Bengal celebrates Rath Yatra with fervour

Kolkata: It's that time of the year when thousands of devout Hindus pull the chariots of Lord Jagannath, Balaram and their sister Subhadra. And Wednesday was no exception as devotees across West Bengal did their bit to be part of this age-old annual festival of Ratha Yatra. In state capital Kolkata, chants of "Hare Krishna" reverberated as thousands of devotees pulled the decked-up chariots. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee paid obeisance to Lord Jagannath at the start of the Rath Yatra at the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple on Albert Road here. After a short 'darshan' or viewing, she flagged off the annual journey with a tug at the ropes accompanied by regional celebrities. Believers sang and danced all the way through to the rhythmic beats of cymbals and drums. Spared from a downpour, they made most of the moments. An estimated 50,000 devotees from 100 countries, including the US, Italy, France, Malaysia and Singapore, descended on the city to celebrate the festival. The chariots were pulled through Minto Park, Sarat Bose Road, Hazra Road, Hazra crossing, Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Exide crossing, Jawaharlal Nehru Road before being parked at Brigade Parade Ground on Outram Road till July 14. In the week ahead, daily 'darshans' have been organised. The return journey or the 'Ulto Rath' on July 14 would mark the end of the festival. Youth fests, performance by a troupe of Russian dancers and initiatives for youth empowerment would be the mainstays of the week-long celebrations. The day saw children sporting new clothes and tugging miniature wooden chariots in the lanes and streets of the city. In addition to cultural programmes, special food festivals lured people to Nalban boating complex.  The festival marks the annual journey of the three deities from the 12th-century Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha, to their aunt's residence in the Gundicha temple, around three km away. Besides Kolkata, thousands of pilgrims attended the Rath Yatra festival at Mahesh in Hooghly district, one of the most popular venues in Bengal. Dating back to the 14th century, the Mahesh Rath Yatra festival draws devotees from all corners of the world for its gigantic iron chariot that has been in operation since 1885. A few lakh devotees also gathered at Mayapur in Nadia district on the occasion. The 296-year old Rath Yatra -- the oldest in the state -- organised by Subarna Roy Choudhury's clan, started from Barisha in Kolkata's southern outskirts to Halishahar in North 24 Parganas. Security has been beefed up in the city and the outskirts to prevent any untoward incident during the festival.