Making of the Rath Yatra Chariots in Jaganath Puri
The main feature of the Puri Rath Yatra festival is three towering temple-shaped chariots that carry the three deities from the Jagannath Temple. The chariots are an architectural marvel. What's really fascinating is the detailed process by which the chariots are newly made every year. It's a labor of love for around 200 carpenters, helpers, blacksmiths, tailors, and painters who work tirelessly according to a strict 58 day deadline. The craftsmen don't follow any written instructions. Instead, all the knowledge is handed down from generation to generation. Only one family of carpenters has hereditary rights to the construction of the chariots.
The process takes places in various stages - some of the main stages are:
Delivery of Wood: The wooden logs are supplied free of cost by the Orissa state government. They're delivered to the area outside the Jagannath Temple office on Vasant Panchami (also referred to as Saraswati Puja), the birthday of Saraswati the goddess of knowledge. This takes place in January/February. Over 4,000 pieces of wood are required to make the chariots, and the government started a plantation program in 1999 to replenish forests. The cutting of the logs to the required sizes gets underway at saw mills on Ram Navami, the birthday of Lord Ram, in March/April.
The Construction: Chariot construction takes place at the front of the royal palace near the Jagannath Temple and commences on Akshay Tritiya, a particularly auspicious occasion in April/May. It's believed that any meaningful activity started on this day will be fruitful. It also marks the beginning of Chandan Yatra, a 42 day sandalwood festival at the Jagannath Temple. Prior to the commencement of construction, the temple priests gather to perform a holy fire ritual. The priests, dressed in bright attire, sing and carry garlands that are delivered to the chief carpenters. The work on all three chariots begins and ends simultaneously. It starts with the wheels, a total of 42 wheels are required for the three chariots. The wheels are affixed to the principal axles on the last day of Chandan Yatra. Devotees come in droves to see it and pay homage.
The Decoration: Great care and attention is paid to the decoration of the chariots, highlighting the superb craftsmanship of the artisans of Orissa. The wood is carved with designs inspired by Orissa temple architecture. The frames and wheels of the chariots are also colorfully painted with traditional designs. The canopies of the chariots are covered in approximately 1,250 meters of intricately embroidered green, black, yellow, and red cloth. This dressing of the chariots is carried out by the team of tailors, who make cushions for the Deities to rest on as well.
Upon completion, the chariots are dragged to the Lions Gate entrance of the Jagannath Temple in the afternoon on the day before the festival starts. The next morning (the first day of the festival, known as Sri Gundicha), the deities are taken out of the Temple and installed in the chariots.