India's Juggernauts, Part 2


BY: SUN STAFF - 11.5 2019

Car Temple Procession of Lord Sri Rama, 19th c.

A three-part series on India's temple-car 'juggernauts'.


Maintaining ancient temple-cars and stone temple raths

As decades turn into centuries, hundreds of India's ancient temple-cars roll through the years. While the enormous stone ratha structures age very slowly, carts made of wood, bamboo and other organic materials are prone to disintegrate in the heat and humidity of India. Over the last ten years, state governments in many parts of the country have begun to take ratha cart preservation seriously, committing both money and expertise to conservancy of these temple treasures.

Many ratha vahanams are borne along on huge wooden wheels designed to bear the weight of the chariot while using readily available materials. Some cars, however, are perched atop huge stone wheels that roll on massive axels. Knowing the exertion required to pull a relatively lightweight Puri-style chariot in Lord Jagannath's Ratha Yatra, one can only imagine the effort required to pull a huge chariot on stone wheels through the subcontinental heat.

In Tiruchi, the State has undertaken a program to modernize temple cars, in many cases replacing the wooden wheels with steel framed ones, and installing hydraulic brakes and steering mechanisms. Efforts have also been made to decrease the overall weight of the carts so they can be pulled more easily, and with less manpower. Officials hope to increase the safety of devotees by decreasing the number of people required on the ropes. And while traditionalists haven't been very pleased with these changes, the trend seems to have gotten legs.

Manipur style Ratha, c. 1870

Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Temple in Triplicane also adopted a plan of modernization, upgrading a 60 ton ratha chariot that carries not only the deities on parade, but an additional 20 tons of decoration and ornamentation. Steel axels have replaced wooden ones, with iron wheels replacing wood wheels. The Triplicane chariot comes out twice a year, transporting Sri Narasimha for Aani Shravanam, and Sri Parthasarathy Perumal for Chithirai Brahmothsavam. The car is now 200 years old, although the top has been re-fabricated numerous times.

In Chennai, nearly 250 temple-cars are, or have recently been under the care of a renovation program, funded by local temples and private and government funds. Local devotees have been delighted with these efforts to renovate the cars.

Two years ago, the wooden wheels were replaced with iron wheels on a car from the Tiruvannamalai Temple, which bears the Deities of Lord Murugan and Vinayakar Arunachaleswarar Temple has five cars, and the raths of Annamalayar and Unnamulayammai have also been fitted out with iron wheels.

Protection for the Chariot - a thatched garage for the temple chariot in Najnanagud

While Jagannath Puri is the unparalleled home of Ratha Yatra, Tamil Nadu boasts the greatest number of operable temple cars in India, being close to 1,000 in number. Because the majority of Tamil Nadu's ratha carts are wooden, steps are being taken to protect them with fireproof metal sheds and garages, iron axels and wheels, and even insurance policies to protect the temple assets.

In Nellai, Tamil Nadu, the deity is transported in a giant wood temple car constructed during the Pandyas period, a few centuries ago. The highly detailed ornamentation and wooden carvings, here illustrating the pastimes of Lord Nrsimhadev, are indicative of the complex carvings that must somehow be protected from humidity and heat.

Ratha cart in Nellai, Tamil Nadu

Canopied Juggernauth car in Madras, c. 1851

The temple car below is from the Chamundi Temple, on Chamundi Hill in Mysore. It is dedicated to the guardian divinity of the ruling Wadiyar family who founded the shrine in the 17th century. The ornate carved wooden car is surmounted by a throne standing on the back of a carved lion figure. The car was presented to the temple by the Maharaja of Mysore in 1848.

Chamundi Temple ratha car

Below is a massively ornate stone ratha from Lord Venkataramana's temple in the Anantapur district of Tadpatri, Andhra Pradesh. The temple complex was built during the Vijayanagara period, mid-16th century. The temple is entered through a tall gopura in the middle of the east side of a rectangular colonnade. The main shrine, dedicated to Vishnu, is preceded by a closed mandapa with two porches. The stone chariot or ratha, is actually a miniature temple dedicated to Garuda. It has a pyramidal roof and pilastered walls with stone wheels carved with lotus motifs.

Venkataramana's Temple Car, Tadpatri 

Next, we'll look at some of the many festivals around India featuring diverse ratha carts.