Rathyatra is something that my family has celebrated every year in our home and it’s become something of a tradition. Even though I don’t consider myself particularly religious, I’d get out my miniature Rath (standing a foot tall) containing the holy trinity of the gods and Goddess, Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra, with great excitement and parade it around my house. To me, the festival was confined to my house, celebrated in a small manner with just my family members present. However, the festival is actually a huge deal – there are large Raths or chariots (these Raths are to my Rath what the Millennium Falcon is to a Lego model of it) that are pulled by people or vehicles all over the city, bands are hired to follow the Rath and play festive music loudly and the huge groups of people following the Rath shout and dance and have loads of fun. If this sounds like it’s a little too much, then wait till you hear about Rathyatra in Puri.
Puri is a holy city in the indian state of Orissa. It houses the temple where the actual idols of the aforementioned gods is kept. I go to Puri once every year, firstly, to visit the temple and secondly, because it has a beautiful beach. Hordes of people visit the temple everyday and getting into the main hall where the deities are kept is a nightmare, even on a normal day. The crowd increases tenfold during Rathyatra as this is THE place to be for the festival, the place where the Raths house the actual deities and not replicas. I’ve never actually been to Puri during Rathyatra even though I’d heard a lot about it. However, when my father got to hear that the extremely rare Nabakalebara (the transfer of the souls of the gods into new idols on the day of Rathyatra) was going to take place this year, he decided that we have to go and witness it first-hand as it truly is a once in a lifetime experience (it’s only going to be held twice this century and the second one of the 21st century is going to 75 years later). I was quite enthusiastic about this trip and I pictured it to be a serene and peaceful affair. Yeah, I was really wrong about that.
We drove to Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa on the day before Rathyatra and stayed in a club there. My uncle and his son had tagged along with us; the more the merrier. I was very excited for the day ahead and was looking forward to it with child-like glee. We had driven to Bhubaneswar but were advised to not drive to Puri which was just 63 km away as we wouldn’t get any parking near the city. So we decided to take the train.
We got onto our train at around 11 in the morning and it was not what I’d imagined. There were only two main lines for all the trains to Puri and around 60 trains were heading there that day and as a result the train kept stopping every 5 minutes, either to make way for another or because the line ahead was blocked. The train wasn’t comfortable either – this wasn’t a train with very neat compartments and air-conditioning or even drinking water; no, this was a train which was so crowded with people that the four of us (my father, uncle, cousin and I) couldn’t find a place to sit, so we had to stand in that place next to where the doors are. And oh, there are no doors which is great for having a nice view and getting cool breeze to caress your face, but it’s a major safety hazard especially when the men standing there were hanging out from them in excitement. It was hot and we were all sweaty despite the breeze. We were also thirsty but since we didn’t trust the water they were providing to the passengers in packets, we decided to stay thirsty for a while longer.
We did around 45 of the 63 km in one and a half hours – that’s how slow the train was. With the incessant stopping of the train followed by long 15 minute waits, I’m surprised we didn’t take longer. In the middle of those 45 kilometres, we decided to switch trains and hopped on to the one that was waiting next to ours because that was slated to arrive at Puri earlier than our one. I observed the thick water pipes next to our new train that were originally set up by the British here to provide water to the steam engines. Now though, they were being used to supply water to the bathrooms on the trains. We luckily found some seats on this train and my back immediately thanked me after I sat down. The journey in this train was slower but it was calmer. I took the opportunity to relax a little and drink some coconut water which was extremely refreshing. Oh and I also wrote my blog on The Wolf Among Us on the train itself on my father’s phone as I was told not to bring me phone in case it gets stolen.
We stopped again just 6 km from Puri this time and there was no telling how long we would have to wait. So we disembarked and went to the highway right next to the train station to see if we could find some other sort of public transport. Funnily enough there were plenty of private cars that had come till that point and the people in them looked a lot less worn-out than us. Though the cars weren’t being allowed to cross the barrier (the police had made a 6 km radius of barricades beyond which only certain vehicles are allowed), there was a huge parking lot nearby where these people parked their cars and then travelled the remaining distance by bus or auto-rickshaw. We felt so stupid for not bringing the car along as that would have saved us a lot of time and of course, terrible back aches. We tried to get an auto-rickshaw for a long time, but none seemed to be empty. Finally we had to walk to the bus stand where we spotted a small bus offering to take people to Puri. We hopped on and saw that the bus was extremely crowded. All of us had very uncomfortable seating positions and the bumpy road made the ride even worse. We passed the barricade made by the police and were eventually stopped around a km from the temple; no vehicles were being allowed beyond that point. We alighted from the bus and found a cycle-rickshaw to take us till the temple. However, he only took us a short distance and said that we would have to walk the rest. Nonetheless, the ride was comfortable and any respite from awkward seating positions or standing was welcome to me.
Eventually, there was only 0.5 km between us and the temple and the journey had seemed to take forever to me. We had to walk that last stretch; this was made even more difficult for my cousin as he had gotten quite a deep gash on his left foot while he was getting off the cycle-rickshaw. There was a first-aid “tent” run by some government officials on the way and they fixed him up nicely. Meanwhile, I was just thinking how well the state had organized such an enormous affair that attracts tens of thousands from all around the country – they had cordoned off the city, set up these first-aid tents, they were distributing free packets of water to people and free bus rides to the city. We soon set off again, drinking cold water and wiping our sweat along the way. The road we were on was climbing up and when we reached the “crest” I could see the main road that led to the temple. Though, I couldn’t really see any of the tarmac, just a sea of heads all packed tightly together; there must have been millions there. Now, I knew we were in for a massive challenge on seeing this and getting to the temple would take a miracle. Wading through that crowd seemed impossible but since we’d come this far, it would feel wrong to not go all the way. So, in we went.