The hugely popular rath yatra at Puri has attracted scholars from all over the world to speculate about its origins just as it has had people intrigued about the nature of the wooden gods that live inside the temple and are symbolically recreated during the Nabakalebra ritual.

For some clues as to what this is all about let’s start with the king who is said to have started the worship of Jagannath or Nilamadhava at the behest of Narada muni. The legend of King Indradyumna is found in the Skanda Purana. He is also mentioned in Padma Purana, Brahma Purana and Narada Purana among others. Lord Jagannath is mentioned in the Vedas and there is a belief that King Indrayumna was a king from the Vedic age.

The antiquity of the worship seems to have been accepted by scholars of all shades. And they have also raised many questions about the shape and form of the idols placed in the temple. Usually the gods in the Hindu pantheon are extremely well defined in paintings and sculpture. But the idols at Jagannath temple are not so. They look like wooden stumps with large round eyes, painted in dark garish colours and lack a body. The story that tells us just why the idols look half done is an attempt to explain this. But quite clearly this is an explanation that later generations have had to come up with to try and rationalise the worship of these gods who look so different from the prevailing Hindu gods and goddesses.

Many scholars believe the worship of Jagannath has tribal origins. The worship is often attributed to a Savara tribe, who were considered to be the earliest inhabitants of the state of Odisha. The Savaras were a tree worshipping tribe (tree or stumps which resemble a tree-like structure), a form of worship that is common to many tribes in the world. Worshipping trees and singing and dancing in front of their god, Jaganata, was part of the Savara rituals. The scholars feel that as the Aryan influence in the region grew, this ritual was fused with theirs and a common festival emerged. This became the rath yatra and the tribal Jaganata soon metamorphosed into the aryanised Jagannath, with Vedic and Puranic attachments.

Another very interesting aspect is the sudden emergence of a triad from the single god. All myths begin with a single god, be it Nilamadhava or Jaganata. But somewhere the single god transforms into a triad. One of the versions given by scholars was that in the earlier days the Lord Jagannath was seen with his consort, Lakshmi. Somewhere, to appease a section of the Shaivas, Balabhadra or Balarama was added to the couple, but this posed another problem. According to the Oriya convention, the elder brother could not see the face of the younger brother’s wife. This convention made the consort make way for the sister, Subhadra in this case! Such things happen to accommodate more deities or could even be an act of appeasement of other communities or tribes in the widely followed cult.

According to some British scholars, the association of the colour blue, Nila, in the myths of Nilamadhava and Nilanchal, could be ascribed to the common use of the easily available blue coloured stones which were usually used for making idols during the ancient times. In the earlier days, the gods were offered raw and uncooked food. With aryanisation, cooked food began to be offered to the deities but a lot of practices that appear to be of tribal origin still prevail. It is pertinent to mention here that the worship of the original Nilamadhava is still prevalent in the hill-top region of Brahmachala, on the banks of the River Mahanadi at Kantilo, in Nayagarh district of Odisha even today!

Finally, the worship of Jagannath is performed by a community who are the hereditary servitors of the Lord. They also observe the funeral rites of the Lord during the Nava Kalevar (nabakalebra) and also are in charge of the yatra. What is most interesting is that these priests are non-Brahmin, which goes on to show that though the Aryans went on to own the deity, the tribal community continued to own the rights to serve the deity. The Jagannath worship and the entire yatra is a classic example of synthesis of two different cultures — a perfect coexistence of Vaishnavite and tribal cults. This is one rare instance of a tribal deity being given such prominence in the Hindu pantheon, albeit after incorporating it within a more acceptable Vedic and Puranic lineage.

Nepal hosts a similar ratha-yatra, known as as Rato Machhindranath Yatra which is an important festival for both Hindus as well as Buddhists of Nepal. Rato Machhindranath, “Rato” means red and “Machhindra” means fish which is derived from “machhindra” or “matsendra” and finally “nath” meaning god. Rato Machhindranath is a red coloured deity and is a god of rain in Nepal and is worshipped just before the monsoon starts. The deity is worshipped to ensure a good monsoon and prevent a drought.

The high point of the festival is the building of a huge three-storied chariot where a replica of the deity is housed and pulled by hundreds of believers. The chariot is taken all over the city of Patan in Nepal and the journey lasts for a few weeks and is accompanied with a beating of the traditional drums and cymbals, something similar to that of the famous Puri ratha-yatra.

One of the important rituals of the Rato Machhindranath Yatra is the pouring of water on the deity. Four priests with silver jars stand in four directions with the deity in the centre. At the signal of the chief priest all four priests lift their jars and pour water on the deity. The priest who manages to pour water first is said to enable a good monsoon and better crops in his direction!

Finally, a similar procession can be found in the Ancient Egypt called the Opet Festival. It was celebrated in the Thebes during the second month of Akhet, i.e. the season of the inundation which in today’s times would be in the month of August/September. At this time the Nile would overflow and all the crops would be under the much needed water and there would not be much work for the then Egyptians. Initially the festival lasted for a week and later it became a two-week festival.

The most important aspect of the festival was the towing away of the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu southward on their barques both by boats and by men along the shoreline amid much fanfare and celebrations. The procession would start from Karnak and end about 2 miles away in Luxor and would stop midway for the priests to rest as well offer prayers till they reached the final destination. The Pharaoh would preside over the rituals prior to the procession and would return along with the deities. Many scholars have dated the Opet Festival to a much later period than the ratha yatra whose origins can be traced to the Vedic times. However this is not to state the supremacy of one culture over another or to try and prove how one civilisation is older than another but to simply illustrate how people have since the beginning of time been open to disparate cultural influences. Perhaps that should be our greatest learning from our myths.