Puri’s artisans made the Jagannath Rath Yatra possible despite Cyclone Fani destroying their livelihood
Lounge travelled to three craft sites—Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Raghurajpur—to see how artisans and weavers were piecing their livelihoods back together
As the incessant rain continued to badger us one June morning in Puri, the maharanas took shelter under a temporary shed filled with logs. These are the craftsmen and labourers who work for two months every year at low wages to create three gigantic raths (chariots) for the Jagannath Rath Yatra—Odisha’s annual chariot festival, held this year from 4-15 July. The shed is opposite the Shri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) office on Bada Danda, the main road on which the deities Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra travel from the Jagannath Temple to the Gundicha Temple, where their aunt is believed to reside.
On either side of this road, maharanas were busy attending to various aspects of the rath construction, some assembling the chariot’s huge pillars and others painting vivid figurines of Vishnu’s avatars.
It seemed no storm could shake the maharanas’ resolve in upholding the centuries’-worth traditions of the Jagannath Rath Yatra, despite the heavy personal losses they suffered due to Cyclone Fani. When we had arrived in Puri the previous night, we had noticed that the coconut trees of the temple town had been shaped by a storm. Rain-battered and wind-swept, these ghoul-trees were all we encountered. The scene turned eerie as we hit the Konark-Puri Marine Drive—most hotels were still shut, with glass shards and chunks of concrete parapets dangling precariously. Morning would be different, we thought.
Dawn broke with strong gusts of wind; just across the road from our hotel, the sea frothed ferociously. A low-pressure formation in the Bay of Bengal was making its presence felt. Is this is what it looked like when Cyclone Fani made landfall on 3 May? Fani’s high-velocity winds were recorded as 170-200 kmph. The wind we were experiencing was a laughable 13 kmph.
Odisha is no stranger to cyclonic activity but Fani came as a devastating blow to its people and economy. While the number of casualties was low, thanks to a remarkably quick evacuation programme, the state’s economy has been set back by an estimated loss of ₹12,000 crore. The Jagannath Temple in Puri suffered minor damage as well. When Fani hit, trees crushed homes and workshops; energy infrastructure was damaged, resulting in power cuts that lasted weeks; many homes were left roofless; rubble and fallen trees obstructed roads.
Among the 16 million affected were 70,000 artisans and 60,000 weavers living in coastal Odisha, according to the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA). Nearly every district in this state boasts of at least one major craft tradition—the state’s 50 craft traditions make a significant contribution to the state’s GDP as well as to India’s cultural landscape.
Many of these craft traditions originated as part of temple traditions, especially those of the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Gita Ram, chairperson of the Crafts Council of India (CCI) in Chennai, says there are only two states where the crafts are still doing reasonably well—West Bengal and Odisha. She explains: “The crafts of these states are closely linked to religious festivals and temples. This is important because certain festival times are when maximum sales happen. In Bengal, you have the 10-day-long pujo (Durga Puja), when artisans make enough earnings to last a whole year. In Odisha, craft production is mainly geared towards the Puri temple."
Odisha’s handloom and handicraft sector suffered an estimated loss of ₹17.41 crore due to Fani, described by the OSDMA as a “rarest of rare" cyclone. In the days following the cyclone, as the state’s artisans worked to rebuild their lives, Lounge travelled to three craft sites—Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Raghurajpur—to see how they were piecing their livelihoods back together.
Faith as relief
The Jagannath Rath Yatra is among the oldest living chariot festivals in India—there is historical evidence of its existence from at least the 12th century. Every year, the raths are built from scratch, hand-crafted and hand-assembled, as they have been for centuries. Electric tools, such as chainsaws, are used sparingly. When we visited, the rath yatra was just a fortnight away. But none of the maharanas around the site had any doubts about meeting the deadline. The construction of the raths traditionally begins on the lunar date of Akshaya Tritiya, which fell on 7 May this year—just four days after Fani.
The maharana community is spread across the state and divided into seven categories, each specializing in a craft associated with the construction of the chariots—mukhya maharana (chief engineers), bodai maharana (carpenters), roopkara (sculptors and woodcarvers), chitrakara (painters), kamara (ironsmiths), daraji (applique tailors) and bhoi (assemblers). Their skills have been passed down generations, from father to son. The women in the families too are often trained in the crafts but cannot participate in the making of the raths.
