A central part of the lives of the people of the ancient kingdom of ‘Utkala’ was an annual procession where three wooden idols would cross three kilometers on three ornate chariots. Though Utkala has since given way to modern-day Odisha, the traditions alive to date in the form of a Rath Yatra, or the chariot festival of Lord Jagannath of Puri.
The Jagannath Sanskruti, or the tradition of Jagannath, is one of the oldest in the Hindu mythology and the Jagannath Dham is among the most revered spots for pilgrimage. For many, the place, the history, culture and mythology have been a fascinating one where three idols, made from Neem wood, are personified.
The festival draws millions of devotees and tourists each year in July to the temple town of Puri, Odisha – 65 kilometers away from the capital city of Bhubaneswar. Three new chariots are constructed each year for the festival and later used in the temple kitchens. The wood is donated by many individuals, as well as, collected from the forests of Daspalla, Nayagarh district, part of the erstwhile undivided Puri district.
The deities are said to be born during Nabakalebar — an occasion where the previous idols are believed to have died and are buried in the temple garden roughly once every 19 years. The yatra takes place every year as the deities are said to emerge out of the temple to visit their maternal aunt. Before millions of devotees pull the three chariots to the Mausima temple, the Puri Gajapati, or the king, brooms and offers his prayers on the chariots.
The Jagannath Temple authorities require over 1,100 big logs of 12 species of wood to complete the entire rath. At least 865 logs having a length of eight feet each, of three species are the major components of the chariots. The logs are converted to around 4,000 pieces of varying shapes and sizes to construct the chariots.
Preparation of the rath in front of the Royal Palace of Puri, on 'Bada Danda' or Grand Road, Puri. (Image Source: WikiCommons)
In 2000, the Odisha government established Jagannath Bana Prakalpa — a tree plantation project solely for collecting woods used during the chariot festival, wherein 45 lakh trees of the 13 species of Phasi, Bhaunra and Asana trees were planted on 2,800 hectares along five districts of the Mahanadi river delta, at a cost of Rs 65 lakh.
However, nature’s wrath cast a pall on the festivities this year with Cyclone Fani uprooting around 10 million trees and an equal number destroyed during the natural calamity. It is not just the cyclone, but also the depleting forest cover and the relatively fewer donations of wood from the Rath's devotees that have left the administration on the edge.
"Last year, 50 devotees of Nayagarh district donated wood for making the chariots for the deities. This year, only 22 devotees could donate. This points to a situation of scarcity,” a member of the Rath Yatra preparatory committee told
Down To Earth.
The Phasi variety, used for the 42 wheels of the three chariots, has been depleting at a faster rate. According to the forest officials in Nayagarh, the tree, which takes over half a century to mature, was found in abundance in the backyards of households and in the forest.
However, the temple administration refuted the claims, saying that there is no scarcity of trees for the making of the chariots. “The forest officials have told us that the trees planted in districts along the Mahanadi delta area have grown robustly. However, the principal chief conservator of forests has been asked to give an enumeration report on the status of trees in the Jagannath Bana Prakalpa,” Pradipta Mohapatra, chief administrator of Shree Jagannath Temple Administration told Down To Earth.This year, the temple town of Puri became a ‘ghost town’ after Fani hit it. Millions of trees were uprooted and destroyed, and despite these natural calamities, deforestation and reports of climate change, the temple administration claims that there will not be a shortage of wood as there are enough trees along the Mahanadi delta which would last a century.