Jagannatha Ratha-yatra, attended each year by millions of pilgrims, takes place annually in Jagannatha Puri. The roots of this festival are very ancient! Scriptural evidence for this festival is found in the Utkala-khanda of the Skanda Purana as follows. During Dvapara-yuga, Lord Siva appealed for forgiveness before Lord Krishna for having committed the grievous mistake of opposing Lord Krishna in battle to avenge the death of Kasiraja. At that time, Lord Krishna spoke about the great sanctity and spiritual glory of Purusottama-Ksetra — a most Holy Land named after the Supreme Lord Himself — and advised Lord Siva to reside in that Holy Ksetra.
In the course of this Skanda Purana narration by Narada Muni to King Indradyumna, the antiquity and glory of Purusottama-Jagannatha are revealed.
The Skanda Purana gives the date of Krishna’s appearance in the form of Jagannatha as the Jyestha Purnima, the full-moon day of the month of May-June. Jagannatha is Krishna, however; and Krishna’s birthday is Janmastami, in the month of Bhadra (August-September). This apparent contradiction is resolved if we read further in Skanda Purana of Krishna’s pastime in Dvaraka of experiencing intense ecstasy of separation from Vrndavan, thus appearing in His form of Jagannatha with big, dilated eyes and shrunken limbs. This is known as His mahabhava-prakasa, an ecstatic form of Krishna. Mahabhava means “the highest ecstasy,” and prakasa means “manifestation,” so Jagannatha is literally the ecstatic form of Krishna.
The deity of Jagannatha was manifest to King Indradyumna, after which time the details of how this Ratha Yatra was to be observed was narrated directly to the King by Lord Jagannatha Himself! For centuries at Puri, three wooden carts forty-five feet high bearing the deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra have been pulled by ropes, by the crowds along the two-mile parade route, in commemoration of one of Lord Krishna’s eternal pastimes, exactly according to the Skanda Purana’s indications.
As a small boy, Srila Prabhupada witnessed several Ratha-yatra processions right in Kolkata, not far from his home. With the kind assistance of father Gaura Mohan, a three-foot tall cart was purchased from a neighbor, renovated and painted – complete with a standard Puri -looking colorful canopy on top! For eight successive days, this miniature facsimile of the Puri carts was taken about the neighborhood, with daily profuse distribution of mahaprasadam of Lord Jagannatha.
The same festival has been reenacted according to Srila Prabhupada instructions by ISKCON Centers all over the world on a much grander scale, based upon our Founder-acarya’s enthusiasm and inspiration to widely distribute the mercy of Lord Jagannatha!