Arjun Maharana, 42, was heading a 17-member team making iron fittings for the chariots. Clad in a dhoti and a gamcha, he said, “This gamcha is Jagannath’s uniform and we all wear it during his service." Like every year, he had been ritually inducted for the chariot construction, following strict codes of purity, such as abstinence from non-vegetarian food and sexual activity.
Arjun has two sons and the elder one, 11 years old, has already been initiated into the routine. “I am okay with whatever he may want to do with his life as long as he devotes these two months to the rath yatra seva," said Arjun, who works as a bike mechanic for 10 months of the year. There are maharanas who have moved to other parts of the country but return during the chariot construction days.
In the evening, Arjun was dressed in floral shorts and a white tee. He took us to his house in the Samudranagar locality, close to the beach. It had been a week since power supply was restored but much of the locality was still shrouded in darkness. Fallen branches were piled up in corners. At his house, Arjun showed us framed photographs of his late father, Kuna Maharana, a sculptor recognized for his work across Puri. Over our heads, a pile of black plastic had been bound together to form a temporary roof.
On the day Fani was to make landfall, Arjun and his family were evacuated to a hotel room. On their return, they found their house badly damaged. “The roof had caved in, the house was filled with rubble and knee-high water. We lost all our appliances," he said, pointing to a broken television and mixer.
Despite this, Arjun started work at the temple four days later. He said the government compensated his family with rice and dry rations; an NGO helped them with soap. In May, chief minister Naveen Patnaik had announced ₹95,100 for fully damaged structures (as well as ₹5,200 for partially damaged ones and ₹3,200 for minor damage) for every family that had lost a house, but Arjun knew that since his papers were not in order, that sum would not come his way. The temple administration provided them only with plastic sheets, that too a month after Fani. But Arjun was not deterred. “Jagannath jagat ka thakur hai (Jagannath is the lord of the world). We may turn into mud but it’s fine as long as it’s in his service," he said.
A ‘rich’ Lord
The Jagannath and Gundicha temples are managed by the Odisha government. “The Lord is very rich," said P.K. Mohapatra, chief of the SJTA, referring to the 60,000 acres that belong to Lord Jagannath across 23 districts. Mohapatra said the repairs to the temples and administration offices were estimated at about ₹10 crore, a figure they had arrived at after drone surveys. “In spite of the cyclone, none of our rituals have stopped. All the maharanas are working and Puri is almost back to normal now. Even after Fani, Puri was in darkness but we made sure the temple and the streets around it had lights," said Mohapatra.
The rath yatra planning begins well in advance. The estimated budget for this year’s yatra was ₹16.35 crore, including funds allocated for sandalwood ( ₹1.5 crore) and repair of the deities’ ornaments ( ₹50 lakh). How these funds are used becomes a matter of debate.
On paper, the SJTA’s budget also sets aside ₹60 lakh as labour charges for the 80-odd maharanas who work on the raths. The maharanas claimed that for 60 days, working 11am-6pm, they were paid roughly ₹300-400 a day. In the past, there has been friction about the low wages, but the maharanas we spoke to said they don’t complain because they see rath construction as service, not a job.
The issue that did plague the festival this year was environmental. Every year, the SJTA sources 3,000 logs from 12 different species of trees needed for constructing the mammoth raths. While the raths are dismantled and the wood is used in the temple kitchens once the festival is over, in a cyclone-hit state, and one where forest cover is depleting due to human activity, this has become a concern.
Saving scrolls and gurukuls
Puri’s maharanas are not the only artisans who had to bear the brunt of Fani’s devastation. Take the maharanas in nearby Raghurajpur, a heritage crafts village that is Odisha’s most prominent centre for Pattachitra, a distinct form of scroll painting, traditionally used to adorn the walls and raths of the Jagannath Temple with Hindu legends, tales of heroism and folk tales. It is also used as a form of oral and community storytelling.
These artisans are sometimes ritually inducted for the rath construction, but their lives are less centred around it than their Puri counterparts. They earn a livelihood through sales during the rath yatra and in handicraft centres across the country, mainly through non-profits. However, as part of their maharana duties, their work is supplied to temples across Odisha.
Raghurajpur is home to 147 families of Pattachitra artists and palm-leaf engravers. The artisans work primarily with natural materials. Palm-leaf engravings, little betel nuts that are shaped into Jagannath talismans, and natural pigments made of conch shells and lamp soot—their crafts are deeply connected to their natural environment.
