For 70-year-old Kamini Devi and her friend Sushila Bala coming to Mahesh from Nabadwip every year to attend the Rath Yatra is a ritual. The two neighbours along with hundreds of others throng the Jagannath Temple in Hooghly district’s Serampore to witness the biggest and the oldest chariot festival in West Bengal. While the celebration at Puri in Odisha have been synonymous with the Rath Yatras around the world, the one at Mahesh too is significant enough to have its own history. Having been celebrated since 1396, this year marks its 623rd edition.
Referred to as ‘Naba Nilachal’, meaning new Puri, and considered to be the second oldest chariot festival in the world, Mahesh draws a gathering of over two lakh devotees every year. It is said that once Sri Chaitanya, an ardent Jagannath devotee – on his way to Puri – visited the temple at Mahesh, where he lost his sense and attained deep samadhi. The area was then christened Naba Nilachal.
Not far away from the main town of Kolkata, amid the hustle-bustle of the GT Roads stands the 600-year-old temple with an interesting story. According to the temple’s priest, Bengali sadhu Drubananda Brahmachari was once denied the chance to offer ‘bhog’ (food offerings) to Lord Jagannath at Puri. Dejected, the sage went on a fast until death. It is said after a few days, Lord Jagannath came in his dreams and told him to stop fasting and that he too wanted to have ‘bhog’ from his disciple. Urging Drubananda to go to Mahesh, he promised to send daru-brahma (neem trunk) by the river to make idols.
The sage then returned to Mahesh and began his ‘sadhana’ by the banks of the Hoogly river and on a rainy night found the trunk to make the idols of Balarama, Jagannath and Subhadra. He soon established a temple in the small town. Today, the temple has been replaced by a new structure but the Rath Yatra dating back to 1396 is still on with a chariot which has been in use since 1885.
Although the temple and the idols were made by Drubananda Brahmachari, the chariot festival was started by one of Sri Chaitanya’s early disciples, Kamalakar Piplai, who later took charge as the head priest. Till today, the successors of Piplai run the temple.
History of Mahesh Rath Yatra
It is said that in 1797, Ramkrishna Dev’s renowned disciple Balaram Basu’s grandfather Krishnaram Basu donated a wooden chariot to the temple. Somehow it was burnt a couple of years later. Two other raths too met the same fate — and it was only in 1885 that the present iron chariot was built by the Martin Burn Company, under the patronage of Krishnachandra Basu, the then Hooghly district dewan of the East India Company.
The rath is a Nabaratna chariot with nine shikharas. It has a steel framework with wooden scaffolding. It is fitted with 12 iron wheels and is four-storeyed, measuring 50 feet in height and 125 tonnes in weight. It also has two copper horses attached to the front. Through the crowded streets of iconic GT Road under strict police supervision, thousands of devotees pull the ropes to take Lord Jagannath to his aunt’s house, ‘Mashir Bari’.
Unlike the idols in Puri’s Jagannath temple, which are changed every 12 years, the idols made by the temple’s founder for the first Rath Yatra are used till date. The snanayatra is held on the full moon day preceding the main festival. On the day of snanyatra, the idols of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra are bathed in generous quantities of milk and water from the Ganga. It is believed that idols suffer from fever due to the bath; gradually their fever lapses and they regain normal health.
The ‘angaraga’ ceremony is held a few days after the snanyatra where the idols are repainted using herbal pigments and colours. Lord Jagannath is sworn in as the king, just a day before the Rath Yatra is a special ritual called the ‘Nabajouvan Utsav’. Adorned with a golden crown, hands are affixed to the idols which usually do not bear arms.
Although followers consider the day of the Rath as the auspicious one, the head priest, Tamal Adhikary says it is the day before that holds utmost importance. “This day is vital. The Rathayatra Festival begins today celebrating the new energy and youth of the lord. He is treated with 56-bhog and the temple is opened for all for the first time in two weeks,” Adhikary says, adding that the ritual of ‘abhishek’ and ‘chokkhudaan’ performed on this day is very significant.
Throughout the year while devotees can only glance at the lord outside the sacred sanctum, and pay obeisance through the priests – on the day of rath it becomes a people’s affair. “We don’t allow the public to touch the idols every day but on Rath and Ulta-Rath (his return journey back to the temple), anyone and everyone can offer their prayers directly to the lord. They can touch the idols, put garland on him and seek his blessings – it’s a beautiful sight and an opportunity devotees don’t like to miss,” says Adhikary who is the fourteenth generation of priests serving at the temple.
For many flocking the temple for decades, it’s like coming closer to God. “I travel from far, mostly begging for alms to meet Jagannath every year. At Mahesh, I find him closer to me and I know my prayers will be answered when I can greet him personally after he sits on the rath. I wait for our meeting ardently for the whole year,” says an emotional Netai, an octogenarian praying on the temple premises.
One big part of the local ritual is treating the lord to his favourite sweet. The most famous folklore is that Lord Jagannath went to Mahesh to taste a local sweet. It is said that disguised as a young man he visited a shop, Mahesh Chandra Dutta, nearby the temple and tasted a sweet called the ‘ghutke sandesh’. He loved it so much that he had many, however, he did not have money, so he gave his gold armlet called the bala to pay for the sweet. Following day, during the puja the priests found the armlet missing and started a search. They apparently found out what happened, and the shopkeeper was stunned. Till date, devotees visiting Mahesh, visits the famous sweet shop to buy ‘ghutke sandesh’ and offer it to the lord.