For many years, I thought the Jagannath Rath Yatra – Chariot Festival -- was something that only took place in Puri, Orissa. It is held in cities all over the world. There is a Jagannath temple in Banarhat town, which is close to our tea garden, and a Rath Yatra takes place there every year. The deities of the temple are taken out on a carriage, which is pulled through the main street. After a short ride, they are installed in the grounds of the Banarhat Bengali High School. Seven or eight days later, the 'Ulta Rath' or return journey takes place. It is believed that the act of helping to pull the carriage, or even of touching the ropes, brings great blessings. There are Rath ‘Melas’ - fairs - at several places in the Dooars. They’re not as big as the traveling fairs that move from town to town during Durga Puja and Diwali, but they create a lot of excitement and activity.
Yesterday in Banarhat, I caught a glimpse of the Rath as it went ahead of several vehicles and large scattered crowds of people. Little children were out on their way to the fair, smartly dressed, and all of them had hair that looked as if it had been combed very fiercely by their mothers.
For my husband, and for all the tea planters in the area, the Rath Yatra is a very important date. The saying goes, 'Rath Brings Rain'. Sure enough, we recorded over 18cms of rain on the night before the Rath Yatra, and almost half as much on the day of the festival. For the next few days, until the 'Ulta Rath', the planters have their faith to keep them going.
I wonder why the rainy season has so many religious dates associated with it. In an earlier age, the monsoon weather was celebrated in art and song. There are a number of classical ragas in Hindustani music based on the moods of the monsoon. The Raag Kafi sings of thunder, lightning and sharp showers, while Raag Des is the raga of gentle drizzles. We all look forward to a good monsoon because rainfall continues to determine the fate of food crops every year in our country. Undoubtedly, the first rains cool the earth and bring happiness everywhere.
What follows is weeks of humidity, spells of heat, water logging, blocked roads, damaged railway lines, and cancelled trains. Buildings collapse after prolonged spells of rain. We see television images of people stranded for hours on rooftops in flooded villages or in vehicles on city roads. The news channels could use the same footage every year, and we wouldn’t even notice. It’s as if the phrase regular as rain has acquired another meaning.
Virulent fevers and water-borne diseases spread rapidly. The monsoon is the season of epidemics. We’ve already seen fetid puddles of water in potholes on the National Highway here. The open-air food-stalls at the Rath Mela couldn’t possibly serve food that is prepared hygienically. Not really a good time to celebrate?
Waiting for the rains in Mumbai with niece Deepa
Last year, we were in Mumbai just as the monsoon hit the city. It was incredibly beautiful; the rain clouds formed shifting pictures over the sea at Marine Drive. My sister Viji was disappointed not to find her favourite Bhel-Puri wala at his usual place. We’d all been keen on tasting that Bhel-Puri! When we learnt why he was gone, we felt quite good, really. The city’s health authorities had closed down all open-air food stalls - a very sensible and necessary precaution.