More than a month after Fani, the extent of damage in Raghurajpur wasn’t easily discernible. Nearly every house had a roof and families were busy stocking up products such as Jagannath idols and papier mâché masks to be sold at the yatra. A resident artist, Raghunath Das, said this was a far cry from the day after Fani hit them. Over 130 houses were damaged.
Das said that while most of these had been repaired, several old Pattachitra works had been damaged irreversibly by rain or exposure to moisture. It was the same with the intricate murals on the exterior walls of the houses in the village as well. Painted in earthy colours, these murals were made under the guidance of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) in 2000 and were intended to revive the tradition of wall paintings inside temples, including Jagannath Temple. They depicted scenes from Hindu mythology, rural life and royal customs.
On 1 June, a fund-raiser, #Rise4Odisha, was organized in Delhi, with individuals and non-profits coming together to help Raghurajpur’s painters. Steering the campaign was Leenika Jacob, managing trustee of The Kala Chaupal trust, which partnered with social impact organizations such as the Prabhaav Foundation and Humanitarian Aid International. The fund-raiser saw a sale of surviving Pattachitra works from Raghurajpur, as well as a silent auction of works donated by contemporary artists such as Jagannath Panda, G.R. Iranna and Madhvi Parekh. A second phase of the fund-raiser will be held in Gurugram in August. “The artists need immediate relief as well as long-term solutions such as better materials and designs for their houses. Many of them have lost their paperwork and documents in the rains and this will hamper government aid to them," said Jacob.
Mohamad Farukh, head of Rapid Response, a Puducherry-based disaster relief organization that provided its services in Raghurajpur, said many artisans were in need of trauma counselling. “They don’t know when things will go back to being normal," he said. He believed Fani’s victims got less attention than those of the 2018 Kerala floods because the nation was focused on the general election. “In any case, Odisha, Bihar and the North-East have often been neglected from national conversations. When the floods happened in Kerala in 2018, the state had a strong overseas diaspora and influential people who created awareness and mobilized relief. Odisha has none of that," he added.
Bishnupada Sethi, OSDMA’s managing director, said on the phone that apart from Puri, about 100 towns along the coast were as vulnerable, if not more. Puri, however, was top priority as a temple town and a tourism centre.
Similarly, Raghurajpur received attention because of its special status as a heritage crafts village, accorded to it in 2000 by Intach. It attracts thousands of tourists, including many who come to see the artisans at work in their homes and purchase directly from them. As a key centre for crafts tourism that is preserving traditions and keeping them relevant, active efforts have been made, mainly by non-profits, to restore the village after Fani.
The same can’t be said of craft centres without the heritage tag. Bereft of the support systems that Raghurajpur enjoys, independent Pattachitra artists were struggling to earn a livelihood. Chandanpur, for instance, was not as lucky as neighbouring Raghurajpur, despite the number of eminent Pattachitra artists and Gotipua dancers who live here.
At his home in Chandanpur, Odisha state Lalit Kala Akademi award winner Niranjan Maharana, who has exhibited in Sao Paulo and Melbourne, was mourning the damage to a Pattachitra scroll that belonged to his great-grandfather. Would conservation work help restore it to its former glory? Niranjan planned to approach art foundations or museums but had no clue how to go about it.
A couple of houses away lives Bibhu Maharana, who has followed in the footsteps of his late father, Ananta Maharana, a Shilp Guru who initiated a Pattachitra gurukul in this village. His sprawling house had been rendered roofless. His family, a pet dog and electrical appliances were huddled in the one room that still had a roof. It was not just his practice that had been affected but also the gurukul. The classroom area had caved in and Bibhu’s 20 students would have to wait for repairs. Bibhu expected the repairs to cost about ₹1 lakh and take over three months.
Bibhu couldn’t recall if there had ever been a Pattachitra made on the theme of cyclones and the fury they unleash on the people. Like the gods and demons in Pattachitra, he now believes a cyclone is a worthy candidate.
The Maha BATYA
As destructive as Fani was, it isn’t the worst cyclone Odisha has faced. There was Phailin in 2013, but the one that is etched in people’s memory is 1999’s Maha Batya, the super cyclone. That year, 9,885 people died, although unofficial estimates put the figure at over 50,000. About 8,119 deaths reported were from Jagatsinghpur district, next to Puri, according to official estimates. Several villages were destroyed and 2.5 million people marooned across the state.
