Wheels of faith

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By Heavy showers all afternoon could not dampen spirits as the chariot festival is celebrated across Salt Lake BRINDA SARKAR INPUTS FROM SUCHETA CHAKRABORTY
  • Published 4.07.14
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It had started raining hours before the chariots were to roll, but it couldn’t keep devotees away. “In fact, what’s Rathyatra without rain?” said Priyanka Roy, trying to pull her two-year-old son back under her umbrella.

Roy, a resident of FB Block, was outside CB 54 on Sunday afternoon, waiting for the Rathyatra to begin. As the three chariots for Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra were being readied by members of Shri Jagannath Utsav Samity, Roy’s son looked fascinated. “I wanted my son to see this magnificent festival so I braved the rains and brought him,” she said.

The chariot of Bidhannagar Shree Chaittanya Bhagavat Samaj, parked on the CA Block side of the same road, was the first to roll. The men pulling it had rolled up their jeans, the women had covered their heads with anchals and churnis and the kids had handkerchiefs and plastic bags wrapped around their heads — all in a bid to seek cover from the rain. None of the safeguards worked and everyone was drenched to the bones even before setting off.

“It’s no big deal, we’re used to performing in the sun or rain,” smiled Priyanka Reddy, playing the “gypsy” in the band that preceded the chariot.

As the rath took a right turn from PNB Island, residents of houses on First Avenue rushed out or at least came out to their balconies to bow their heads in prayer. “We wait for the rath to cross our house every year. Even guests come to our house on this day so they can see the chariot,” smiled Jyotsna Sil of AB Block from her balcony.

Children like Samrat Sardar had come to the procession with their own toy chariots. “The big rath is much faster than mine but I’ve decorated my rath with flowers and leaves,” showed the boy from AC Block.

The Chaittanya Bhagavat Samaj chariot was headed to Central Park, where it will stay till Ultarath. A Rather Mela is also on there and will continue till July 21.

Meanwhile, another chariot, of Sri Jagannath Seva Samiti Khidderpore, set off from Central Park to Swabhumi. This convoy had around 200 people dancing to Oriya songs and masked dancers performing before the moving chariot. There were percussionists atop trailers too, but they were not playing because of the rains.

“I come every year to watch Lord Jagannath being taken to Swabhumi,” said Renuka Mukherjee of HB Block. For Tanaya Ghosh of GD Block, this festival was a first. “I’ve recently moved to Calcutta from Gurgaon and this is the first time I’m seeing such a beautiful procession. I shall surely visit Swabhumi to see more of this,” she said from her balcony.

Crowd control

The ropes of their CB Block chariots were said to be 40-ft long but it was impossible to count how many people pulled it at a time. “We estimate 8,000 to 10,000 people to be taking part in the festival,” said one of the organisers, Mukund Bajaj.

Despite the recent court order barring devotees from climbing the chariot in Puri, Bajaj said they have no such rule. “We ask a few senior citizens to sit on our chariots as they wouldn’t be able to keep up on foot but besides that no one usually tries to climb it up. Crowd control is not a problem as the police helps us and we have an ambulance on standby,” continued Bajaj.

In the Swabhumi-bound Rathyatra, the few devotees who were trying to climb the chariot were seen being pulled away by volunteers. “I think the court ruling in Puri is justified,” said general secretary of the organisation, Manoj Parida. “If many people climb up the chariot it slows down movement. It becomes difficult to control the crowd and creates scope for accidents.” Their rope is 66 meters long and around 800 people can get a hold of it at a time.

Kumar Sankar Sadhu, general secretary of the Samaj, says they have always been strict about stopping people from climbing the chariot. “It is a huge risk as accidents can happen. As it is, it is difficult controlling crowds that rush to pull the rope. We don’t want more trouble,” says Sadhu. The police had deployed 30 constables but it was still an uphill task.

Bajaj, of the CB Block festival, says that the only problem they face is that of pickpockets. “Last year we got eight to 10 complaints of pickpockets during the procession, mostly when crossing the Seba Hospital area. There is a gang of women and children involved in this but the police need to catch them red-handed to take action,” he says.

Drinks break

There were seven “aarti sthals” on the route of the CB Block chariot. Here the chariot stopped for passersby to come and see the lord and drinks and refreshments were offered to those in the procession.

“We’ve got 1,000 ice cream sticks for devotees but I have lost count of the amount of tea and sharbat we are serving,” smiled Anup Kumar Lihala of AC 15, the first pitstop. Lihala’s house has been a refuelling stop ever since the Rathyatra started. “The first year we had members of the procession asking us for water. So from the next year we decided to keep drinks for everyone on the journey.”

But many in the procession dumped the used cups and ice cream packets on the road despite waste bags being placed right in front of them.

Moonlight chariot

More than two hours after the other chariots set off, three women were seen running near City Centre, holding on to six children and three umbrellas between them. “We had dropped plans of pulling the chariot this year as I didn’t want the kids to catch a cold in the rain. But they cribbed so much that we came anyway,” said one of the women.

The women, from Duttabad, were running in the opposite direction taken by the CB Block rath, hoping to catch it head-on. But they crossed instead the Bidhannagar Ramakrishna Vivekananda Kendra chariot, that had set off at around 6pm. “Our Rathyatra was scheduled to leave after our annual general meeting today so it got late,” said Chanchal De, the secretary of the DD Block centre.

By the time their chariot took off the streetlights had been turned on. This chariot was drawn mostly by senior citizens but they were no less in energy. “This will be the fourth chariot I pull today,” beamed 64-year-old Jharna Bhattacharya of BC Block. “I’m grateful to Lord Jagannath for my strength and vigour.”

As the chariot encircled DD Block, a teenaged girl and an elderly lady pulling it almost slipped and fell but both were helped to their feet by fellow devotees and the chariots rolled on.