The Juggernaut of Lord Jagganath

It was etymology that drew me there- to Puri, Odisha, to the Rath Yatra of Lord Jagganath.




  • a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force. 

–in current English usage, is a literal or metaphorical force regarded as mercilessly destructive and unstoppable

The word is derived from the Chariot of Lord Jagganath of Puri, which draws the Lord every year at the annual Rath Yatra festival. This festival falls on the 2nd day of the Shukla Paksh, a word which means the waning phase of the moon, of the Ashad month, a period that correspond to the dates between 15- june-15 July of the Roman calendar.

The word came into usage around the mid-nineteenth century as an allegorical reference to the chariot, which apocryphally was reputed to crush devotees under their wheels. An idea, that no doubt sprung form one of the earliest description or reference of this festival in English writing, in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville published in 1356

‘And they set this idol upon a car with great reverence…and some of them (pilgrims) fall down under the wheels of the car and let the car go over them, so that they be dead anon. And some have their arms or limbs all to-broken and some the sides. All this do they for love of their god, in great devotion”.

I found an early perhaps even the earliest, use of the word as a metaphor in Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, published in 1844.   Here Dickens uses it to describe the emotions of the lovesick Mr. Augustus Moddle, the ‘youngest gentleman’ at Mrs. Todgers’:

“He often informed Mrs. Togders that the sun had set upon him; that the billows had rolled over him; that the Car of Juggernaut had crushed him;”

By the mid nineteenth century, the word seems to have acquired a figurative meaning- as “something that demands blind devotion or merciless sacrifice”.  And that is how Robert Louis Stevenson uses it to describe the maniacal character Hyde in his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Six o’clock struck on the church bells of the church that was so conveniently next to Mr. Utteson’s dwelling, and he was still digging at the problem. Hitherto it had touched him on the intellectual side alone; but now his imagination was also engaged or rather enslaved; and as he lay and tossed in the gross darkness of the night and the curtained room, Mr. Enfield’s tale went by before his mind in a scroll of lighted pictures. He would be aware of the great field of lamps of a nocturnal city, then of the figure of a man walking swiftly; then of a child running from a doctor’s, and then these met, and the human Juggernaut trod the child down as passed on regardless of her scream.

And here’s H G Wells, in The Wheels of Chance, using it in a literal sense.

Anon, Mr. Hoopdriver found himself out of the darkness of non-existence pedaling Ezekiel’s Wheels across the Weald of Surrey, jolting over the hills and smashing villages in his course, while the other man in brown cursed and swore at him and shouted to stop his career. There was the Putney heath-keeper, too, and the man in drab raging at him. He felt an awful fool, a—what was it? —juggins. Ah–a—Juggernaut

While these stories and images fired the imagination, there was also a sense of something spiritual and holy in my mind at the emotional level. After all Lord Jagganath in the form of Krishna was a strong divine presence in the household of my growing years. The two were in dissonance and the grappling between what one has read in disturbing or facetious terms and what one has seen deeply revered was another reason that brought me here, this warm –promising to get- hot day, at dawn to the precincts of the Jagganath Temple. I was in my way seeking a small answer or just some inner harmony.

The Chariots are ready and parked when I get there. It is a little before 6 am. The area would be cordoned off by 6 and no one will be allowed to enter after that.

I join a little group of pilgrims and visitors. We are guided up a nearby building and into our seats on the balcony that over look the Chariots. The chariots are already ready and waiting. They are large, Subadra’s being the shortest at forty-three feet and Lord Jagganath’s the tallest at forty-five feet. Yet they don’t look menacing, just majestic. In fact they look cheery in their assigned colours –Yellow and Red for Lord Jagganath, Black and Red for Goddess Subadra, who is here seen as an aspect of goddess Kali and hence the black, and Green and Red for the elder brother Balbadra, who is known as Balram in most parts of India.

Even from where we sit, more than 100 feet away, one can see the gorgeous artwork that decorates the wheels and wall-panels of the wooden chariots.  

Later, talking to an artist of the Mahrana family I discover that that the art form is Pattachitra. the traditional art work of the region.

“Do you know that when Jagganathji has his bath a fortnight before the Rath Yatra, ‘ he says, ‘ and falls ill? He is in quarantine. And is covered up. Then the temple priests come to our homes and escort us with full maryada- honours to the temple. Our family makes the pattachitras of Balbadra ji, Subdra ji and Jagganath ji that covers the idols those fourteen days till the Rath Yatra

“And the chariot I ask? The lovely panels and the wheels?”

“That is also Pattachitra. We make it’

And he pulls up close-up of images of the wheel, the walls and the smaller decorative elements of the chariots on his smart phone and zooms in

“See! We make then every year. All Pattachitra.”

Pattachitra is a style of painting from Odisha. The name Pattachitra literally means, picture on canvas, from the two Sanskrit words patta, meaning canvas, and chitra, meaning picture. The themes are usually drawn from mythology, both Hindu and Buddhist. It is a rigid and stylized form with little room for improvisation. Over time, the artists have started painting on other media like Tussor silk and palm leaves. Originally done as a temple altar, now one can find Pattachitra paintings to hang on walls at homes and other personal spaces.

