Oblivious to the crowd milling around, he stood on Grand Road, his gaze fixed on the gaily decorated chariots of Lord Jagannath and his siblings, Balabhadra and Subhadra. “They look so beautiful,” he mumbled to himself. For Bharat Sahu, a retired government officer, this was the first rath yatra he witnessed live and it was a dream come true.
As people pushed and jostled around him, 65-year-old Sahu wiped his moist eyes and joined the chorus of “Jai Jagannath” rising from all corners of Bada Danda (Grand Road), which was chock-a-block with devotees.
Around nine lakh devotees converged in this holy town today to witness the annual journey of Lord Jagannath and his siblings from their 12th century abode to Sri Gundicha, the shrine dedicated to their aunt, about 3km away. This is the only occasion when the Lord takes a walk mingling with commoners irrespective of their caste and creed.
As people fought for every inch of available space on Grand Road, devotional fervour rose to a crescendo with lakhs chanting “Jai Jagannath” in unison to the beating of hundreds of cymbals and gongs.
Gotipua dancers performed and young men showcased “banati,” a traditional form of martial art.
Humid conditions notwithstanding, the crowd that watched waited patiently for the chariots to roll, the first to take off being Taladhwaja, the mount of Balabhadra, at 3.40pm, around 40 minutes behind schedule. The chariots of Subhadra and Lord Jagannath followed. All the three reached Sri Gundicha temple by evening. After spending the night on their mounts, the deities would enter Sri Gundicha temple for their nine-day sojourn tomorrow morning.
Though there was some delay in the performance of morning rituals such as mangal arati, the proceedings picked up pace later. The deities were brought out of the sanctum sanctorum of 12th century Jagannath temple in ceremonial processions called pahandi bije and seated on the colourfully done chariots amid much fanfare.
Though there were reports of devotees fainting in the crowd because of the high humidity level, there were no accidents with police personnel and health workers keeping a sharp eye on the proceedings. Doctors and volunteers manning the first aid centres were at hand to help people in distress.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik, governor S.C. Jamir and his wife, and Union minister Jual Oram watched the proceedings, including the ritual of chhera pahanra (ceremonial sweeping of the chariot decks) by Puri king Maharaja Gajapati Dibyasingh Deb from a vantage point. While the chief minister conveyed his best wishes to the people of the state on the occasion, Oram said he considered himself privileged to be in Puri on the day.
“I am here to pull the chariots,” Oram said.
Security in the town was tight with the deployment of 104 platoons of police force, including 600 officers of different ranks, 2,000 homeguards and two companies of Rapid Action Force (RAF). While anti-terrorist squads and sniffer dogs were pressed into service along the rath yatra route, CCTV cameras had been installed at strategic points.
Coast Guard vessels, as usual, maintained a vigil in the sea while policemen in uniform and plain clothes kept a watch on tourists and devotees who turned up at the sprawling beach in the town which has, for long, been considered a soft target for terrorists. Senior police officers, however, asserted that the security was foolproof.
Elaborate arrangements had also been made to ensure proper health care during rath yatra. While 36 doctors were on duty at the Puri district headquarters hospital, 85 others had been requisitioned from other parts of the state for deployment in the town. Assisting the doctors were 354 paramedics and 10 food inspectors. Of the 280 beds at the district headquarters hospital, 50 had been set aside for rath yatra related cases. As many as 100 ambulances had been deployed in the town with 70 of these stationed on the stretch between the Lion’s Gate of the Jagannath temple and Sri Gundicha temple, the twin ends of the yatra route.