While everyone knows of the famous Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri, there is one other in Bengal that has quite a huge devout following as well. This is the Rath Yatra of Mahesh in Hooghly district’s Sreerampore, which is said to be the second oldest chariot festival in the world and the oldest in Bengal, having been celebrated since 1396 on the same day as the Puri Ratha Yatra. This year marks its 621st edition.
The story of Mahesh Jagannath temple is an intersting one. According to one of the legends, a Bengali sadhu called Drubananda Brahmachari was once denied the chance to offer ‘bhog’ (food offerings) to Lord Jagannath. Dejected, the sage went on a fast until death. On the third day, Jagannath came in his dreams and told him to make the idols of Balarama, Jagannath and Subhadra with daru-brahma (neem trunk). The lord also wanted to have ‘bhog’ from his disciple. The sage then returned to Mahesh to make the idols from the daru-brahma he found one night.
The establishment of this Mahesh temple also indicates that religious custom of following Jagannath had spread to Bengal before the arrival of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, which was in the 15th century. In fact, it is said that once Sri Chaitanya – on his way to Puri – visited Drubananda’s temple at Mahesh, where he lost his sense and attained deep samadhi. This is why he rechristened Mahesh as Naba Nilachal (new Puri). At Drubananda behest, he made his disciple Kamalakar Piplai the head priest, who would later go on to start the rath yatra, but it is not known when the original temple ceased to exist.
History of Mahesh Rath Yatra
The new Mahesh temple in Kolkata was built by Nayanchand Mallik of Pathuriaghata in 1755, for Rs 20,000. In 1797, Sri Ramkrishna Dev’s renowned disciple Balaram Basu’s grandfather, Shri Krishnaram Basu, donated a chariot to the temple. Somehow this was burnt a couple of years later. Two other raths met with ill fates after this, and it was only in 1885 that the present chariot was built by the Martin Burn Company, under the patronage of Dewan Krishnachandra. The new four-storeyed chariot is 50ft high and weighs 125 tonnes.
There are many wonderful folklores of Jagannath around the temple at Mahesh. According to local storytellers, Lord Jagannath went to Mahesh all the way from Puri to taste its famous ‘mihidana’. But he did not have money, so he gave his armlet to buy the sweet. On his return to Puri, the pandas (priests) found the armlet missing. They apparently found out what happened, and then the pandas went to Mahesh to return with the ‘bala’.
Unlike the idols in Puri’s Jagannath temple, which are changed every 12 years, the idols by Kamalakar Pipilai are used till date, though not taken out in public. The angaraga ceremony is held just two days after the snanyatra and two weeks before the rath yatra. Lord Jagannath is sworn in as the crown, just a day before the rath yatra.
The Mahesh Rath Yatra festival, which turns 621 this year, is said to witness a gathering of 200,000-300,000 people every year, making it the second largest chariot festival in the world. Venerated persons like Sri Ramakrishna and his wife Sarada Devi from yesteryears to contemporary dramatist Girish Chandra Ghosh, among others, have come to visit the famous fair, going by the book ‘Radharani’ by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.