Ratha-yatra, or the Festival of Chariots, is a joyous event celebrated for thousands of years in the Indian holy city of Jagannatha Puri, and more recently by Hare Krishna devotees in cities around the world. Another name for Krishna, Jagannatha refers to the ecstatic form of the Lord with large eyes and rugged features who is carried on a gigantic chariot during this festival (and worshiped in an ancient temple at the center of Jagannath Puri.)
The festival of Ratha-yatra represents Lord Jagannatha’s longing to reunite with His dear devotees in Vrindavana, foremost among them, Srimati Radharani. According to tradition, the Lord gets lovesick once a year just prior to the festival. To cheer him up, His servants arrange for Him to go on a lavish procession to meet up with His devotees. Lord Jagannatha rides on a grand, three-story-high chariot, accompanied by thousands of onlookers and marching bands with scores of drummers, singers, and dancers. India’s colonial British rulers coined the term “juggernaut” from the large, heavy chariot used to celebrate this festival in the city of Jagannatha Puri.
Five hundred years ago, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the combined incarnation of Radha-Krishna, encouraged all of His followers to celebrate Ratha-yatra with great enthusiasm. His biographies (such as Chaitanya Charitamrita) list many anecdotes surrounding the Ratha-yatra festival. It is said that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu got down on His hands and knees to scrub the Gundicha temple where Lord Jagannatha would stay at the end of the Ratha-yatra parade.
Today, Hare Krishna devotees hold Ratha-yatra parades in many cities, usually culminating in a “Festival of India” set up in a city park, with festival tents, entertainment stages, free-feast booths, and a variety of cultural displays and exhibits. Contact your nearest Hare Krishna temple to find out about Ratha-yatras in your area.
Ratha-yatra signifies the Lord’s love for His devotees. He personally comes to visit His devotees and the public who welcome Him in the streets. Befitting the sentiment of its origins, Ratha-yatras in the Hare Krishna movement also serve as reunions for devotees who come from far and wide to participate, meeting up with old friends around their common goal of serving Lord Jagannatha, Sri Krishna.