Many believe that the custom of placing idols on grand chariots and pulling them is of Buddhist origin. Fa Hien, the Chinese historian, who visited India in the 5th century AD, had written about the chariot of Buddha being pulled along public roads.
The Origin of 'Juggernaut'
History has it that when the British first observed the Rath Yatra in the 18th century, they were so amazed that they sent home shocking descriptions which gave rise to the term 'juggernaut', meaning "destructive force". This connotation may have originated from the occasional but accidental death of some devotees under the chariot wheels caused by the crowd and commotion.
How the Festival is Celebrated
The festival begins with the Ratha Prathistha or invoking ceremony in the morning, but the Ratha Tana or chariot pulling is the most exciting part of the festival, which begins in the late afternoon when the chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhdra start rolling. Each of these carriages have different specifications: The chariot of Lord Jagannath is called Nandighosa, has 18 wheels and is 23 cubits high; the chariot of Balabhadra, called Taladhvaja has 16 wheels and is 22 cubits high; Devadalana, the chariot of Subhadra has 14 wheels and is 21 cubits high.
Each year these wooden chariots are constructed anew in accordance with religious specifications. The idols of these three deities are also made of wood and they are religiously replaced by new ones every after 12 years. After a nine-day sojourn of the deities at the country temple amidst festivities, the divine summer vacation gets over and the three return to the city temple of Lord Jagannath.