Woman power pulls Orissa’s chariots of gods

By Byomakesh Biswal, IANS,

Baripada (Orissa) : It’s a tug of equality. For women in the small town of Baripada that has come alive during the Jagannath rath yatra, pulling the chariot of goddess Subhadra is as much about empowerment as it is about tradition.

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The Hindu chariot festival is observed in many parts of India, with mostly men doing the tugging, but in Baripada it is a unique affair because there women have the exclusive right of pulling the chariot of goddess Subhadra – the sister of Lord Jagannath – in an act considered sacred.

“It is exciting to see a sea of women pulling the ropes of goddess Subhadra’s chariot. Nowhere can one find a chariot festival exclusively for women,” said Sanchita Ganguly, a devotee from West Bengal who makes it a point to attend the festival every year.

Baripada is situated some 120 km from state capital Bhubaneswar.

The annual procession – the biggest of which takes place for 10 days in the Orissa town of Puri – is a celebration of Lord Jagannath’s mythical journey from Dwarka to Kurukshetra along with his sister Subhadra and brother Balabhadra. The festival began Wednesday.

Baripada has its own story associated with the yatra.

According to legend, in 1575 the king of Mayurdhamja, Vaidyanath Bhanja, visited the Puri temple but was denied access. He returned and prayed to Lord Jagannath who appeared in his dream and the king built the Baladevgew temple in Baripada and hence the second chariot festival after Puri started in Baripada.

Residents of Baripada take great pride in their unique tradition and the festival there is observed with the same fervour as it is in Puri.

“Every year, thousands of women jostle to pull the sacred rope of the chariot. Women devotees from different parts of our state and neighbouring West Bengal participate in it,” said Deepak Sarangi, a resident of Baripada.

According to the residents of Baripada, the tradition started in 1975 to mark the ‘International Year of Women’ after some women members proposed that the chariot of Subhadra be pulled by women. The proposal was approved by the district collector and that was it.

Though there was no bar on women pulling the chariots earlier, they used to stay away because of the rush.

“It was started in 1975 to mark the ‘International Year of Women’. In the same year Indira Gandhi was at the helm of affairs at the centre and (late chief minister) Nandini Satpathy in the state,” said Rudrani Mohanty, who has been participating in the festival for the last three decades.

“It is certainly a unique tradition symbolizing that women are allowed to participate in every walk of life, shoulder to shoulder with men,” Mohanty added.

Not only are the participants women but some rituals are performed by them too.

“In the Hindu religion, some rituals are out of bounds for women. But here some rituals are performed especially by women. The traditional ‘chhera pahanra’ – (sweeping of the chariots) – is performed by men while the female priest of Ambika temple in the town performs some of the rituals,” Mohanty said.

The festival here is a three-day affair. The procession starts from Baladevgew temple and finishes at the Mausima shrine.

Another unique feature of the festival is that here coarse grains are used as ‘prasad’ or holy offering following the tribal tradition in this part of the state. Another attraction is the jaggery laddoos which are wrapped in a plastic cover and thrown from the chariots for the devotees to catch.

“Orissa should be proud of its tradition where hundreds of women participate in the fair symbolically getting equal privilege as men,” said Pramod Sharma, a devotee from Maharashtra who comes to participate in this festival every year.

(Byomakesh Biswal can be contacted at [email protected])