for ISKCON News on Dec. 24, 2011
Photos by Krishna Katha Dasi and Narayan Das
Around 1,000 local devotees as well as visitors from Atlanta, Miami, New York, and California gathered in Alachua, Florida on November 25th and 26th this year for the second annual Festival of the Holy Name—a uniquely immersive kirtan experience.
“We decided on Thanksgiving weekend every year, because the festival is all about the community coming together and celebrating our gratitude for the Holy
Name and for each other’s association,” says co-organizer Govinda Syer, a second generation ISKCON devotee.
The Festival of the Holy Name was born in 2010, when two other active “gurukulis” in the Alachua community, Gaura Shakti Allin and Govinda Cordua, began to talk about how they had not been able to make it to any of the 24 hour kirtan events around the country, such as the summer festival in New Vrindaban, West Virginia.
“We thought, ‘There are so many great kirtan leaders here in Alachua—why don’t we just do one here?’” Gaura Shakti says.
Gaura Shakti and Govinda Cordua, as well as Govinda Syer, who joined them soon after, were already part of the Kuli Mela Association. The non-profit organization had previously been behind huge second-generation gatherings, called Kuli Melas, in Europe and North America, as well as Village of Vrindavana—an immersive recreation of Lord Krishna’s birthplace during Alachua’s Janmastami festival. So the trio were excited about another chance to inspire their community by creating another immersive experience, this time with the essence of Krishna consciousness, the Holy Name.
“Because Alachua is a very family-centered community, we decided to make the event more family-friendly by doing two consecutive days of 12-hour kirtans, rather than one intense 24-hour marathon,” says Govinda Syer.
The ensuing “Festival of the Holy Name,” on Thanksgiving Weekend 2010, was a huge success, bringing the Alachua community together and being called ‘a deeply transformational experience,’ by participants.
The organizers decided to make it an annual event, determined to create an even more powerfully spiritual experience in 2011.
Creating a Safe Space to “Experience Kirtan With Your Heart”
For Gaura Shakti, Govinda Syer, Govinda Cordua and their enterprising group of friends, preparation for the Festival starts a whole six months before Thanksgiving.
“We like to spend a lot of time on the inward process, getting really clear on what our intention is and what kind of experience we want to create,” says Govinda Syer.
Festival of the Holy Name’s core intention is to create a safe space where quality association can be had and Bhakti can manifest. Its official t-shirts, worn by kirtan-goers this year, entreated, “Experience kirtan with your heart.”
Supporting this goal is a mood of humility, simplicity, and working together as purely as possible with Krishna in the center. To keep this purity, rather than fundraising, organizers pay for around half of the event costs themselves, and ask friends to help with the rest. They also aim to avoid the kind of “celebrity worship” that can be a byproduct of major kirtan events, by dispensing with stages and having all attendees sit in a circle around Deities of Gaura Nitai rather than facing the kirtan leaders.
After receiving feedback on last year’s promotional flyer, they also opted not to promote any specific “headliner” kirtaniyas this year, instead focusing on everyone as equal servants coming together to chant the Holy Name.
“Rather than calling them ‘kirtan leaders,’ I like to think of certain devotees as good facilitators of kirtan,” Gaura Shakti says.
After carefully boiling down their intention, the organizing team begins to take care of logistics, meeting once a month, then once a week, then working full-time for the final two weeks. As the festival approaches, they are joined by more and more helpers—last year a core group of ten put on the event, with twenty volunteering this year and more assisting whenever they could.
“People really wanted to not only attend the event, but also be part of putting it together,” says Govinda. “Because that’s half the bliss—doing service with your friends.”
The team set up a colorful 40’ x 60’ Festival of India style tent, turned into a beautiful, warm and spiritual space by design director Raghunandini Dasi. Madrases were spread across the ground in an inviting patchwork for people to sit on; white tuile cloth and three-foot red and yellow lanterns hung from the ceiling; and inspirational quotes from the Siksastakam by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, inscribed on artistically painted lotuses, surrounded the scene. In the center of the tent, meanwhile, stood the majestic and merciful Sri-Sri Nitai Gaurachandra, Gaura Shakti’s home Deities.
Before this space was used, however, the Alachua community built up to the Festival of the Holy Name by holding home kirtans every evening for the week leading up to the event.
“This year, we had kirtans and prasadam at the homes of Raghunath and Yamuna Zaldivar, gurukulis who both teach at our local charter school, Ratnesvari and astrologer Nalini Kanta, and senior devotees Jitari and Rangavati,” Govinda says. “The final lead-up kirtan was held at the home of Adhikarta Dasa and Ruchira Dasi, who run their own farm. We chanted outside around a big bonfire, and drank hot chai with fresh milk from their protected cows. It was wonderful. Then the next day, on Thanksgiving Day, we had our traditional folk festival at the temple with more chanting. And after a week of chanting every evening with our friends, everyone was in deeply spiritual consciousness and ready for the main event.”
The Family that Chants Together, Stays Together
The main Festival of the Holy Name, held from 9am to 9pm on Friday November 25th and Satuday November 26th, began with a prayer to the presiding Deities of ISKCON Alachua—Radha Shyamasundara, Krishna Balarama, and Gaura-Nitai—to bless the event. This was followed by a recording of Srila Prabhupada explaining the meaning of the Hare Krishna mantra, before the chanting began.
As with every other element of Festival of the Holy Name, the beginning singer was carefully chosen for being capable of setting the devotional mood of the event, with Ruchira Dasi starting off proceedings this year following on from recording artist Badahari Dasa last year.
Kirtan facilitators after her mostly chanted from between half an hour and one hour, and accurately represented the family-oriented Alachua community, with men, women, older and younger devotees, and children all represented to make the attendees feel comfortable and welcome.
