The Ahmedabad Rath Yatra, which began Thursday, is into its 142nd year. Covering a distance of 14 kilometres one way, the yatra starts from the Jagannath temple in the minority dominated Jamalpur area, crossing a path that was earlier the fortified kingdom of Ahmedabad founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1411, to the Saraspur temple known as mausaal (maternal uncle’s home).
Unlike its parent version in Odisha’s Puri, which happens at the Bada danda, a largely Hindu stretch, the Ahmedabad Rath Yatra passes through predominantly Muslim areas.
The key components of the yatra — the akhada performers, the boisterous participants, the bhajan mandalis, the trucks carrying the floats, slogan-shouting, and the elephants leading it through the narrow streets — makes it a law and order nightmare for the Gujarat police.
In 1946, the yatra had sparked off communal riots after an altercation between the two communities, leading to the death of two youths. Vasantrao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani died brokering peace between Hindus and Muslims.
July 1, the day they died, is celebrated as communal harmony day.
Again in 1969, on the last day of Urs, a communal riot broke out as cows belonging to the Jagannath temple which were returning home on the same route, led to protests. This was one of Gujarat’s worst communal riots.
Efforts to change the route of the yatra, or to curtail it during times of communal tension, have been in vain as the procession is seen as a sign of harmony.
In 1985, when the city was in the grip of communal riots, the police advice to call off the yatra was snubbed by right-wing forces and the yatra was conducted under heavy police protection.
Similarly, in 2002, then Ahmedabad police commissioner KR Kaushik had advised the yatra be cancelled or its route changed, but the temple priest, VHP and political leaders prevailed. The yatra, after the peaceful conduct of board exams that year, was seen as another measure of peace having returned to Gujarat after the bloody riots of 2002 in which nearly 1,200 lives were lost.
Rath Yatra 2019 in Ahmedabad
The procession since its launch has only been growing, now at a length of nearly three kilometres, escorted by nearly 20,000 policemen pooled from across Gujarat’s forces, including the paramilitary, like the Rapid Action Force (RAF).
It also includes trucks that carry floats, most of them themed on the current political scenario, giving the procession its political undertone. Security drills precede the yatra where the route is sanitized by bomb squads and sniffer dogs. Dangerous buildings are issued demolition notices since the yatra also marks the onset of the monsoon. With the advancement of technology, GPS devices have been fitted on the chariots to track them in the procession and now surveillance is also done by drone cameras.
The history of Rath Yatra
Legend goes that over 400 years ago the site where the Ahmedabad temple stands was a forest on the east bank of the Sabarmati river. A sadhu by the name of Hanumandasji settled down in this forest area and installed an idol of Lord Hanuman.
It is said that his successor, Sarangdasji, was a devotee of Lord Jagannath. On one of his visits to the Puri Jagannath Mandir in Odisha, he had a dream where the Lord directed him to go back to Ahmedabad to install the idols of the holy trinity of Lord Jagannath, his elder brother, Balabhadra (known in Gujarat as Baldev), and their sister Subadhra. The temple was thus founded and a cowshed was built alongside.
In 1878, the fourth successor Mahant Narsinhdasji introduced the Rath Yatra on the lines of Puri. Narsinhdasji was said to be the only mahant of Gujarati origin who was the head priest of the temple, the others having belonged to the Hindi belt. The main trustee of the Jagannath temple trust is Mahendra Jha.
After Narsinhdasji, the current head priest Dilipdasji is a Gujarati, from the Digambar akhada.
The yatra is conducted on the day of Ashada shukla dwitiya or Ashaadi beej, which also marks the Kutchhi new year.
It is believed that this is the only time of the year when the Lord goes out to meet devotees on his chariot (rath), especially those who are physically challenged and unable to come to the temple. In Puri, as per tradition, the king of the erstwhile Kalinga kingdom — the Gajapati — performs the Chera Pahanra, the sweeping of the chariots, which in Ahmedabad is called the pahind vidhi and performed by the chief minister.
Apart from these, the Ahmedabad yatra is different from its Puri counterpart on other counts — the idols Lord Jagannath, Baldev and Subhadra are blindfolded ahead of the procession day, as part of the netrotsav ceremony, but remain open to public view. In Puri, they are given a bath and kept out of public view till the procession. Known as ‘Chaka dola’ (the one with the large round eyes) in Odisha, Jagannath is believed to be the Lord who watches over the world and never sleeps.
The Puri yatra to the maternal uncle’s place is also called the Gundicha yatra, named after Gundicha devi, the maternal aunt of Lord Jagannath. The siblings spend at least seven days at their aunt’s and return to the main temple in Puri in what is called the ‘bahudi yatra’ (the return journey).
In Ahmedabad, the yatra returns from the maternal aunt’s place the same evening. In fact, the priority is to ensure that the yatra, on its onward and return journeys, clears the minority dominated areas before the namaaz hours, in order not to disturb Muslims at prayer time.
Ahead of the yatra in Ahmedabad, Muslim leaders also visit the mahant to present him a silver chariot as a symbol of communal harmony.