Amid tight security, the famous Ratha Yatra of Lord Jagannath was held in Puri on Saturday with fanfare, religious fervour, enthusiasm and a spirit of camaraderie.
Braving rains, lakhs of devotees from across the country and abroad descended on the seaside town to witness the nine-day journey of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra to Gundicha Temple and back to their abode.
Devotees from all walks of life made a beeline to the holy town to have a glimpse of the presiding deities of the 12th century shrine of Shri Jagannath as the trinity mingled with the sea of humanity during annual festival of chariots.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and other dignitaries greeted the people on Lord Jagannath's annual car festival.
'Greetings on the auspicious occasion of Rath Yatra. With the blessings of Lord Jagannath, may our country scale new heights of growth. May every Indian be happy and prosperous,' Modi said in a twitter post.
Enthusiasm and excitement ran high among devotees as the deities remained indoors since 'Snana Purnima' on June 28.
"Naba Jaubana Darshan" of the deities was performed yesterday after they remained confined in 'Anasara Pindi' (recovery chamber) after the grand bath on 'Snana Purnima'.
Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) has banned climbing the chariots and touching deities by devotees.
If anyone climbs the chariots and touches the deities, it will be treated as a crime, Chief Administrator of SJTA, P K Mohapatra said.
However, the servitors assigned duties to perform rituals can climb the chariots and touch deities.
With millions thronging the holy town, police have made elaborate security arrangements by deploying 140 platoons of force (one platoon has over 30 personnel) and 1,000 officers besides activating air and coast surveillance.
Some units of the Rapid Action Force, Odisha Swift Action Force and Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) are also deployed to ensure smooth conduct of the Rath Yatra, said Director General of Police (DGP), R P Sharma.
A multi-layer security net had been thrown to ensure smooth conduct of the festival while CCTVs have been installed at various locations.
Security was tightened outside the temple, around the three chariots and the Grand Road, sea beach, railway station and the bus stand to prevent any untoward incident, he said.
"We are fully prepared to face any situation. Steps have also been taken to avoid any stampede like situation," said a senior police official.
Devotees poured into the seaside town to watch the grand ceremony and pull the three majestic and colourful chariots on the 'bada danda', the grand avenue.
Before the presiding deities -- Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and their sister Devi Subhadra -- set out from the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, a number of special rituals like Mangla Arati and Mailam were held.
Descending from the Ratna Sinhasana, the bejewelled throne, the three deities were taken out of the temple down the 22 steps known as "baisi Pahacha" through the Lion's gate in an elaborate ritual called 'Pahandi'.
In a rhythmic style, the chariots moved forward step by step to the accompaniment of beating of 'ghantas' and 'kahalis' and blowing of conch shells.
The trinity proceeded majestically in rhythmic movement in their journey to the world outside during Pahandi. At first Sudarshana, the celestial wheel of Krishna-Vishnu, was taken out and placed in the chariot of Devi Subhadra followed by Balabhadra, Subhadra and finally Jagannath.
Ready to carry the deities for their annual nine-day sojourn to the Gundicha temple, nearly 3 km away, the three majestic wooden chariots waited outside draped in layers of red, black, green and yellow cloth.
The 45-feet high 'Nandighosh', the chariot of Lord Jagannath stood with 16 huge wooden wheels, while the 44-feet high 'Taladhawaja' with 14 wheels is famous as Balabhadra's and Subhadra's 'Darpadalan' was 43-feet high with 12 wheels.
Shankaracharya of Puri Govardhana peeth, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati had darshan of the deities on the chariots along with his disciples.
Thereafter, the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri Dibyasingha Deb proceeded to the chariots to perform the Chhera Panhara ritual by sweeping the platform with golden broom.
East Coast Railway (ECoR) is running special trains to clear the extra rush of passengers for the car festival.
A large number of CCTVs have been installed across the city with an integrated surveillance control room near the Jagannath Temple.