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The juggernaut rolls on
The brass rath at the house of the Pramaniks. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta

According to the Concise Oxford, juggernaut is a “large heavy vehicle, especially an articulated truck”, and also “a large overwhelming force”. Obviously, the British turned the name of an avatar of Krishna, who along with his brother Balaram and sister Subhadra are taken out once a year for a ceremonial ride, into the chariot in which they are displayed to thousands of devotees waiting to worship them. This happens during the months of Ashad and Shravan, which coincide with the monsoon months.

Rathayatra is celebrated with great gusto in the Sealdah, Shyampukur, Nebutala, Bidhan Sarani and Bowbazar areas, and for days on end the streets and lanes in these neighbourhoods are crowded with hawkers selling plants, toys, household implements and many exotic birds, in spite of the ban on their trade. Children love them. This is one of the few times in the year when they can enjoy the mela spirit.

In the evening, small and large raths trundle out of the old houses in the north along with the heads of families followed by hosts of children. The big raths organised by para organisations and international bodies like ISKCON steal the limelight but it is the smaller ones with their painstakingly carved chassis that are the show-stealers.

Haripada Bhowmik in the 2004 issue of Calcutta Purashree documents how a 70 ft high rath used to stand next to a huge tree in Baithakkhana. It must have belonged to a famous native businessman. It is one of the oldest recorded accounts of rathayatra.

In their bid to upstage each other, the babus, who lavishly celebrated rathayatra, went out of their way to prove that he was the biggest spender. One of these megarich men had sponsored the visit of one thousand poor people to witness the rathayatra at Puri.

Many people participated in rathayatra and devotees firmly believed that if they were crushed under the wheels of a juggernaut they would be transported straight to heaven. Many examples of such mayhem have been reported in Samachar Darpan. Even tugging the rope of the chariot, which devotees drew, was considered auspicious.

The ancient rath of Mahesh in Hooghly used to be a big draw. It still attracts thousands of people.

Some new raths in north Calcutta have become quite popular nowadays. One of the most prominent of these is celebrated at Hatibagan by the former residents of Dhamrat now in Dhaka. The rath travels from Dakshindari near the Belgachhia railway quarters to the brand new temple of Radha Madhab opposite Star theatre.

The Hatibagan temple has a narrow entrance and on the first floor is a huge hall with marble floors and the décor is meant to dazzle devotees. Of late, former Dhamrat residents have been pulling out all stops to turn this into the most spectacular rathayatra.

The house of Balaram Bose in Bagbazar was turned into a temple after the death of this great devotee of Ramakrishna. The saint had visited Bose’s house during rathayatra and had pulled the rope of the rath along with other devotees around the verandah of the house. The same rath, which must be over 200 years old, is preserved in the temple. It bears the burden of history but is tiny and unimpressive.

The rath at Marble Palace is made of wood. At Chhatubabu Latubabu’s house in Beadon Street it used to be a bamboo structure which of late has been recreated in wood. Sridhar Jiu, who resides on the second floor of this ancient house, rides the chariot on the terrace.

The rath at Rani Rashmoni’s house in Janbazaar used to be made of silver. At the house of the Pramaniks on Tarak Pramanik Road, the rath is made of brass. The Pramaniks used to manufacture brass and bellmetal at Murogachha in Nadia. Gurucharan Pramanik moved from Shahganj to Calcutta about 250 years ago to promote his business.

Here too Sridhar Jiu is worshipped but the rath is never taken outside the house. Each part of the rath is detachable. The brass rath is tiny but shows how European culture dominated and transformed our lives even then. Four cherubs playing musical instruments stand at each of the four corners of the first tier of the rath. On the second are four maidens in high waisted Empire line gowns. They hold the fluttering penants.

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