Jagatsinghpur is known for its skilled weavers, who have a historic connection to the Vaishnava mystic Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Pankaja Sethi, a Bhubaneswar-based fashion designer who works with these weavers, said their lineage can be traced to the 16th century, when Chaitanya came to Puri to spend the last two decades of his life. Following him, a group of weavers migrated from West Bengal to Odisha, settling in areas around Puri, and in time began creating handwoven textiles with designs that are reflective of both the states. Jagatsinghpur is the only place in Odisha where weavers create single-count cotton fabrics called suta luga, used to make lightweight saris. These have embroidered motifs connected to both Jagannath and Buddhism, such as peacocks, lotuses and the tribhuja (a triangle representative of a temple).
The 1999 super cyclone wiped out a number of weavers. The ones who survived had to contend with broken looms, apart from the factors that plague India’s handloom sector, such as large-scale textile manufacturing.
Jyosna Das, 43, from Jagatsinghpur, is one of the 42,000 weavers affected by Fani. She recalled how the 1999 cyclone hit them at night. “I was a young mother then and I ran to a school shed with my two-year-old son. I lost my loom, however," she said, adding that life comes to a halt and starts again after a cyclone. That’s just the way it is in Odisha.
On the day we visited her, her loom had been broken once again by Fani’s winds. But it was also festooned with sparkly paper. Jyosna explained that she had decorated her loom for Raja, a fertility festival dedicated to the earth goddess Bhudevi, Lord Jagannath’s wife. “The way we love to dress ourselves, we also dress the loom," she said. Farming and weaving are suspended on the three days of Raja, for this is when the fertile earth goddess menstruates.
Unlike the situation 20 years ago, Jyosna, who belongs to a government-registered weavers’ cooperative called Sri Sri Parbati Weaver Cooperative Society, along with 60 other families, knew help would come her way. She had received only ₹2,000 as relief, but she said surveys were on to estimate the extent of damage. Jyosna’s story was similar to that of many other weavers in Jagatsinghpur.
The society’s president is an octogenarian, Sukadev Prusty. “The Maha Batya started with these strong winds. Then it stopped and all fell quiet. We should have known then. After that came the rains," recalled Prusty, who has seen many cyclones in his time. In the late 1970s, Prusty had rounded up 40 weavers from his village to form a collective, which was later registered with the state department of handlooms, textiles and handicrafts.
Many weavers in the state make less than ₹10,000 a month and are dependent on the cooperatives for raw materials and wages. According to the Handloom Census of India 2009-10, Odisha had 43,652 looms and 516 cooperatives. The cooperatives are seen as the backbone of Odisha’s handloom sector but have often been criticized, especially on the issue of meagre wages. Yet, in times of a natural disaster, a cooperative remains a poor weaver’s best—and only—chance at having a loom replaced or repaired.
The larger problem, however, was that if relief didn’t reach the weavers’ soon, it could trigger another wave of environmental migration, something Odisha is no stranger to—weavers sought jobs in faraway Surat and Ludhiana after 1999.
Despite the grim situation, the loss could be handled, said Bishnupada Sethi. While the handloom and handicraft sector had been hit badly, it was better off than fisheries or coconut farms. “The industry exists because of the skill of the artisans and damage to their infrastructure is minor when compared to the strength of the sector. It is not a long-term setback and can be revived more quickly than coconut farms, which will take about five years for the trees to grow, or fisheries, which will take almost a year for boats to be repaired," he said.
On 4 July, the three raths rolled down the Bada Danda as scheduled, amidst virtual greetings from Patnaik, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind (who incidentally had been harassed by the servitors of Jagannath Temple on his maiden visit in 2018). Security was heavy, with about 10,000 people deployed. Devotees poured in, about 600,000 on the first day of the festival, fewer than in previous years, when about one million tourists gathered, because hotels hadn’t opened fully.
The evening before we left Puri, we watched the bhois—the labourers who assemble the raths—haul 20ft-long logs down Bada Danda. They stood in two rows, clasping each other. Bound by faith, in that moment they were brothers. They hoisted a log and marched in unison to the construction site. As the SJTA’s information officer, Sudeep Kumar Chatterjee, put it, “No matter what happens, Jagannath’s Rath Yatra will happen." And it did, mainly because of these people who put the raths before their own roofs.