Corona Diaries 41: The Commoners’ Lord & A Cheerless Yatra

A trip away from home is always fun, even for deities. It is particularly enjoyable if it comes after two weeks of keeping unwell and staying confined to an isolation room cut off from familiar people. The doctors and their help are a well-meaning company, disciplined and caring, but there’s a limit to which one can bear with them. And the dishes they feed one is so different! The concoction of ayurvedic medicines that keep arriving at routine intervals is another experience altogether. A respite from all this in another place, where one can spend time without a care in the world. Siblings together elevate the joy to another level.

The beauty of the cult of Lord Jagannath is its earthy simplicity and its connectedness to the everyman’s life in Odisha. The blending of the experiences of the deity and the common man is uniquely seamless here. The superhuman attributes of the former remain eloquently understated. His vulnerabilities such as catching a fever after a cold bath and having to be put in isolation for treatment make him almost human. This is one reason why he inspires love more than awe, affection more than wonderment, and a 2.7-km journey that should be a private affair becomes a public event. He is us, zoomed a zillion times.

But beyond the public fervour and optics, it is ritual too. It is an inalienable part of the life events of the Lord. The annual journey of the Lord and His siblings is perhaps as ancient as the sea that rolls serene and pleasant not far off their abode. It finds mention in the texts of yore such as puranas which are difficult to fit into a time band for being so distant. It has been more or less a continuous tradition but for a few breaks due to invasions, but we know with relative certainty that it has been celebrated as a public event uninterrupted for at least 285 years, from the middle and late 1730s.

Rituals often don’t make sense, but they serve a purpose; they lend constancy and dependability to faiths. They signify stability. The faithful, battered by the hassles and insecurities of everyday life, seeks solace in his deity, an entity that can be trusted to be unshakeable. The constancy of rituals ensure the durability of the bond. This year, the Lord almost didn’t make the journey. This would have meant a break in the ritualistic tradition. In the time of a pandemic, which has been relentless in its spread, and damaging to the ordinary individual in every sense of the term, the message from it would have been overwhelmingly depressing.

It is heartening to note that good sense cut through the clutter of weak arguments to prevail. The Lord and His siblings made it to Gundicha Temple for a happy seven-day stay.


Cut off public festivity and carry on with the age-old ritual. The solution was so obvious, wasn’t it? It is surprising that the Supreme Court had to be bothered with the subject of the conduct of the Rath Yatra when the state could have taken a call without much fuss. A massive public gathering is a strict no no during the time of a pandemic. It’s an avoidable health risk. Even the devotees are aware of it. The Supreme Court in its initial order cited the rapid spread of cholera and plague due to one such festival around two centuries ago. The justices said Lord Jagannath would not forgive them if they allowed the yatra. Fair enough. But the yatra without the thronging thousands was always an option. The second ruling made it clear.

Perhaps the state government wanted to play safe. It waited for the court’s order as it would shield it from any negative fallout, political and otherwise, of a decision taken either way.


What’s Rath Yatra without the frenzy? Dull, one must say. Even the deities would have found it a little cheerless. From a congregation of about 10 lakh supercharged devotees to a sparse gathering of 1000-odd people, primarily temple insiders — it was not quite its usual version. For the most part, it felt like a private affair. The real treat during such festivals is the sounds, colours, visuals and the devotional fervour. For those watching the yatra on television, it was a dish with all ingredients but minus the spice. Curfew in the pilgrim city and sealing of borders of the district were killjoys. Who loves an empty Bada Danda on Rath Yatra?

Blame it on the damned virus. It has robbed the yatra off its endearing chaos and madness. We need both back.


Corona be not proud, we shall be back in full force next year. Nothing can stop us. This appeared to be the message from television people to the virus on the big day. The fighting spirit was understandable, but not quite the inflection of some Odia-speaking presenters. It appears an Anglicised version of Odia has taken roots amid certain circles. Unfortunately, Odia slipping out of English-speaking tongues don’t quite sound natural. The choice of words maybe in place but not quite the intonation. A couple of years ago ‘Raja’ festival became ‘Rajo’ for no reason and it started doing the rounds in social media circles. With additional emphasis on ‘s’ in words, we could be inventing a new form of Odia.

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