Hindu temple Chariot (Ratha) - 36 engaging facts

Big temple chariot, Thanjavur, TN commons.wikimedia.org

Above image: Thanjavur Sri Brehadiswarar temple car; picture taken a day before therottam (first run) that took place first in April 2015 after a gap of 100 years.  The credit goes to former CM of TN late Ms.  J.Jayalalitha.....

temple chariot.pinterest.co.uk

Above image:  A wood engraving by E. Therond, from 'Le Tour du Monde', 1869. It looks more like the kind of chariot used at the *Chamundi temple in Mysore*); *a larger scan from a reprint edition, 1881*

00At  countless important Hindu temples of South India chariot / car festival (Rathoutsava; in Tamil Ther Thiruvizha or Therottam) is an  annual grand event normally held in the month of Chithrai, the very first Tamil month. At some temples like Sri Andal temple, etc it is held on the aadipooram day.  It is an auspicious  temple event conducted with devotion and fanfare. This yearly festival has an inherent social purpose. The Ratha or chariot is a temple on the wheel, on the move from one place to another. It does have  an adisthanam and Vedis  like a temple and is a personification of divinity coming to your place to bless you and your family. The moving chariot eliminates the evil spirits on its path and cleanses it. 

Wooden chariot base on the river cauvery banks, Mysore.columbia.edu


 Above image: wooden base of a temple Car on Chamundy [Mysore], a photo from 1865* (BL). A lion like vahana is atop. the car is without any decoration.

 Devotees, irrespective of their social obligation and  caste get a chance to worship the deity in the chariot  in the comforts of their place without having to visit the temple. As various communities are involved in the festival, it  promotes social integration and unity. The Puri rath yatra highlights one essential fact ie. before god everybody is equal. This further corroborated by the tradition the ruler of that place Gajapathy will clean the path infront of the rathas, implying that the king is the servant of God and he is assigned to do his duty on behalf of the almighty.  

It is  an amazing sight to see a huge chariot weighing as much as 50 to more than 300 tons trundling along the streets being pulled by hundreds of devotees holding the giant rope. It is a tedious job to get huge chariot rolling carefully.   In the month of Chithrai- March -April, countless temples conduct chariot festivals with religious fervor and bhakti.

Though every year we have heard or seen the temple car / chariots, we are not aware of many  facts related to them - it's concept and it's making. Since divinity is associated with temple chariots, special care is taken to make them by  learned Sthapathis who know the shilpa sasthras well.  The concept of chariot has been explained in the Kathopanishad in the following words:

"Atmanam rathinam viddhi sareeram rathamevatu
Buddhim tu saarathim viddhi marah pragrahameva cha". 
 (Meaning: The body is the chariot and the soul is the deity installed in the chariot. The wisdom acts as the charioteer to control the mind and thoughts).

Tamil Nadu has the credit being home to more than 500 temple  wooden chariots (as of 2004), out of which 79 needed repairs. Among them, the most famous one is Thiruvarur Ther (Azhi Ther) associated with Thiagarajar temple - the biggest in India (96 feet /29 m tall) weighing as much as 300 tons.  This Azhi Ther festival has been around for centuries and is mentioned in devotional songs of the Nayanmars, Tamil saivite saints. The annual festival being a big one,  lasts for 25 days in March- April.  The second biggest chariot is Srivilliputhur Ther associated with Andal temple.  Some popular temples like  Arunachaleswarar Temple., Thiruvannamalai, Chidambaram Natarajar Temple are among the temples that possess  huge wooden chariots for regular processions.  In many temples car festival takes place twice a year. ex. The Natarajar Temple, Chidambaram - in the summer (Aani Thirumanjanam - June and July) and  in winter (Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai- December and January).  
The following are the gripping facts:

01. The concept of chariot has been around since the time of the Vedas and the  references made  in them point out their  presence in India in the 2nd millennium BCE. 

02. In the  Indus Valley civilization site, at Harappa (now in Pakistan), there are terracotta models of carts that date back to BC.

03. According to the Rigveda there are two types - the Ratha (chariot) and the Anas ("cart"). The former is made of  wood of particular trees and  the number of wheels  may vary depending on the size.  

04. In the Vedas, chariots are identified with all gods. 
According to Vishnu Tattva Samhita and the Pancharatra Agama, temple chariots are sarvadevamaya- embodiment of all gods, and sarvayajnamaya- embodiment of all sacrifices.

05. In the Ramayana and Mahabharata, there are references  to the use of chariots  for various purposes including war. 

06. Many of the deities in the Hindu Mythology are portrayed as riding the chariot.  As to Vedic deities, mention may be made of Ushas - the dawn riding the chariot, so is Agni who rides the chariot.

07. Famous ruler King Bhoja (10th century C.E.) preferred broad streets to allow easy passage of military chariots.

08. In Tamil Sangam works – Aganaanooru and Pattinappalai -  we find references describing Surya’s one wheel chariot. There is  also a reference to the Puri Jagannath Ratha in the Skanda Puranam

09. In the inscriptions in the Srirangam temple mention is made about  the golden chariot gifted by Sundara Pandya (of Madurai) in the 13th century C.E. 