The sound of drums and other traditional instruments burst into the air, announcing the arrivals of the deities. Sudrashan, the disc of Lord Jagganath is the first to arrive- and is placed in Goddess Subadra’s chariot- for her protection. The perceived need for Goddesss Kali to have protection does strike a discordant note but that is a story for another day.

Then Lord Balbadra arrives, followed by Goddess Subadra and finally Lord Jagganath. The two male deities are very heavy and have to be swung, as though in a cradle, down the path in a relay of hands in to the waiting chariots. Just four devotees carry the Female deity, by contrast effortlessly, as though she were a baby.

Odissi dancers perform before each procession in a show of obeisance to the Gods.

As the Gods settle down into their vehicles, our local guide turns to us and says, “Now the king, our Gajapthi, will come and sweep the chariots. It is an ancient tradition.”

The King in India today is a mere titular figure but some traditions run deep into the soil.

“There is a very charming story about our ancient King Purushottom and this tradition, “ he says. “Have you heard it?”

We say we haven’t and he gives us this tale, which is told in the Kanchi Kaveri Upakhyan and is part of the legends of the Jagannath spiritual cult.

“Around the 15th century ruled King Purushotama Deva who during his military campaigns to the southern India sees the Princess Padmavati of Kanchi and expresses a desire to marry her.  The king of Kanchi then sends his emissaries to take the proposal forward. The emissaries arrive on the day of the Rath Yatra.and are dismayed to see the king sweep the chariots of the Lord. When reports of this event reaches the King of Kanchi, he is shocked and infuriated and declares he would never give his daughter in marriage to a sweeper.

King Purushotama perceives this as not only an insult to himself but also the reigning deity of Odisha, Lord Jagannath and invades Kanchi. He is defeated and unsuccessful in the first attempt. He returns disheartened as a broken man to his homeland Odisha and goes straight to the Puri temple. He prays to the lord there asking for his divine assistance in breaking the enemy lines. Lord Jagannath appears before him and assures him that he along with his brother Balabhadra would ride in the King’s army in disguise when he makes the second attempt. In the second attempt King Purushottama wins, brings back the Kanchi princess, Padmavati as prisoner and commands his prime minister to give the princess in marriage to the best sweeper in the land. At the next Rath Yatra, as Purushottama sweeps out one of the chariots with a golden broom, the clever Chief Minister announces that he has found the best sweeper in the kingdom for the Princess. The king who truly loves the Kanchi princess is secretly delighted and marries her and makes her the queen of the empire of Odisha.”

The ceremonies are now complete and the makeshift ladders attached to the chariots are removed.  Wooden horses are now fixed to the front of the chariots. Balabdra’s white horses and Lord Jagganath ‘s black horses are a throw back to the horses they are supposed to have ridden at that famous battle of Kanchi.

Folklore, myths and legends are alive here, just as in any other part of this country.

Conches blow and a thick rope is drawn out from the chariot and let out.  It slithers, a large brown snake, and is carried forward by eager hands into the crowd where it vanishes.

“There is a story behind the Rath yatra,” the guide says. “ This is the only temple chariot yatra where the idols that are prayed to, come out and give darshan to the devotees. This is to give the non-Hindu devotees a darshan of the Lord. .

I am reminded of Mark Twain and his juggernaut club where in a letter to Helene Picard, he talks about the Constitution and Laws of the Juggernaut Club.  He says:

MOTTO: (From “Indian Lore” — BURNET)

“THE good Juggernath (or Juggernaut) is the only deity among the two million gods of India who has no preferences, no partialities, no prejudices, no resentments, and sets no man higher than another, nor lower. He is the common friend of the human race; in his presence master and slave, prince and peasant, banker and beggar stand upon one level; at his temple’s threshold rank and caste dissolve away, and before his altar, and not elsewhere in the globe, Sudra and Brahman eat from the same dish and drink from the same cup without defilement.”

While it is wonderful to read this idealistic and passionate declaration by Mark Twain, the reality continues to be one of denial of entry based not just on religion as implied by my guide. Cases of entry denied on basis of caste are still a real occurrence.

The chariots start to move. Balbadhra’s chariot is the first to leave, then Subhadra’s and finally the Lord’s. We watch until the last of chariot leaves our line of vision

It is a 4 km trundle and will take almost the entire day as the chariots stop and crawl, to give the devotees waiting since dawn, a glimpse of their lord. Nothing can be crushed under this large crawling vehicle- not the devotees, not patriarchy, not discrimination, not even poverty.

The chariots roll on and we come home. I think about the word ‘juggernaut’ and think not of a “ literal or metaphorical force regarded as mercilessly destructive and unstoppable” but of beautifully carved handmade chariots, slowly moving among milling devotees, many of them of from Non-Hindu faiths, carrying their benevolent God.

The word Juggernaut now sits uncomfortably on my tongue.

Maya Sharma Sriram writes only when she can’t avoid it.  Then it is, poetry, essays, short fiction and even a novel – Bitch Goddess for Dummies.  She is currently trying to not write her second novel, among other things.

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