Apart from transporting lakhs of people to Puri during the Rath Yatra, starting on Wednesday, the Railways have another contribution to the festival — ensuring that the three massive chariots remain on course during their sojourn.
As the wooden chariots don’t have steering wheels, they tend to run off the pre-determined course with hundreds of devotees making a mad scramble to pull them. This is when the Railways come to the rescue, keeping the chariots straight on their course. The Railways use the same technique that they use while getting derailed coaches back on rail.
“Using massive screw jacks, we get the three chariots to their pre-determined places. Through these jacks we hoist the chariots several feets from the ground and then bring back to the place pre-determined by the temple officials. It’s a tedious work as we can only shift the chariot a couple of inches with each push, but we enjoy doing it,” said V T Rao, a railway supervisor who has been doing the chariot duty since the last four years.
“Without them, it is difficult to think of Rath Yatra. They are like cogs in the chariots’ wheels,” said Puri SP Anup Kumar Sahoo.
The practice of railwaymen lending a helping hand during the festival started in 1960 when the then senior divisional commercial manager of South Eastern Railway V T Patel had come to Puri. “Soon after the chariots started rolling, one of it got entangled with an electric poll which damaged the axle. While other government officials were clueless on how to extricate the chariot, Patel offered help. Using screw jacks, the mechanical staff of Railways extricated the chariot and hoisted it off so that the carpenters could repair the broken axle,” said Muralidhar Sahu, a former Railway employee.
“We start our work during afternoon, traversing and lifting the chariots inch by inch, till it comes to the earmarked places keeping the proper gap between the chariots and their alignment,” said Rao.
Thirty-odd railwaymen with their tools loaded in a truck follow the chariots till they reach Gundicha temple, around 3 km away. For chariots of Lord Jagannath and Lord Balabhadra 10 screw jacks are used while for Goddess Subhadra’s chariot eight screw jacks are enough.
“The road in front of 12th century Jagannath temple on which the chariots roll is now smooth and wide. But a few decades ago, it was not so and thus chariots would take anything between two to 12 days to reach Gundicha temple. The role of railwaymen in maneouvering the chariots in such roads can never be over-emphasised,” said J P Mishra, chief public relations officer of East Coast Railways.