Elephants are likely to pull the three chariots of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra during the Jagannath Temple this year at Puri.

The Ratha Yatra at Puri’s Jagannath Temple is India’s biggest chariot festival, and is scheduled to commence from June 23.

Every year thousands of devotees pull the three chariots are pulled on the Grand Road from the Jagannath Temple to Gundicha temple, a distance of about four kms.

Lakhs of devotees throng to the coastal town of Puri to catch the glimpse of deities on chariots on the occasion of Rath Yatra, the largest-ever religious congregation in Odisha.

But this year, because of Covid19 pandemic, the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) has decided not to allow devotees to pull the three chariots.

The SJTA decided not to allow devotees to pull the three chariots to maintain “social distancing” to avoid community transmission of the “killer” Covid19.

The Odisha government has requested the SJTA to deploy either heavy-duty machinery or elephants to pull the three chariots during the Ratha Yatra.

But, the SJTA is not keen to deploy any kind of heavy-duty machinery to pull the chariots during the holy festival, and has decided to engage elephants.

As per the history of Shree Jagannath Ratha Yatra at Puri, elephants were engaged in 1928 to pull the three chariots.

Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb, who is a King of Puri, and the “Aadyasevak” (the first and foremost servitor) of Lord Jagannath, has already started speaking to elephant owners in Assam.

He is also considered to be the living reflection of the Lord Jagannath, and is also the chairman of the Shri Jagannath Temple Managing Committee.

Gajapati Maharaja on Monday requested Bijoyananda (Dudul) Chowdhury of Guwahati to offer his elephants to pull the three chariots during the Ratha Yatra.

Chowdhury is a well-known elephant trapper, and is owner of three elephants in Guwahati.

However, Chowdhury is still undecided on sending the elephants to Puri for the Ratha Yatra.

“Sending elephants outside the state requires a lot of official formalities, and hardly there is any time left for it,” Chowdhury told Northeast Now on Monday evening.

Meanwhile, the SJTA has decided that all the servitors during Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra 2020 will use masks matching the clothes used in the three chariots.

The SJTA has requested Boyanika, which represents the primary weavers’ cooperative societies of Odisha to make 5,000 masks.

The decision to use of special handloom masks for servitors of the Rath Yatra festival as a precaution against coronavirus.

The masks will be designed keeping in view the colours of the three chariots and will be made of the popular ‘Bandha’ handloom.

All the servitors have been instructed to wear masks for the entire duration of the Rath Yatra festival.

Earlier, the Odisha government had decided to conduct the Rath Yatra without the devotees this year.

The Orissa High Court on Saturday directed the state government to hold Rath Yatra festival at Puri in following COVID-19 guidelines, and deploying machinery or elephants to pull the chariots.

Anirban Roy

Anirban Roy is Editor-in-Chief of Northeast Now. He can be reached at: editor@nenow.in