The Rathayatra of Mahesh is the biggest Rathayatra in the world after Puri’s Trio Rath Yatra and the most popular in Bengal, having been celebrated since 1396. It is held in Mahesh, a historical locality within Serampore in the Indian state of West Bengal.
It is a week-long festival and a grand fair is held at that time. People throng to have a share in pulling the long ropes (Rosshi) attached to the chariots of Lord Jagannath, Balarama and Subhadra on the journey from the temple to Mahesh Gundicha Bari (or, Masir Bari) and back within 8th day.
It was the fourteenth century. Drubananda Brahmachari, a great Bengali sage went to Puri on a pilgrimage. He had a desire to offer Lord Jagannath ‘Bhoga’ with his own hands. But the Temple authority prevented him do so.
Heart-broken Drubananda decided to fast until death. On the third day, he heard the Lord’s voice in his dream, “Drubananda, go back to Bengal. At the bank of river Bhagirathi, you will find a place called Mahesh. There I shall send you a huge Daru-Brahma (Neem trunk). Make the idols of Balarama, Subhadra and mine with this trunk. I am eager to have ‘Bhoga’ in your hand.”
Drubanada returned to Mahesh and started his spiritual Sadhana. Then on a scary rainy night, Daru-Brahma, the Neem trunk, appeared in Mahesh. He jumped into the water and received it. Then he made the Idols of the Holy Trinity and built a Temple there.
After taking Sanyasa, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu left for Puri. On his way, he reached Mahesh. After visiting Drubananda’s Temple, he lost his sense, and went into deep Samādhi. Sri Chaitanya named Mahesh as ‘Naba Nilachal’ meaning the ‘New Puri’.
Nothing about the first Ratha is known. In 1797, Sri Ramakrishna’s famous disciple Balarama Basu’s grandfather Krishnaram Basu donated another Ratha. His son Guruprasad Basu renewed the Ratha in 1835. But after a few years the Ratha got burnt.
Then Kalachand Basu made another Ratha in 1852. But one day a person committed suicide inside the Ratha. Taking this as a sign of evil, Biswambhar Basu made a different Ratha in 1857, but that too got burnt.
Then Dewan Krishnachandra Basu ordered an Iron-Chariot from Martin Burn This Ratha is still in existence.
The present Ratha or the chariot was constructed under the patronage of Krishnaram Basu by the Martin Burn Company in 1885. The cost of the construction was two million rupees.
The Ratha is a Navaratna temple having nine Shikharas. The Ratha has a steel framework with wooden scaffolding. It is fitted with twelve iron wheels each measuring twelve inches in circumference.
The Ratha is four storied, measuring 50 feet in height and 125 tonnes in weight. Two copper horses are attached to the front.
The Snanayatra is held on the full moon day preceding the Rathayatra. On the day of Snanyatra, the idols of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra are bathed in generous quantities of milk and Ganges water.
It is believed that the idols suffer from fever due to the heavy bath. So three physicians are summoned to treat the deities. They offer a liquid mixture as the medicine, which are then administered on the idols. Gradually their fever lapses and they regain normal health.
Unlike the idols in Puri Jagannath temple which are changed every twelve years, the same idols prepared by the founder Kamalakar Pipilai have been used till date.
However, two days after the Snanayatra and just two weeks before the Rathayatra, the Angaraga ceremony is held. This is a three-day ceremony where the idols are repainted using herbal pigments behind closed doors.
The artist covers his face and hairs while painting the idols and has only one vegetable meal a day for three days. He doesn’t charge any money for the services.
A day before the Rathayatra, Lord Jagannath is sworn in as the king. On the day of Rathayatra, the Jagannath idol is placed on the highest storey of the Ratha. The idols of Balaram and Subhadra are also placed in the Ratha.
A Neelkantha bird is brought and made to sit at the topmost Shikhara of the chariot. When the bird flies away from there, the procession starts.
Not only this festival is the oldest but also the biggest Rathayatra in Bengal. Nearly 2-3 lakh people come to see the month-long fair.
Lord goes to Gundicha Temple and remains there till Punarjatra, or Ultorath, as it is popularly known in Bengal.