Tiny Orissa Community Establishes Rath Yatra as a Houston Tradition

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By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: Seven years ago, when the tiny Hindu community from the state of Orissa in India first came up with the idea of celebrating one of the largest festivals made famous in their part of the world, they were simply replicating the customs and traditions which they had been raised with. It was 2008


and they made a wooden 21 foot tall chariot – or rath – for the Gods to ride in, then decorated it in colors of ochre, yellow, red  and gold and pulled it around the grounds of the India House as nearly 2,000 fellow Hindus and other curiosity seekers followed in devotion. It was used for the past six years but this year, guided by Somdutt Behura, they built a new 24 feet tall chariot for the Gods to ride in on Sunday, June 29 at VPSS Haveli on West Bellfort.



Encouraged by the response from the community, the 70 families from Orissa who now call Houston home and have been organized as the Orissa Culture Center, made a vow to make this festival in celebration of Lord Jagannath an annual tradition in the Bayou City in each succeeding year.

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The inspiration to transplant this tradition comes from the famous Jagannath Rath Yatra festival held each year in Puri, Orissa during the second bright fortnight of the month of Ashad, which this year fell on June 29, Sunday.  Hundreds of thousands from all over the world flock to Puri to get a chance to be part of the procession and pull the chariots that contain the Ratnavedi (jeweled platform) in which Lord Jagannath (considered a form of Lord Vishnu), his brother Balabhadra and their sister Subhadra travel a distance of 2 km from their temple to their aunt’s temple, the Gundicha Temple. They remain there for nine days before returning to their own temple in a procession called the Bahuda Yatra.

Anuradha Paudwal sang with her ensemble at the OCC’s Rath Yatra program.                                                                                       Photos: Jawahar Malhotra

Anuradha Paudwal sang with her ensemble at the OCC’s Rath Yatra program. Photos: Jawahar Malhotra

The entire procession is accompanied with devotional songs with drums, cymbals, trumpets, tambourines and gongs, and is broadcast worldwide. The Rath Yatra festival has become common in many major cities across the globe after it was successfully transplanted by the ISKCON movement in 1968.

The musicians who played with Anuradha Paudwal (from left) Hemant Bhavsar, Dexter Raghunanan, Aditya Paudwal and Shushilkant Sharma

The musicians who played with Anuradha Paudwal (from left) Hemant Bhavsar, Dexter Raghunanan, Aditya Paudwal and Shushilkant Sharma

The OCC’s Rath Yatra has become an important way for Hindus to make their religious tradition visible to the multi-cultural diaspora of Houston. In deference to religious protocol and the decree of the King of Puri, the OCC sponsored festival in Houston was held after the one in Puri had commenced. It was conducted by priests Dr. Debananda Pati, Bibhu Mishra and Shrimant Dash in strict adherence to the original customs and traditions observed by the Puri temple.

Anuradha Paudwal with an admirer Ajit Kumar Ahluwalia

Anuradha Paudwal with an admirer Ajit Kumar Ahluwalia

OCC’s seventh Rath Yatra celebration was held with the support of the Shri Sita Ram Foundation, whose principal directors Arun Verma and his wife Vini were present throughout the evening. Other temples and organizations including ISKCON, Govindji Gaudiya Matha, VPSS Haveli, Hindu Worship Society, Hindus of Greater Houston, Meenakshi Temple, Namdwar, Guruvayur Temple, Durga Bari, Gayatri Parivar and Shiv Shakti Temple supported and participated in the event which was coordinated by Debasis Mohanty.

OCC chairman Dr. Aditya Samal, welcomed everyone and highlighted the importance of participation of various organizations in promoting Lord Jagannath’s message of universal brotherhood.  A musical program preceding the chariot pulling featured none other than the musical legend, former Bollywood playback singer turned devotional song artist Anuradha Paudwal who sang in front of a packed auditorium. Kalasudha Mata from ISKCON emceed the two-hour long program which paused midway for a minute silence in memory of the four Indo-Americans who had been killed in a fatal car accident the previous Sunday (see IAN dated June 27, 2014).

 Anuradha Paudwal with a family friend, Radha Golikeri

Anuradha Paudwal with a family friend, Radha Golikeri

During an interlude between songs, Paudwal related an incidence when she visited the Puri festival. “I didn’t realize how far my devotional songs had reached until I went to Puri for the festival one year,” recalled the singer whose youthful voice defies age, radiating warmth onstage with her smile. “I tried to get into the temple but was told it was closed. When I tried to get near the rath, I was pushed back till an elderly priest took me by the hand and to my astonishment, pushed me near the deity. When others objected, he waved them off, saying ‘Your rules don’t apply to her – she sings Jagannath’s bhajans’. After the rath, I was asked to sing in front of 100,000 people. It’s a memory I cherish and will never forget.”

Paudwal found her voice when she was only 9 years-old and ever since had entranced audiences with her bhajans. She was discovered by Bollywood, singing the Gayatri Mantra in the film “Hero” and went on to have a successful career as a playback singer, and was known equally for the bhajan numbers in films. In a short interview with IAN after the program, Paudwal said that working in the film industry always left her feeling insecure and since she was always temperamentally inclined to devotional songs, she left the movies to devote herself solely on this musical form. She said that she had sung at the Rath Yatra festival held each year in Rotterdam, Netherlands for the past 8 years. Asked her secret for her youthful voice, she declared it was God given and the only thing she stayed away from was cold, fizzy drinks.

Kalasudha Mata emceed the musical program

Kalasudha Mata emceed the musical program

Paudwal was accompanied onstage by her touring group, her 30 year-old son Aditya on the harmonium and Sushilkant Sharma, who played superbly on the dholuk. Houston’s own Dexter Raghunanan, the table virtuoso blended in effortlessly, playing off Sharma’s  dholuk as if they had practiced together for years although they had just met, and Hemant Bhavsar on the cymbals. Paudwal performed half a dozen popular bhajans pausing to explain some verses and relating her experience with the music. She thanked Dexter for making himself available at the last minute and coaxed the audience to sing along, often gesturing to them to finish the stanzas and with the last number, invited them to dance the garba onstage as she sang a Gujarati number – and 50 local ladies gladly obliged. From Houston, Paudwal will perform in Ohio and then return to India in mid-July.

Following ancient tradition, the deities were carried by devotees in a ceremony called Pahandi to the chariots with bongs, cymbals, drums and blowing of conch shells. After they were place on the chariot, the ceremonial king of the event, Dr. Shanti Bansal, an eminent local cardiologist conducted the traditional sweeping with a broom in front of the chariot. The 24-feet elegant chariot was then pulled by an enthusiastic crowd amid the kirtans and chants by over two-thousand devotees present.

At sunset, the procession ended with Maha Arati offered by priests of several temples in front of the chariot. While hundreds of devotees lined up to climb on the chariot and offer puja thali to the Lords and get darshan, Anuradha Paudwal and her ensemble filled the air with devotional songs and bhajans on an outdoor stage. Free prasad, water and bhog were served and the event ended with arati offered to the deities..