After Ugadi, many temples in South India celebrate the chariot festival. Usually, there is one chariot dedicated to the deity. In contrast, Banavasi near Sirsi in Uttara Kannada district has four different chariots in its historical Madhukeshwara Temple. A week-long chariot festival is celebrated during March-April, following the traditional Hindu calendar. It is also called Vasanthothsava, the spring festival.
One for the children
During the festival, four different kinds of chariots are drawn in procession along the main road. The unique feature of this week-long festivity is the way it is organised, ensuring that every section of the society gets involved in the celebrations.
The Hagalotsava Ratha or the small chariot is drawn during the day, aimed at involving the children. They play a dominant role in decorating and drawing the chariot. Due to its small size, it is most suitable for children to draw, and it is held during daytime which makes it easy for children around the area to participate.
The second chariot is known as Tiruguni Ratha, or the Chariot of Patala. It is also a small chariot, but more suitable for the higher age group of children who do the decoration and draw it along the main road after worshipping. This is followed by Flower Chariot or Hoovina Ratha. The responsibility of decorating and worshipping this chariot is that of the Idiga community people living around Banavasi.
The chariot festival ends on the seventh day with the Sri Manmahasyandana Ratha, the Big Chariot or Dodda Teru. This has special significance as different communities participate in the festivities. For instance, Muslim families take the responsibility of decorating or preparing the chariot for worship.
Most probably, the big chariot in Banavasi, with a history of 410 years, is the biggest and tallest chariot in South India. It was donated by Ramachandra Nayak, the ruler of Sonda, in 1608. This massive chariot is 75 feet in height and 45 feet in width, and weighs nearly 150 tonnes. It has six huge wheels supported by two chassis. The chariot is built using Honne wood, and it has remained intact even after four centuries because of indigenous methods of pest control. In order to protect the wood from white ants and insects during monsoon, groundnut oil and garlic are boiled and then applied on the wooden part. Surprisingly, several coatings of this oil mixture have helped preserve the chariot, and it looks as if it is coated with black colour.
This big chariot is decorated with colourful flags, giving a majestic look up in the sky. The nine-feet-high wheels with the huge coir rope that pull the chariot offer an impressive view. The main deity of the temple or the Utsava Moorthi is kept in the centre of the chariot and is worshipped by thousands of people.
After the worship at midnight, the chariot procession starts in the main car street of Banavasi. Thousands of devotees pull the chariot, but the main role of movement of this heavy chariot is the responsibility of Dalits from the surrounding villages. Each village has been assigned a role to maintain and control the six different wheels with a wooden axel. In order to traverse 600 metres, it takes several hours, or sometimes even days! Elderly people say that once it took 20 days as the chassis broke down during the festival and they had to bring fresh timber from the forests.
Hundreds of people pulling the big chariot is a rare sight, which is also a sociological process of building bonds between different communities, religion and beliefs. Essentially, it is the celebration of the regional spirit of simple village folks who come in large numbers to pay respect to the big chariot.
Earlier, the villagers used to come in bullock carts and stay back in the night to participate in the procession of the big chariot. As the bullock carts are replaced by vehicles, people now visit only for a short time. This has an adverse impact on the celebrations as people do not stay back to pull the massive chariot. In order to meet this challenge, the temple administration may have to resort to pulling the cart using tractors, instead of humans!
Despite these developments, the chariot festival in Banavasi is unique as it offers an opportunity for everyone in the society to participate actively. This inclusiveness of diverse communities and religions enhances the significance of the festival.