P l a n e t
P a r t y 

The world will end, perhaps not for the first time, in the present age of Kali, the Hindu goddess of night and blood sacrifice, the erotic mistress of destruction. The end will begin in 431496 AD when our overcrowded planet has been stripped of all vegetation and anything still living will be dying of hunger, whereupon firestorms will descend and scorch away the rivers and oceans so that the earth becomes as "naked as a turtle's back". Rain will follow and flood the empty land, marking the beginning of a new cycle of ages. Vishnu, the first creator, will reappear, asleep upon the surface of the ocean, his dreams pregnant with the secrets of new life. After Vishnu has dreamed for more than a million years, a lotus will blossom from his navel, and creation re-occur. Men will walk the earth once again and when they die their souls will return to the treadmill of reincarnation. Thus runs the Hindu account of the cycle of existence, whose low point is no less dreadful for being distant, and which offers a sobering prospect for those who are fated to return to earth, and to see it all come to pass.

Happily, there is a way to escape the rigmarole of reincarnation and thus avoid being present at the predicted apocalypse, when the tears, urine, blood, lymph and every other form of fluid in our nearly liquid bodies will be sucked clear and vaporised whilst firestorms atomise cities and the rocks on which they are built. The solution takes the form of a pilgrimage to Puri, a town on the east coast of India, and participation in Rath Yatra, its principal annual festival.

Puri is one of India's four Chaar Daams - places where the great God Vishnu still spends time on Earth. At Puri, the God has taken up residence, along with his brother and sister, in several hand carved logs of wood. These roughly shaped, if striking creations, are believed to be real gods, and the wooden avatar of Vishnu is venerated as Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe. Jagannath is housed in an immense stone temple where he has a retinue of 6,000 priests and 14,000 servants. Every day, he is washed, dressed, entertained and fed, then chaperoned through a crowded social calendar, the highlight of which is the festival of Rath Yatra when he and his siblings take to chariots for their annual excursion to a nearby pavilion. Their chariots are dragged through Puri by thousands of eager pilgrims, and the efforts of these, and the progress of the gods are wildly applauded by a million or more spectators, who surge around the moving vehicles in order to catch a glimpse of the face of Lord Jagannath. Their number, and the strength of their devotion stem from a promise contained in the sacred texts of the Hindus that guarantees Moksha, or liberation from the cycle of reincarnation, to anyone who sees Lord Jagannath during Rath Yatra, thereby excusing them from attendance at the terminal firestorms of the Age of Kali.

The resulting spectacle has amazed and sometimes horrified foreign visitors for nearly 700 years. Friar Odoric, the first European to witness the giant chariots being towed through the midst of a tumult of pilgrims observed: "many who have come to this feast cast themselves under the chariot, so that its wheels may go over them, saying that they desire to die for their God. And the car passes over them, and crushes them, and cuts them in sunder, and so they perish on the spot."