Chariots of the Gods / by Aparna Rao

The world famous Ratha Yatra (Chariot Festival) of Lord Jagannath at Puri is one of the most important festivals of Odisha. The festival celebrates the trinity of Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra and is held annually between June-July. The festival comprises of many stages such as ritual cleansing, isolation, decoration, procession, transit halt and return to the main sanctum. Each stage is steeped in meaning and mythology. 

The main attraction of the festival is the Ratha Jatra (Chariot Tour) where the three principal deities are carried in a ceremonial procession on the main road of the city. As per ritual, every year the chariots are constructed afresh and finally disposed off after the festival is over.Only the 'Sarathi' (charioteer), Ghoda (horses), Kalasa (Crowning element) and Parswa devatas (subsidiary deities) are not made new every year. 
The construction of the rathas is carried out as per prescribed rituals, by a team of woodcutters, carpenters, smiths, polishers, artisans, rope makers and tailors, overseen by officers. Their roles have been traditionally associated with the festival for generations just like that of the priests and the ing.

Legend says that the idols were carved out of a single log of driftwood found on the seashore by a local king. The wood species used for construction of the three chariots allude to a complete ecological chain and are representative of certain eco-types within the Odisha region. In a way, this references itself back to  Krishna (Jagannatha) who advocated the worship of Nature.  

The species used for the rathas comprise of dry-deciduous species - Phasi (Anogeissus accuminata), Dhaura (Anogeissus latifolia), Imli (Tamarindus indica), Moist deciduous species such as Asan (Terminalia tomentosa), Simili ( Bombax ceiba), Sal (Shorea robusta), Kansa (Hymenodictyon orixense), Moi (Lannea corommondalica), Paladhua (Erythrina indica), Mahalimba (Ailanthus excelsa), Gambhari (Gmelina arborea), and Moist evergreen species Kadamba (Neolamarckia cadamba), Kalachua (Diospyros sylvatica), Devadaru (Polyalthia longifolia). The wood of Neem (Azadirachta indica) is taken to be the driftwood species, while the thick ropes used to pull the chariots are made from coconut coir.

During the regime of Maratha rulers, traditionally the timbers for construction of grand chariots of Lord Jagannath at Puri were supplied by the King of Dasapalla, an ex-princely state of Odisha free of cost. After merger of Dasapalla in the State during 1948, the Govt. of Odisha continued to uphold the traditional commitment for the temple. The District Forest Offices at Nayagarh, Khordha and Boudh today supply the annual requirement of timbers for the Car Festival at Puri,free of cost.
Year after year the threat of gradual depletion of natural forests has hindered the supply of such quantities of timber and fire wood of specified species. Ad hoc exploitation in the past has further compounded the problem whereby the population of the aforesaid desired species in the forests has diminished alarmingly. 

Currently, a two pronged strategy has been conceptualised to address this problem. First, systematic management of some identified natural forest areas bearing naturally grown ratha-timber species are being taken up to meet the immediate requirement. Second, intensive plantations have been taken up under the scheme ‘Jagannatha Van Prakalpa’ (JVP) for all the ratha-timber species except Sal to meet the future requirements of car timber in a sustained manner.

However, some concerns still persist:
Natural dense forests are degrading due to heavy illicit felling and removal by timber mafias. As a result, adequate numbers of desired species with specified girth class are not available in the forest and the supply from the forest department is gradually diminishing.As stated in the Revised Working Plans prepared by the Forest Divisions, the trees raised under JVP will take a minimum of 35-40 years to provide small girth timber and about 70-80 years to attain exploitable girth class. Hence these are not available to meet immediate requirements.

Solutions being presented, not all of it completely acceptable, include:

1. Choice of car timber species may be changed according to availability. It has already been done in case of Rukuna Rath of Lord Lingaraj (tamarind tree is used as axle, mango log is used as bearing and Kumbhi (Careya arborea) timber is used as rest part of the solid wheel). In such a case, what happens to adherence of an age-old ritual, and more importantly, the fight to conserve such timber sock in the wild?

2. The components of grand chariots which need large girth timbers may be preserved for reuse. This goes against the religious narrative of renewal, and alludes to our inability to guarantee protection of our natural resources even for religious use.

3. Car timber yielding plants can be raised in private lands with a mindset to donate the same to Sri Jagannath Temple Administration. This is seen as shrugging of the onus of the State on to the shoulders of individuals. This strategy may last a generation or two at best, before the economics of real estate catch up with it.

4. Car timber plants should be protected by everybody in forest as well as in private holdings. This needs a State mechanism and powerful laws which will prevent illegal felling, or felling under some other pretexts.
Another point that can be made as a case is that all open spaces in Odisha should compulsorily look at renewing its native floristic stock, including the creation of urban woodlands and green belts which can be carefully monitoried for wood extraction. This would place a huge responsibility on Planners, Landscape Architects, Horticulturists and Forest Nurseries working on projects in Odisha. If adopted seriously, it will also stymie the introduction of exotics.

It is evident that a traditional practice and religious ritual is facing some tough dilemmas. The answers to these will be seen as a mirror of our time and our race, in the years to come. As an antithesis to Erich von Daniken's hypotheses, this time around, the Chariots of Our Gods need some extraordinary help from Man. 

Author: Sriganesh Rajendran
Images: Author's own