ISKCON Youth Ministry’s husband and wife team Manorama Dasa and Jaya Sri Radhe Dasi expressed their service attitude in song with a chanting duet; Vaishnava Academy for Girls alumni Chaitanya Nitai Dasi cried out for Krishna in her heartfelt way, and senior Prabhupada disciple Havi Dasa—who is a Grammy Award winner as musician Ilan Chester in his native South America and is the creator of many classic ISKCON songs such as the Sita/Rama ballad “I’m Missing You”—sang with his son Jagannath Kirtan and daughters Shraddha and Dhanya.
Meanwhile, the Fitches, a devotional and artistic family, sang together in a heartwarming offering, with brothers Mrikanda and Rasikananda, sisters Jvala Mukhi and Krishnaa and their mother Mrigakshi all stepping up to the mic. And children of gurukulis, six-year-old Radha, seven-year-old Karuna, and ten-year-old Anjali sweetly represented the third generation.
While instrumentation remained mostly traditional, there were some surprises: Purusartha Dasa strummed rhythmically along with his bass guitar, Jahnavi Harrison from the UK added some emotion with her violin, Kish of kirtan group the Mayapuris played his flute, and Mitrasena Dasa from North Carolina facilitated a unique percussion-free kirtan with only stringed instruments.
“When you do a regular 24 hour kirtan, there are natural peaks and dead times, but with two twelve hour days, we didn’t really have that—the tent was nearly always full,” says Gaura Shakti. “We tried to create a spectrum of moods. Sometimes the lighting would dim, sometimes the drums would stop completely and there would just be chanting and clapping, and sometimes everybody would spontaneously get up and dance.”
“We saw amazing things over the past two years,” Govinda adds. “Last year, while Parijata Dasi sang a rocking blues maha-mantra tune, mother Indrani, an elderly disciple of Bhakti Tirtha Swami in her late seventies stood up without the aid of her walker and was grooving like she was in New Orleans. She was just absorbed in the Holy Name, totally connected in the heart.”
He looks thoughtful. “Something very special happens when the community bonds together to focus on the Holy Name, with Gaura Nitai looking over us,” he says. “You can tell there’s something different in that space. Young people, older people, and children are deep in meditation or dancing in wild abandon.
Gurukulis who don’t come around much are commenting on Facebook, “I want to have this feeling forever. I don’t want it to stop.” To me that’s Bhakti. That’s transformation of the heart.”
Taking Care of the Devotees
Part of what allowed devotees to go so deep into their relationship with Krishna at Festival of the Holy Name was the fact that they felt so taken care of. Out of consideration for families with young children, kirtans didn’t go on too late; luxury portable bathrooms were brought on site for convenience; and first-class prasadam was served three times a day.
To keep the children happy, and parents free to focus on chanting, an elaborate Kid’s Camp was set up. Under local teacher Janani Dasi, children made Jagannath T-shirts using stamps and stencils, did face painting and ‘gopi’ dots, watched the animated series “Little Krishna” on a big screen outdoors, and even had their own kirtan sessions with kirtaniyas from the big tent. They also made sweets, which they offered to Gaura Nitai and served out to all the devotees. And when they were tired, there was a special tent for them to sleep in.
Another important element of devotee care was the online festival experience—hosted on Mayapur.TV and filmed by two cameras—which allowed devotees from around the world to participate. A separate audio feed was available from Krishna.com in case the video cut out, which devotees in Alachua listened to on their iPhones to keep connected to the kirtan while taking a couple hours off to work or run errands.
As it did last year, this year’s Festival ended with a bang, as huge Deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra were brought into the tent and traveling Kirtaniya Madhava Dasa had the crowd of one thousand devotees on their feet, dancing and chanting in a deep meditative trance. For a few minutes, strobe lights and even a disco ball added atmosphere. Then, deepening the mood, Madhava asked everyone to cry out to Krishna.
Finally, the kirtan ended as all the devotees bowed down in obeisance to each other, chanting the ‘Vancha Kalpa’ prayers: “I offer my respectful obeisances unto all the Vaishnava devotees of the Lord, who can fulfill all the desires of everyone, just like desire trees, and who are full of compassion for the fallen souls.”
Back to the Essence
This beautiful, immersive Krishna conscious experience has moved many senior devotees to comment. Giriraja Swami, after participating online last year, called it “One of the most powerful kirtana experiences I have ever had, even from afar.”And Dravida Dasa said it went back to the essence of Krishna consciousness, and reminded him of ISKCON’s early years, when devotees would go out on Harinama for eight hours a day. Others, who had attended last year, said that they were able to go even deeper this year.
“People felt bonded, blissful, nourished, and fully satisfied,” says Gaura Shakti. “Giriraja Swami compared it to when, in 1977, Srila Prabhupada directed the devotees in Bombay to hold twelve-hour kirtans once a week. And when they did, everything flowed better in the temple—there were less problems and better relationships between devotees. After Festival of the Holy Name, our community felt recharged in the same way.”
Gaura Shakti, Govinda Syer and Govinda Cordua plan to organize the Festival every Thanksgiving, while maintaining the simple, community-oriented mood—they have no plans to expand.
“Maybe one day there’ll be a million people watching it online,” Gaura Shakti says. “But we want to retain that simple community feel in the physical version—we want quality, not quantity, to be our measure of success. Our goal is to come together not to eat prasadam, not to socialize, but to really focus on vibrating and hearing the Holy Name, and letting it soak into our minds and our hearts.”
For audio recordings of Festival of the Holy Name, please visit http://www.alachuakirtan.com/audio. For video, go to http://www.youtube.com/user/bvdasa and click on “Holy Name P1” and Holy Name P2” on the right hand side.