The Lord Jagannath's 'Bahuda Jatra' -- the return car festival -- began on Wednesday in the absence of devotees, and amid tight security and curfew, as the seaside pilgrim town virtually shutdown to prevent gatherings in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the divine siblings -- Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and their sister Devi Subhadra -- embarked on their return journey back to the 12th-century shrine, the administration appealed people to stay home and watch the rituals on TV.
The world-famous Rath Yatra, which commenced on June 23, is being held sans public attendance as the Supreme Court had on June 22 allowed it, only in Puri, and with condition that a limited number of servitors will participate and there would be no congregation.
The three deities end their annual nine-day sojourn to Sri Gundicha Temple, their birthplace, and are now returning to Sreemandir or Shri Jagannath temple on three majestic wooden chariots during 'Bahuda Jatra'.
The Grand Road between the Shree Gundicha Temple and the main shrine, the abode of the celestial siblings, which hosts lakhs of devotees from across the country and abroad during the historic car festival every year, wore an empty look this year.
Puri District Collector Balwant Singh said all arrangements have been made in compliance with the Supreme Court’s order on conduct of the Rath Yatra.
"Devotees are not allowed on the Grand Road. All entry points to Puri town have been sealed and the devotees are requested to stay home and watch the Bahuda Jatra on television," Singh said.
Over 5,500 people, including servitors, police personnel and temple officials had undergone COVID-19 tests and only those who tested negative for the virus were allowed to discharge their duties and participate in chariot pulling during the Bahuda Jatra, he said.
All the servitors engaged in the Bahuda Jatra have tested negative for COVID-19, said Krishan Kumar, the Chief Administrator of Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA).
Ahead of the return car festival, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had reviewed the preparations and asked the Puri administration to take all measures to ensure a hassle- free Bahuda Jatra.
He had also said the apex court’s directives must be complied with and only COVID-19 negative people be engaged in the rituals.
Over 70 platoons of force (each comprising around 33 personnel) have been deployed and barricades erected at several locations to prevent congregation of people.
Barricades have been set up in lanes and by-lanes leading to the Grand Road to prevent people from proceeding there. The curfew which came into force at 10 PM on Tuesday will continue till 10 PM of Thursday, July 2, said Additional Director General of Police, Soumendra Priyadarshi.
While police personnel maintained a tight vigil, a large number of CCTV cameras were installed on 'Bada Danda' to aid them, a senior police official said.
Special rituals were performed before the deities were taken out of the Shree Gundicha temple and placed on the three colourfully decorated chariots for the return journey, amid chants of 'Jai Jagannath' and 'Hari Bol'.
The deities were taken to the gigantic wooden chariots in an elaborate ritual called 'Pahandi' to the beating of gongs, cymbals and blowing of conch shells.
Lord Jagannath was ensconced in the largest of the three chariots - the 45-feet high 'Nandighosh', Balabhadra in 44-feet high 'Taladhwaja' and Subhadra in 43-feet high 'Darpadalan'.
Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb performed the 'Chhera Pahanra' ritual. The titular King of Puri offered prayers to the deities and then swept the platforms of the chariots with a golden broom and sprinkled flowers and fragrant water.
The chariots were then pulled by selected servitors amid devotion on 'Bada Danda' - the grand avenue leading to Shree Jagannath temple - up to the Lion's gate in front of the Jagannath temple, where they would be stationed till July 4.
The deities, who had embarked on the nine-day sojourn to the Sree Gundicha Temple during Rath Yatra on June 23, would finally re-enter the main shrine and again be placed on the 'Ratna Simhasana', the bejewelled throne, following a ceremony called 'Neeladribije'.
Ahead of 'Neeladribije', the deities would be decorated with 'suna besha' or golden attire on Thursday on their respective chariots, a ritual that attracts a large number of devotees every year.
However, people will be able to witness the grand spectacle only on television this time as they are denied entry into Puri in view of COVID-19.
The Puri district administration has made it clear that there will be restrictions on the non-essential movement of the public till July 4. "I request all to have darshan of the Holy Trinity on television by staying at home," the Collector said.
All hotels and lodges in the district have been asked not to accommodate tourists and visitors during the four days and continue their bookings only after that period, he said, adding that all commercial outfits on the Grand Road in Puri will remain closed during the period.