Ratha Yatra - famous annual Hindu temple festival

carved wooden chariot base. valayapettai agraharam, .panoramio.com

Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur,TN, April, 2015. thehindu.com

Base of a chariot, chinna Thirupathi. en.wikipedia.org.

 Above image  (top): The newly decorated car of the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur,Tamil Nadu, April, 2015. introduced for the first time after a long hiatus - 100 years.......

Above image (bottom)  (top): Intricately carved wooden chariot base. vallayapatti agraharam, near Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.  www.panoramio.com

Ratholsavam or Ratha Utsavam is an important temple festival  celebrated in numerous Hindu temples across India.  Also known as Car festival, it is a spectacular religious event associated with various Vishnu, Shiva and Sakthi (goddess) temples.  In all Ratha Yatra (ratha means chariot; yatra means journey), the temple paraphernalia  will precede the chariot and may include some of the following - caparisoned elephants, horses, bulls, cultural and Bhajan groups and Nadhaswaram (wind instrument) and Thavil (percussion) as in the case of Tamil Nadu. The  temple procession will also include a contingent of  Vedic pundits attached to the temple led by the priests. Chanting of mantras enhances the spiritual atmosphere, prevailing during  such holy events. In  the state  of  Tamil  Nadu, the annual Ratha Utchavam festival is commonly referred to as Ther Thruvizha.

Three chariots, Puri temple, oldest in India.newindianexpress.com 

400 plus ton Azhi ther (rath),Thiruvarur,.thiyagarajaswamytemple.tnhrce.in

The timing of such annual chariot festivals varies from temples  to temples across the nation.  So are traditions and  designs of the wooden chariots and decoration of upper deck where the deities are seated. The chariot is  tastefully decorated with different varieties of flowers, flags and festoons. For example at Tirumala Balaji temple, Andhra Pradesh,  Rathotsavam takes place on the penultimate day of the nine-day annual Brahmotsavams.  In the case of  Puri Janganath temple, this spectacular Chariot Festival is held in the month of  Asadha (Rainy Season of Odisha),  on the second day of the lunar fortnight that falls during June-July. The Skanda Purana also fixes the date of the Ratha Yatra as the second day of the bright fortnight of the month of Asadha  called Pushyami Nakshatra by astrological calculations. This internationally famous  Rath Yatra,  festival is celebrated in honor of Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. 

At Sri Andal temple, Sri Villiputhur, Tamil Nadu, the car festival (in local parlance Ther Thiru Vizha) is associated with the ‘Aadi Pooram’ (July-August) festival that marks the birthday of the presiding deity Sri Andal Thayyar, daughter of Periyazhar. She composed devotional hymns in praise of lord Vishnu and later merged with the lord.  It is a big event in this part of the southern state - 12 day-long celebrations beginning  with flag hoisting mostly in August.

Sri Andal temple, ratha, Sri villiputhur, TN therottam. 2013.Sri thehindu.com

Though the car festival here  had been taking place for more than 162 years, since 1985 it has been held  consecutively - for the past 29 years. As for the Thiyagaraja Swamy temple, Thruvarur, Azhi Ther - chariot,  one of a few heaviest and tallest Chariots (Ratha) in India, the annual festival  is held in the month of June. The base of the chariot has more than 400 beautifully carved wooden icons. The  famous Sri Natarajar Temple of Chidambaram, T.N celebrates
Udupi Sri Krishna temple, Ratha. canopy different.

Udipi Sri Krishna temple, Swamiji, Pejavar mutt blessing devotees, daijiworld.com/

the chariot festival twice a year; once in the summer (Aani Thirumanjanam, which takes place between June and July) and another in winter (Margazhi Thiruvathirai, which takes place between December and January). Lord Krishna of Udupi Sri Krishna temple, Karnataka, has five temple cars, namely Brahma ratha (the largest), Madya ratha (medium), Kinyo (small), silver and gold rathas.

The Rathotsavam (Chariot Festival), that is an annual gala event,  is a tradition that goes back to several centuries. No matter where it is held, the festival is always conducted with gaiety, splendor and utter devotion. Normally, such grand festivals start on an auspicious day only and prior to that Vedic Pandits  perform  homams - special prayer before holy fire for the success of the festival and for the welfare of the people. The oldest rath yatra in the world is
 that of  Puri Jagannath temple followed by rath yatra of Mahesh, Jagannath temple, Serampore, west Bengal.

rathyatra of Mahesh Serampore.calcutta-kolkata-asim.blogspot.in

Tradition has it the god and goddesses are colorfully dressed in various styles, befitting  the occasion and, during the fete, they are  taken out  of the temple for a celestial ride around the temple on the streets normally called Sannidhi streets in Tamil Nadu. Such  streets are  broad enough to accommodate the huge  moving ratha and are well laid to take the weight of the  chariot. Utchavar idols - representation of idols in the Srikovil or Sanctum are used for this purpose. The huge chariot moves along as the  devotees chant God's name in chorus and pull the big, specially made  rope connected to the  mammoth chariot. In many case such  heavy chariots need additional pushing from behind to tackle gradients and huge bulldozers are used for this purpose. The belief is that pulling the chariot carrying the deities will wash off sins and drive away our inner negative thoughts  and instill confidence in us to face challenges in life.

The spiritual significance of the Ratha Yatra as expounded in the Upanishad is the  festival perceives  the human body as Rath (chariot) and the God as the  Sarathi or driver  who drives the chariot of body and  takes  it on a journey or  yatra  to material existence or Bhavasagar. Spiritually speaking,  the soul goes along with in the Rath - body, and the intellect is totally devoted to God, the driver of the chariot towards the material existence. The wheels of the Rath or chariot are personification of valor. The horses, symbolic of the Vedas, are synonymous  with vigor, charity, tolerance, self-discipline and discrimination (to know the right and wrong). On the other hand,  the reigns of horses  are pity, equanimity and forgiveness.
 "Rathayatra celebrated in West Bengal". The Hindu. 4 July 2008.