Calcutta, Randburg RY 2008, Grahamstown, Puri, N Maharaja 511_1_1

MCD with Head Panda of Puri Temple

MCD with Head Panda of Puri Temple

Johannesburg to Mumbai, Mumbai to Bhuvaneshwara, Bhuvaneshwara to Jagannatha Puri (1-3 July 2008)


We flew SAA from O.R. Thambo International in Johannesburg to Mumbai on 1 July. The plane arrived in Mumbai after midnight on 2 July. Mumbai was surprisingly cool after the monsoon rains.



My flight from Mumbai to Bhuvaneshwara was at 8:10am. I thought I might be able to take a cab to Radha-Gopinath Mandir for mangala-arati, but was informed that Air Deccan would only check in luggage after 6:30am. I fought sleep by chanting, speaking to fellow travellers and walking around. The excitement of being in India, especially the thought of taking darshan of Lord Jagannatha, kept me awake.



I met a group of devotees from the Chowpatty Temple, under Dayalachandra prabhu, who were also flying to Bhuvaneshwara for the Festival. Dayalachandra prabhu’s son Srinivas Acharya asked me if I had made any plans for Jagannatha Puri. I said, ‘I have made no plans.’ He laughed incredulously and said, ‘That’s okay. You can join us.’ I appreciated his light-hearted manner and accommodating mood. It was nice to be with such Vaisnavas. They kindly offered me a breakfast of idli, chatni and a sweet.



On arrival at Bhuvaneshwara airport, I was pleasantly surprised to see Shakuntala Mataji whom I had met last year at the Los Angeles Temple. She was with a group of yoga students from Pune and LA. They were hosting B.S Iyengar for his first ever Ratha Yatra in Puri. I asked Shakuntala to introduce me to the master. She did. I touched his feet as he offered me his pranamas (folding of hands as a token of humility and respect). Puri was the only important holy place in India that Iyengar had not visited. Krodha-shamini mataji told me later that evening that Iyengar had taken birth in a Sri Vaisnava family and had worshipped Lord Narayana from birth. The head-panda of the Jagannatha Puri Temple had personally invited him to the Festival and he took this to be the personal invitation of the Lord. Just see what amazing arrangements Lord Jagannatha was making for everyone!



I jumped into Dayalachandra prabhu’s jeep and headed off for Jagannatha Puri Dhama. We arrived at the guest-house about an hour-and-a-half later and, after a simple lunch, rested. I was expecting extreme heat in Puri, having come from a cold Grahamstown winter – which is cold by South African standards. The weather, however, was pleasant thanks to the monsoon rains and cooling sea-breezes. Ratha Yatra in Puri must be quite austere in the absence of clouds and wind! It was like stepping back in time seeing the clay pots and brooms for sale in Grand Road by the Gundica Temple. The cleaning of the Gundica Temple – Gundica marjana – is a pastime that goes back to time immemorial. The devotees clean the Gundica Temple in preparation of the arrival of Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra Maharani. This pastime was made famous by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu who, though He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself, cleansed the Gundica Temple with His associates. Even though I could not go into the Temple myself, I still got a sense of what it must have been like in Mahaprabhu’s time looking at the clay pots and straw brooms in Grand Road.



I visited the Temple in the evening and watched the priests making final touches to the Chariots in Grand Road. The excitement in town was palpable. Pilgrims were arriving by the thousands despite the closure of train-routes from Delhi and Calcutta (on account of the monsoon). I had never seen so many people in Grand road! Next thing a lady from Reuters thrust a microphone before my face and began to bombard me with questions: ‘Why did you come here to this Festival?’ ‘I wanted to see Lord Jagannatha, the Lord of the Universe. God.’ ‘Is this your first visit to Puri?’ ‘No…but it is my first visit to Puri during the Ratha Yatra.’ And so on….


I met up with Shakuntala and Mother Krodha-shamini again in a cloth shop near the Simha-dvara (‘Lion’s Gate’, the main entrance to Jagannatha Puri Temple). Mother Krodha-shamini introduced me to the head-priest who, with the exception of his gamchas (a gamcha is a small cotton towel), was bedecked with gold jewellery. His son, Raja, proudly informed me that he knew Shyamasundara, the Temple President of ISKCON Pretoria. His pride in knowing someone important in my country said something about Srila Prabhupada and the respect people have for his organization [we wonder about that now after the burning of Prabhupada’s murti in Puri].



Friday 4 July – Jagannatha Ratha Yatra, Sri Jagannatha Puri Dhama


I chanted with the Chowpatty devotees early Friday morning at Siddhabhakula. This holy place is where the great Vaishnava saint Haridas Thakur used to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. My friend Rasika Rai prabhu – who had just completed a 350km padayatra from Hrishikesh to Deva Prayaga – joined me later that morning. He was delayed in Delhi – five of the trains he had booked were cancelled because of monsoon floods. Lord Jagannatha, who is rasaraja-akhila-murti, was building up his desire to see Him.


