness Surpanakha, Maricha fooling Rama and Laxman in the guise of a golden deer, capture of Sita by Ravana, battle between Parasuram and Lord Rama, and finally the war between Rama and Ravana ending with Rama’s coronation. During the birth month of Shree Ram i.e., Chaitra, for fifteen days, processions with idol of Shree Ram, Laxman and Sita are organized in different areas of Puri. Specifically, idols of Parsuram from Harachandi Sahi, Ravana from Balisahi, Maya Ravana from Dola Mandap Sahi are organized with pump and ceremony. Such ceremony is popularly named as “Sahi Jata” of Puri. Residents of Kalikadebi Sahi, Matimandapa Sahi, Harachandi Sahi, Markandeswara Sahi, Baseli Sahi, Kundhaibenta Sahi, Dolomandapa Sahi, Bali Sahi and Gaudabada Sahi take the responsibility of conducting the grand event.
Sahi Yatra is theatre splashed with colour, music and excited spectators. It depicts joy, sorrow, ecstasy and elements of protest as well. The “Naagaa” (a tall and robust man with a prominent chest, sharp nose and sinewy arms) are most dashing and they are selected for the role. A tiger skin is wrapped around his chest and he wears anklets of bark. The Naga wears beads of gold and rudraksha (rosary of several faceted beads), tiger nails, corals, a shoulder gear fitted with trident, spear, flag, curved knife, pots of gun powder and a country-made gun. The Naga, expert in traditional techniques of war, moves rhythmically to the beats of a martial song. “Naga Saja” is important in Sahi Yatra. His martial dress is said to be the remnants of a culture of how Oriya soldiers used to dress. Even Lord Jagannath is dressed once a year in Naga attire, in the month of Kartik.
The headgear of Ravana made of paper and thermocole weighs about 60 kg and his entire costume weighs not less than one-and-a-half quintals. He not only carries the load, but has to perform, dance and deliver speeches in chaste Sanskrit, faultlessly. The young men vie for the roles of Ravana and Nagas because it establishes their vigour and skill. Apart from awe-inspiring Naga Medhas, there are dancing Durga medhas wielding real weapons, and there are other deities like Panchamukha (five-faced) Ganesh, Hanuman, Nrusingha, Ardhanariswar and enormous images of snake charmer couples, tribal couples and an old couple, who have large bulging heads. There are nodding horses — with hollow frames into which the actors slip in and manipulate the ‘animals’ to the applause of the teeming spectators. The actors wear heavy headgear decorated lavishly with flowers, flags and expensive jewelry. The drama continues for hours at a stretch, sometimes the exhausted actors are replaced with other actors. Sahi Yatra is the most popular and spectacular event in Puri till date, after the ceremonial Ratha Yatra of Lord Jagannath. The glittering festival, however, runs with the meager contributions from the local people.