Thousands of Brajwasis came out onto the streets to participate in pulling the grand chariot to ‘Bade Bagicha’, the sprawling garden situated 690 yards away from Rang ji temple.
Apart from those who pulled the ‘chariot’ right from the beginning, thousands of devotees stood on the route to touch the rope pulling the chariot. Chants of ‘Rangnath Bhagwan ki jai!’ filled the air as priests sang Vedic mantras, while walking with the ‘Rath’.
Every day there is one festival or the other is celebrated in Vrindavan. But they are mostly confined within temple premises. Some say that the ten day long ‘Rath ka Mela’ is the biggest festival celebrated in Vrindavan. In any case, children and adults alike look forward to this festival in the wake of Holi.
The mela is organized in the area from the Rangji temple to Bade Bagicha. The ‘mela’ is not only a place for shopping lovers, it has equally interesting choices of entertainment. From fun rides, toy trains, ferris wheels, a wide array of eateries, and cultural shows – Rath ka Mela has something to keep every visitor pleasantly engaged.
Locally known as ‘Rath ka Mela’, the festival is actually the Brahmotsava celebration of Shri Rangji Mandir of Vrindavan. Every day there are processions -one in the morning to take Shri Ranganath to the garden and one in the evening, when He comes back. The Lord appears on different vahans (carriers) each day for ten days. Every vahan of the Lord has its own significance.
Mr. F.S. Growse, the British Collector, who served Mathura for six years from 1862, elaborately wrote about the ‘Rath Ka Mela’ and the construction of the Rangji Mandir in his memoir. About the ‘Chariot festival’ Growse writes:
“A little to one side of the entrance is a detached shed, in which the god’s rath, or carriage, is kept. It is an enormous wooden tower in several stages, with monstrous effigies at the corners, and is brought out only once a year in the month of Chait during the festival of the Brahmotsava.
The mela lasts for ten days, on each of which the God is taken in state from the temple along the road, a distance of 690 yards, to a garden where a pavilion has been erected for his reception. The procession is always attended with torches, music and incense, and some military display contributed by the Raja of Bharatpur. On the day when the rath is used, the image composed of the eight metals, is seated in the center of the car, with attended Brahmans standing on either side to fan it with chauries. Each of the Seths, with the rest of the throng, gives an occasional hand to the ropes by which the ponderous machine is drawn; and by dint of much exertion, the distance is ordinarily accomplished in the space of about two and a half hours.
On the evening of the following day there is a grand display of fire –works, to which all the European residents of the station are invited, and which attracts a large crowd of natives from the country round about.
On other days when the rath is not brought out, the god has a wide choice of vehicles, being borne now on a palki, a richly gilt ‘ tabernacle’ , a throne (simhasan), a tree, either the kadamb, or the tree of Paradise (Kalpa vriksha); now on some demi-god, as the sun or the moon, Garura, Hanuman, or Sesha; now again on some animal.
As a horse, an elephant, a lion, a swan, or the fabulous eight footed Sarabha. The ordinary cost of one of these celebrations is about Rs. 5000, while the annual expenses of the whole establishment amount to no less than Rs. 57000, the largest item in that total being Rs. 30,000 for the bhog or food, which after being present to the god is then consumed by the priests or given away in charity. Every day 5000 of the Sri Vaishnava sect is fed at the temple, and every morning up to ten o’clock a dole of flour is given to anyone of any denomination who chooses to apply for it. “
About the history of the building of the temple Mr. Growse writes, “The great temple, founded by Seths Gobind Das and Radha Krishan brothers of the famous millionaire Lakhmi Chand, is dedicated to Rang Ji, or Shri Ranga Nath, that being the special name of Vishnu most affected by Ramanuja, the founder of the Shri Sampradaya. It is built in the Madras style, in accordance with the plans supplied by their guru, the great Sanskrit scholar, Swami Rangacharya, a native of that part of India.
The works were commenced in 1845 and completed in 1851, at a cost of 45 lakhs of rupees. The outer walls measure 773 feet in length by 440 in breadth, and enclose a fine tank and garden in addition to the actual temple court. This latter has lofty gate towers, gopuras, covered with a profusion of coarse sculpture. In front of the god is erected a pillar, or dhvaja stambha of copper gilt, sixty feet in height, and also sunk some twenty four feet more below the surface of the ground. This alone cost. Rs. 10,000. The principal or western entrance of the outer court is surmounted by a pavilion, ninety three feet high, constructed in the Mathura style after the design of a native artist. In its graceful outlines and the elegance of its reticulated tracery, it presents a striking contrast to the heavy and misshapen masses of the Madras Gopura, which raises immediately in front of it.”
Almost 200 years since Growse wrote about the festival, the tradition is being carried on. The chariot still takes two hours to reach the garden and the ‘mela’ still includes a fireworks display. The festival is still well attended by both locals and guests, but, no doubt, the costs involved and the number of visitors have increased manifold since the 19th century. (JP)
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