Rather than observe the procession from a building on Grand Road, Rasika Rai and I decided to join the crowd in the Chariot procession. We walked to Grand Road from our guest-house and arrived there around 10:30am. We made our way through the crowd – several hundred thousand Indians walking in different directions – towards the cordon-line in front of the three chariots. Lord Baladeva was being carried by over a dozen pandas (priests) to His chariot at the time we got there.  The chariots were girdled by ropes. This cordoned area was entirely surrounded by soldiers in blue and green military attire. The area near the rope was very crowded. We reached this area just as the priest were carrying Subhadra Maharani to Her chariot. The crowd was swaying and swelling like an ocean current. Every now and then we would hear the sound of whistles, the crowd would disperse, and several skinny Indian paramedics or military would run through with a stretcher and body on top. We saw at least ten ambulances rush through the crowd, sirens blaring. Had these people fainted in the heat? We found out later that at least six people had died in the crowds eager press to witness Lady Subhadra’s ascent to her chariot.


Rasika and I moved to the far side of the road (near the Temple) and took darshan of Lord Jagannatha climbing His chariot. After some time, we took a detour down one of the side roads and rested in the shad awhile. We then walked or, shall I say, zig-zagged, through the confusion of people that is Grand Road, until we were some distance from the chariots. We returned to the guest-house for lunch and a nap and then returned to pull the chariots to Gundica Temple.


We caught up with the procession, and pulled Lady Subhadra’s cart for some time. We then pulled Baladeva’s chariot to the front of the Gundica Temple. Jagannatha’s chariot was still only about halfway down Grand Road. We did not get an opportunity to pull the Lord’s chariot as night fell and the chariot stopped. Rasika and I both tried to climb Jagannatha’s chariot, but the priests and security thwacked us off with rolled-up reed mats saying, ‘Non-Hindu. Non-Hindu.’ Anyway, they are right, we are not Hindus; we are servants of the Vaisnavas. I lost my chappals (shoes) in the process. One thing is for sure, however, and that is that Jagannatha Puri during Ratha Yatra is totally ecstatic!! I offered many prayers to Lord Jagannatha and remembered the prayers Lord Chaitanya offered the Lord too (like namo brahmanya devaya and jayati jayati devaki nandana-sau and jayati jananivaso and naham vipro napi na vaisya na sudro). I also prayed to the Lord to bestow His mercy on our project in Johannesburg (South Africa), my friends and family and all living entities.



Saturday 5 July, Jagannatha Ratha Yatra, Sri Jagannatha Puri Dhama


Next morning we rose early and tried to persuade the pandas (priest of the Puri Temple) to let us enter the chariot to “hug” Lord Jagannath. They would not let us do so because we were not Hindus. One devotee even paid the priests 500 rupees to go on the chariot but the priests cheated him, not letting him on the chariot. Rasika and a Nigerian brahmacari, Kavi Karnapura prabhu, however, managed to scale both Lady Subhadra and Baladeva’s chariots and take darshan of the Deities. They inspired me to do the same, so I waited until the guard wasn’t looking, climbed the back of Baladeva’s chariot, covered my head with my cadar, and made my way to the front of the chariot. Baladeva was concealed by a wall of pilgrims. At that time the pandas spotted me and started thwacking my head with a rolled up straw mat (this seemed to be the custom for dealing with “non-Hindus”). The thwacking action was accompanied by impassioned cries of, ‘Donation. Donation.’ I pushed my way through the wall of pilgrims in front of me, and found myself face-to-face with Sri Baladeva. I stretched both my arms out, touched his lotus feet, and rapidly retreated (I had heard horror stories of foreigners being badly beaten up by guards inside the precincts of the Puri Temple). After my brief, but sweet, darshan I slowly walked to the back of the chariot and climbed down. I was surprised that no further action was taken by either priests or guards.



Later that Sunday morning Rasika Rai and I had the good fortune of pulling Jagannatha’s chariot a considerable distance. So far we had been blessed with an overcast and cooling sea breezes. It was hotter now, but not as hot, or as humid, as I had thought it would be. The ropes with which you pull the chariots are really thick! They reminded me of tug-of-war. You also have to pull really hard. At one point I considered dropping out, but took heart from two matajis from Mumbai who were determined to pull Jagannatha’s chariot with the crowd of men…right to the end! Pulling the Lord’s chariot was a wonderful experience in terms of teamship and devotional camaraderie. The final pull was the most ecstatic of all! The last heave carried on longer than the others.  We nearly went flying into the open sewage channels to our left. I also lost another pair of flops in the process. The crowd roared in delight, hands shooting up, as Jagannatha’s Ratha came to a standstill. We had reached the end. A mundane comparison could be your favourite sports team winning the match. This was a special victory, however. The devotees had succeeded in bringing the Lord to Gundica Temple (which is non-different from Vrindavan). This was a victory for the Lord and His beloved devotees! Aah…need we say more?



Rasika Rai and I cut some strands of rope from Subhadra Maharani’s cart, then Baladeva’s. We were completely blissed-out! What an ecstatic festival! Jagannatha Swami ki jaya! Sri Jagannatha Ratha Yatra ki jaya! Srila Prabhupada ki jaya!