10. In some literary work in Sangam period, the parts of the Ther (chariot) such as  therkudam  (wheel hub), therkodungai (roof), therkoombu (spire), etc., are mentioned

11. Besides above,  an inscription (1670 C.E.) at the Venkataswamin temple in Ellanuru, Andhra reveals collection of a part of land tax that meant  to meet the expenses of the ratha yatra. 

12. The world famous Puri Jaganath Rathyatra is pretty old. Brahma Purana, Skanda Purana and Padma Purana mention about Puri  Rathyatra.

 Skanda Purana says:

"Gundicha mandapam namam yatrahamajanam pura
Ashwamedha sahasrasya mahabedi tadadvabat".
(Meaning: Those who are fortunate to see the procession of the deities from Sri Mandira to the Gundicha Temple, derive the benefits of a thousand horse sacrifices, an immensely pious deed).

13. The above-mentioned information suggests that chariot run or Therottam is a temple festival event of great antiquity  going back to several centuries.

14. When it comes to making temple chariots / rathas, certain principles laid down in the Sastras are meticulously followed.  This is done because they carry the god's images and sanctity needs to be maintained as in a temple.

15Silpa texts are available for making rathas. Quite well-known are  as MahaviswakarmeeyamRathalakshanam and Aparajitapruccha.  These text books lay down certain norms and principles with respect to ratha-making for the exclusive purpose of carrying the idols of the lord. 

16. Making rathas for the Vishnu temples requires time, skill and knowledge of Silpa Sastras. In the case of rathas  for Vishnu temples,  well-versed Sthapathis follow Purushottama Samhita, and  Pancharatra agama.

17. If metal is used, the ratha should be gold plated   - swarnagata and studded with precious gems -Navaratnakacita.   

18. The Vishnu Tilak Samhita mentions about  invocation of  Vayu on the wheel and Garuda on the entire chariot.

19. The Vishnu Tilak Samhita recommends ”elaborate sculpturing of the ratha (the wooden base), showing  various incarnations of Vishnu.  

20. In some rathas for the Vishnu temples , there will be a rich  representation of various aspects  of Narashmha  - from Skambha Narasimha to  Lakshmi Narasimha. Example: Sarangapani temple chariot, Kumbakonam.

21. As for the rathas for the Shiva temples, one can see wooden  sculpturing of some episodes of the Ramayana and Mahabarata and some aspects of Shiva and Parvati. Also commonly included is the form of Narasimha in many  Shiva temple chariots. 

22. In the case of Shiva temples, irrespective of the wooden base, the top - pinnacle and other parts are covered with decorative clothes carrying the images of Nandi, Lingam, Ganapathy, etc.

23. As to the size of the chariot, it depends on the size of garbagraha / sanctum of the temple.

24. Yet another interesting fact is a particular vedic mantra has to be chanted when cutting the selected wood for the purpose of making rathas. 

25. At most of the Hindu temples, the chariot is kept for a long period of time in running conditions by doing period repairs, decorations, etc. 

26. They will be kept in a specially made shed  near the temple, In Tamil such a place is called Thermutti.d

27.  In the case of Puri Jaganath rathas, all the three of them are made afresh every year from selected neem wood. Once the Rathyatra festival is over, they will be  reverentially dismantled and the discorded wood will be used for making divine toys., etc.

28. The word Ratha or Rath  refers to a chariot or car made from wood with wheels. It  may be pulled manually using specially-made rope, or by horses or elephants. Nowadays bulldozers or heavy tractors are used from behind to give extra push to the giant chariot. 

29. During the festival, the temple  processional deities (Utchavars)  are  reverentially kept inside the chariots and driven through the streets around the temple, accompanied by  chanting of mantra, divine hymns  and also traditional music and  folk dances. 

30. At predetermined places, pujas are conducted to the deities. The word Rath yatra is synonymous with the annual car festival of  Lord Jagannath held at Puri in the state of Orissa, India during the months of June or July. Personifying Puri rath yatra, some temples across India conduct chariot run with dedcation.

31. Prior to the major events, lot of preparations need to to taken care of for the success of the chariot run.  The condition of the chariot, its wheels, axles, etc.,  must be   checked first. It takes a few days to do the decoration above the wooden base - adding colorful canopy fastening festons, animal figures, etc.

32. Tradition has been that temple car is to be pulled along the four streets clock-wise around the temple. These streets are called car street (in Tamil 'Ratha Veethi'; East Car street meaning in Tamil Kezha ratha veethi, etc)). Prior to the yatra, these streets need to be kept  clean for the smooth run of the ratha.

33. The idols are kept at the center of the  Chariots. These idols  (Urchavar) are  representation or replica of the deities in the garbagriha (sanctum) of the associated temple. 

34. Special Pujas are performed on the temple premises when the  'processional deities'  are taken out of the temple and when they are brought back to the temple. Additional pujas will be performed while installing the idol on the chariot  and at the start of the chariot procession. 

35. It is believed that participating in the pulling of the chariot that is connected to the big rope is considered auspicious and is good for the welfare and prosperity of the devotees, besides it will help them get salvation (no rebirth and reunder going all the troubles and tribulation in the next Jenma (next birth)!!. 

36. The chariot run or therootum (rathyatra)  implies that the  temple chariot carrying divinity  will crush all negative  and evil elements, thus removing the impediments on the path so that we can stride forward armed  with confidence and trust in the almighty.