India's Juggernauts, Part 3


BY: SUN STAFF - 13.6 2019

The Idol Juggernaut on His Car during the Rath Jatra 
Puri, c. 1820 
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection

The last in a three-part series on India's temple-car 'juggernauts'.


Temple-car Festivals

Every month of the year, in one part of India or another, ratha carts are being pulled by devotees of the Lord, and by worshippers of so many of His transcendental representatives. While ISKCON devotees only participate in Lord Jagannath's grand procession, there are many other devotees who look forward to getting darshan of their own worshipable Lordships during festivals throughout the year.

The fact that South India has such a great number of temple cars obviously corresponds to the fact that there are a great many temple festivals and holy days in that part of the country, when the Deities come out to be greeted by throngs of locals and pilgrims.

In Tiruchendur, where Lord Subrahmanya is worshipped, the cars come out twice a year, once in Maasi and once in Aavani, when temple brahmotsavams are held for a 12-day period. Three temple cars are dragged by the devotees for Maasi, and the festival concludes with a Teppam or float festival. On the seventh and eighth days of the festivals, Lord Shanmukha is housed in His mandapam before and after the processions, to give darshan to the devotees. During the Avani festival, held for twelve days in August-September, only two of the temple cars are drawn.

Temple-car of Lord Vishnu as Ranganatha, Srirangam Temple
Gouache on mica, Trichinopoly school, c. 1850


The achchai sattuppadi, or floral decorations for the Deity are all in green, and the eighth day is particularly opulent. The temple cars are drawn on the tenth day, and the Theppam float on the 11th day. Throughout the festival, just like ISKCON's Festival of India, local scholars and pandits give lectures, cultural displays are enjoyed, and many performances of art and drama are given.

In the month of Chittirai (April-May), the Vasanta festival is held for ten days. Senthil-Nayagar, the utsavar processional deity of Subrahmanyam, with his consorts Valli and Teyvayânai, are taken from their sanctum in the temple to the vasanta mantapa on the giri-prakara, which is ornately festooned for the occasion. Special cool waters fill a tank which runs around the pedestal the Deities are placed, so they can enjoy during the seasonal heat.

Lord Subrahmanya (also known as Murugan, Skanda or Kumara), is worshipped by both Saiva and Vaisnava followers. Many of this Deity's temple cars in Tamil Nadu are exquisitely decorated with iconography of pastimes given in the Skanda Purana and Sarabha Purana. Each car is likely to have at least 200 iconographical illustrations in wood, along with various decorative motifs, yalis (lion guardians), and horses with riders. Many other Vaisnava and Saivite themes are found on the cars, with some of the most popular being the pastime wherein Lord Visnu punishes Brahma for not knowing the meaning of the pranava mantra. The Lord imprisons Brahma within the bars, and Skanda strikes a wild boar from which Visnu emerges.

Temple cars are a rich repository of transcendental art and instruction, and such opulent ratha cars are not limited to Tamil Nadu. Similarly ornamented vahanas are found in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and elsewhere.

In Tamil state's Manargudi, seven Deities of Lord Siva are brought out of the temples each year, and taken on procession on very lavishly decorated temple cars. They are taken to visit another temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, and both Saivite and Vaisnava devotees come to worship the Lord and his great devotee on this occasion.

Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, hundreds of devotees congregate at Sri Jambukeswarar-Ahilandeswari Temple in Tiruvanaikovil, where the annual Panguni Therottam ratha yatra is held. There, Lord Jambukeswarar, his consort Akhilandeswari, and Lord Chandikeswarar are taken out on procession, mounted on three separate decorated temple cars. They are pulled around the four praharam of the temple to the ecstatic chanting of the Sivacharyas. Throngs of devotees brave the scorching sun to pull the temple cars. The Deities are taken on five prakarams, which represent the five principles: Prithvi (earth), Appu (water), Theyu (fire), Vayu (air), and Akasa (sky).

In this picture of the ratha from Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore, Chennai, we see how the devotees deal with the challenge of pulling a heavy cart through the very hot Indian heat. As the temple car proceeds along the streets around the temple, crowds of happy devotees spray water on those pulling the chariot.

Kapaleeswarar Temple Car

In Kalpathy, Kerala, an early Tamil Brahmin settlement known as the 'Varanasi of the South', the Kalpathy Ratholsavam is the most important festival of the year. Similar to the Puri Jagannath Rath Yathra, the Kalpathy Ratholsavam features three magnificent chariots of the Viswanathaswamy Temple, and three chariots from nearby temples-- Manthakkara Maha Ganapathy, Lakshminarayana Perumal of Old Kalpathy, and Maha Ganapathy of Chathapuram.

Kalpathy Ratholsavam

The Deities are taken on nagara pradakshinam for three days in the Tamil month of Aippasi (mid November), at which time the car festival is also going on at Mayurathanathar Temple in Mayavaram. During the nine day festival, special poojas and Veda parayanam by pandits are conducted. In the evenings the Utsava Vigrahams are decorated and taken out in procession, with special nadaswaram through the four Agraharams. All the houses of the Agraharams offer nivedyam and harathi to the Deities as they pass through. On the fifth day, a mini car festival is conducted at night, when the Deities are taken out in specially decorated cars through the four Agraharams. All the cars are gathered together at one spot in New Kalpathy, and crowds of devotees turn out to get darshan.

The biggest of the three temple cars is used for Sri Viswanathassway, the second biggest for Ganapathi, and the third for Sri Subramaniaswamy with consorts Valli and Devayani. It appears that the car of Manthakkara Maha Ganapathy was built around 1885, and the other two probably not far behind. One of the cars of Sri Viswanathaswamy Temple eventually lost its road worthiness and a new car was built in 1996. From time immemorial, the Viswanathaswamy car has been pushed by elephants. This age-old practice is continued today, and many pilgrims come to witness the event.

Avinashi Temple Car

Goa Chariot

Lord Jagannath's Ratha, Orissa