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Ever since his childhood, Srila Prabhupada was always very fond of Lord Jagannatha. At the young age of five, Srila Prabhupada, who at that time was known as Abhay Caran, wanted to hold his own Ratha-yatra festival in his birth home in Kolkata. Despite having some financial difficulties, Krsna arranged everything, and little Abhay held his first ever Ratha-yatra festival at home. Many years later, ISKCON’s first ever Ratha-yatra was held in Los Angeles, San Francisco on July 9, 1967, and tens of thousands of people came to witness this great marvel. As the years went on, Ratha-yatra was ceremoniously followed and celebrated throughout the globe.
Starting in the late 80’s with one small chariot, Ratha-yatra was celebrated just inside the Mayapur campus by the gurukula students. As time went on, Ratha-yatra grew, and the campus grounds could no longer hold the festival. We had to start thinking big. In 1997, the Mayapur management organized the first ever Ratha-yatra festival coming from Rajapur to ISKCON Mayapur with three grand chariots. It was only with their leadership and expertise that this festival continues today.
Fast forwarding to present day Mayapur, Ratha-yatra preparations for the festival starts three months prior to the festival itself, beginning on the auspicious day of Aksaya Tritya, which fell on the 18th of April this year. On this day, they do a puja to invoke auspiciousness. In Puri, this is the day when they start making Lord Jagannatha’s Rratha carts, but since we already have them made, the devotees heading up the festival do an elaborate puja. Continuing from that day, the organisers of the festival begin planning the finer details of the festival and collect donations to facilitate the festival. From collecting donations to figuring out how many devotees to cook for, to getting government permission, the organisers of this festival work day and night for three months aiming to make sure that this festival is better than the last – in their eyes, there is always room for improvement.
Here is a small list of what the organisers have to figure out in order for the festival to move forward without a hitch:-
And much, much more.
The day before the auspicious Ratha-yatra festival, all the devotees gather and do a maha clean up of the temple, preparing for Lord Jagannatha’s arrival. This festival is known as Gundica Marjanam, or the cleaning of Gundica temple. This festival was celebrated by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu Himself. In Sri Caitanya Caritamrta, Madhya Lila 12,135, “Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura says that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, as the world leader, was personally giving instructions on how one should receive Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, within one’s cleansed and pacified heart. If one wants to see Krsna seated in his heart, he must first cleanse the heart, as prescribed by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in His Siksastakama: ceto-darpana-marjanam [Cc. Antya 20.12].” Once the temple is spotlessly cleaned, the devotees retire early to prepare for the Lord’s arrival the next day, to Mayapur, and to the chambers of their hearts.
Early the next day, preparations for Lord Jagannatha’s departure to Gundica, or as the Gaudiya Vaisnavas see it, Jagannatha’s departure for Vrndavan, begins. The atmosphere is surcharged with such ecstatic energy, as the devotees gather and escort the Lord to His grand chariot. The Lord of the Gopis’ hearts is finally coming home. Once the Lord of Lord mounts His chariot, He is given a wonderful reception – Pandu Vijaya. This reception entails offering sixteen auspicious items, each with a particular significance.
Jagannatha’s Ratha is marked with a Cakra and Garuda, is yellow in color, with four white horses, and the protecting deity is Nrsimha. Baladeva’s cart is blue, with a palm tree insignia, with four black horses, and the protecting deity is Sesa. Subhadra’s cart is black, with a lotus insignia, and is protected by Vanadurga.
Once the Lords are comfortably seated in Their respective chariots, and properly welcomed, some dancers and performers perform wonderful acts for the pleasure of the Lord and His assembled devotees. After a couple acts, some esteemed guests such as the Kolkata High Court Judge and Member of the State Legislative Assembly and two Ministers speak, and more performances follow.
Once Jagannatha is ready to leave, the devotees enthusiastically pull the Lord’s cart through the streets, along a five kilometer stretch between Rajapur and ISKCON Mayapur, or as we see it, from Kuruksetra to Vrndavan. Every few meters or so, Jagannatha stops to honour the offerings His devotes have prepared with love. Offering upon offering is given to the Lord; it almost never ends! He is offered so many offerings, His hands are never dry once from the beginning of Ratha-yatra till the end.
Communities join together to celebrate this festival, and people from all castes, backgrounds and religions join in. The Muslim community especially joins in every year. During the procession, the clouds form a canopy above the heads of the devotees and showers cooling sprays to relieve the devotees who are fatigued by pulling the cart and singing and dancing.
Day turns to night, and Jagannatha, His brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra Maharani are nearing Gundica Mandir. The intensity of the atmosphere grows as the devotees pull the Lords. Every step taken is stronger. Every name chanted is more earnest. And every tug and pull on the rope is stronger; leading the Lord of Lords home…and into their hearts.
Once Jagannatha reaches Gundica Mandir, He is given another wonderful reception, and is welcomed home. He, along with His brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra are carefully taken down from Their chariots, and are escorted to the wonderfully constructed temple for worship.
Jagannatha stays for seven blissful days, and during that time, His loving devotes are constantly feeding Him delectable offerings of love throughout the day. In the evening, the devotees gather before the Lord to glorify Him by singing songs and offering ghee lamps. Thereafter, the Lord and His devotees are entertained by many wonderful dancers, singers and actors.
On the fourth day of the Lord’s stay, Laksmi Devi along with Her guards and servants come to Gundica. Jagannatha’s pandas, or pujaris, and Laksmi Devi’s pandas have an intense fight over whether Jagannatha will stay or go back. Eventually, Jagannatha’s forces surrender and They come to a compromise that He will return after three short days. Laksmi Devi being satisfied, leaves and awaits Her Lord’s arrival in three days. This pastime is known as Hera Pancami.
For the last four years, a small team of devotees design and make a stunning dress, along with jewelry and decorations almost entirely out of flowers to offer to the Lord on His last day in Mayapur. From the night before, these devotees, along with a few other volunteers stay up the whole night making the dress. The next day, the Lord gives a breathtaking darshan, and all the devotees who served throughout the night are more than fully compensated for all their long hours of service and sacrifice.
Since 2009, some Mayapur girls began to cook elaborate preparations for the Lord. One of the girls recalled: “Before we started this tradition, [we] had gone to Jagannatha Puri with the school, and we feasted many times in different temples, and the pandas (priests) would tell us how everyday Jagannatha gets offered an extravagant amount of preparations, so…that’s what inspired me. I had a desire to offer a huge number of preps – a Raj Bhoga – but not a traditional one, a contemporary one. My sister and friend also loved to cook, so…as (the) years went by, it became a tradition,”
This year, the girls along with some of their other friends prepared over one-hundred and eight preparations for Lord Jagannatha – one-hundred and seventeen, to be precise. Some of these girls who had stayed up the previous night to make Jagannatha’s flower dress also contributed to the huge offering. Their love is limitless. As HH Bhakti Purusottam Swami famously says, “Mahaprabhu is the dancing God, and Jagannatha is the eating God.”
And so, ending His stay on a deliciously sweet note, Lord Jagannatha is obliged to fulfill His promise to Laksmi Devi, and with a heavy heart, leaves Mayapur, which is non-different from Vrndavan, and heads back to Rajapur.