"The festival ends after nine days when the deities make their way back to the Jagannath temple."
Puri, June 29 - More than seven lakh people Sunday thronged the streets in Odisha's temple town of Puri to witness the world famous Ratha Yatra, officials said.
Although some rituals were performed behind schedule, the ratha yatra passed off without any trouble, temple spokesman Laxmidhar Pujapanda told IANS.
The 'Mangala Aarti' was performed at 8.20 a.m. after a three-hour delay. The ceremonial procession of the deities known as 'Pahandi' - carrying the deities on chariots out of the temple - started around 11 a.m., he said.
The pulling of chariots started around 3.40 p.m. More than 500,000 devotees were already in Puri, 55 km from Bhubaneswar by noon. The number swelled to over seven lakh by evening, Pujapanda said.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Governor S.C. Jamir, union ministers Jual Oram and Dhamendra Pradhan were among the important dignitaries who witnessed the festival.
Patnaik and Oram joined the devotees and pulled a chariot.
Puri Sankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati, who was unhappy with the state government over the handling of the festival - however stayed away and did not perform his customary rituals on the chariots.
The Puri Sankaracharya climbs the chariots along with his disciples and offers prayers as a customary practice every year.
Saraswati said the temple administration informed him that nobody could accompany him to the chariots.
Protesting the decision, the seer said he would not perform the rituals this year.
Union ministers Oram and Pradhan met Saraswati earlier during the day at his mutt in the temple town and attempted to resolve the crisis but it yielded no results.
A temple administration official said a letter was sent to the seer in accordance with the directives of the Odisha High Court, while the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the decision was unwarranted.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), in separate statements, accused the government of insulting the seer and interfering in religious matters.
Demanding an apology from the government, both the organisations have threatened to launch agitations.
The ratha yatra marks the annual journey of the three deities - Lord Jagannath, his brother Bhalabhadra and sister Subhadra - from the 12th century Jagannath temple to the Gundicha temple, three km away.
The festival ends after nine days when the deities make their way back to the Jagannath temple.
We bow to Lord Jagannath on this auspicious day. Today, once again, he sets out on his chariot, giving blessings to the people, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.