The month of June brings with it summer, sun and vacations—but it also brings Ratha Yatra season, during which the ancient chariot festival is held dozens of times all over the world.
A celebration dating back over 5000 years, Ratha Yatra is still observed annually in the holy city of Jagannatha Puri in Orissa, India, and was introduced to the west in 1967 in San Francisco by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada.
Devotees believe that if they get the honor of pulling the ropes of the giant chariot carrying Lord Krishna, known as Jagannatha ― Lord of the Universe, then, at the end of this life, they will be granted eternal service to the Lord in the spiritual world.
New York Ratha Yatra kicked off the season this June 12th and 13th with a mega two-day festival. On the first day, the parade featuring three 25-foot chariots carrying Jagannatha, his brother Baladeva, and his sister Subhadra, began at 12:00pm and marched triumphantly down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to Washington Square Park.
“Over 5,000 ISKCON devotees and Hindus participated in the parade this year, making it our biggest-ever attendance,” says Ramabhadra Dasa, temple president of ISKCON’s Radha-Govinda Mandir in Brooklyn. “It was incredible. The parade stretched even farther than in 1976, when Srila Prabhupada was present—there were 2,000 devotees in front of Jagannatha’s cart alone.”
The general public also turned out for the event, with many customers from the Radha-Govinda temple’s restaurant, run by Ramabhadra’s wife, commenting on how impressed they were.
“The New York Ratha Yatra parade has grown from 1,800 people in previous years, to 2,750 last year, to 5,000 this year,” Ramabhadra says. “We’re planning to add two new floats to the parade—one featuring a silver swan design, and the other a peacock, with eight or ten bhajan singers performing on each. And we expect attendance to grow too, with up to 10,000 people attending within the next couple of years.”
This year’s Festival of India, held from 2pm to 7pm in Washington Square Park after the parade, also drew huge crowds, with nearly 15,000 people congregating throughout the day. The event’s variety stage performance included kirtan with Lokanatha Swami and other friends and devotees of Lord Krishna, a drama based on the ancient epic Ramayana by the Radha-Govinda Mandir’s Vaikuntha Players, and traditional Odissi and Bharat-Natyam dancing by professional performer Leena Mohanci—originally from Jagannath Puri—and second generation ISKCON students of the North Florida Bhaktikalalayam school.
The spiritual entertainment also included a multimedia 3D presentation on the Bhagavad-gita, while popular kirtan group Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits had festival-goers gathering around their exceptionally well-attended booth to dance and sing along.
Of course there’s no such thing as a Hare Krishna festival without a delicious vegetarian meal, and New York Ratha Yatra was no different—devotees served up a free seven-course prasadam lunch for six hours, handing out an estimated 10,000 plates. Not bothered by the 45 to 60 minute waiting time, people stood in a line that snaked two thirds of a block (“And that’s a New York block,” laughs Ramabhadra) to get theirs.
Day two of the festival, held on Sunday at Brooklyn’s Radha Govinda Mandir, delivered no less. After the traditional morning program and a special 90-minute talk by visiting senior devotee Deena Bandhu Dasa, 750 devotees tucked into a 17-course gourmet brunch, the famous staple of New York Ratha Yatra that’s “believe it when you see it.”
1,500 devotees gathered for NY Rath’s equally famous “Maha-kirtan” at 5 o’clock that evening, although only 1,200 could manage to cram into the temple room. Spiritual sentiment ran high as Lokanatha Swami led the first hour of chanting, followed by two hours from As Kindred Spirits’ vocalist Gaura Vani. Devotees gazed in wonder at the beautiful presiding deities of Radha Govinda, wearing a brand new outfit created for the occasion by a New Delhi designer, and at the Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra deities on one side of them, and 7-foot high Jagannath on the other.
Just in case everyone had still not had enough prasadam, a second, completely new eleven-course feast was served continuously from 7pm until 11pm. Meanwhile, the Vaikuntha players delivered “The Dice Match,” an 80-minute dramatic production based on the epic Mahabharata, from 8:10pm to 9:30pm. With a cast of 30 and elaborate sets and effects, it received a rousing standing ovation from over 1,000 devotees.
Afterwards, bhajan singing continued with Gaura Vani and local devotees on the Festival of India stage, which had been set up in the temple room, until midnight. When Festival of India organizer Madhuha Dasa finally packed up his stage and left, devotees were so enthusiastic that they continued chanting undeterred, sitting on the floor until 1am.
“Every year is special for us, but this year was something else,” says Ramabhadra. “Every devotee I spoke to said that this was the greatest Ratha Yatra they’ve ever attended.”
Keeping the bar high this June 20th will be London Ratha Yatra, which, now in its 42nd year and expected to draw over 30,000 people, is the largest and oldest Chariot Festival in Europe.
“The London Ratha Yatra is unique for several reasons,” says Varshana Dasi, one of the event’s organizers. “It’s Europe’s most central one, with many devotees from all over the continent traveling here to attend it. It’s the longest-running street event in London. It happens at Trafalgar Square, a very central location right next to Buckingham Palace, the House of Commons and other major landmarks. And of course it gives the people of the UK—a very multicultural, multiracial country—the opportunity to sample Vedic philosophy, food, arts, and culture.”
The London parade will also begin at 12 noon, with thousands of festival-goers, pilgrims, and faith leaders from all over the world hand-pulling the three 40-foot high colourful chariots carrying Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. The giant chariots will be accompanied by a procession of singers, musicians, and dancers, including many senior ISKCON devotees from around the world.
“The annual Brahmachari Convention of celibate students will be held at London’s Bhaktivedanta Manor from Friday June 18 to Wednesday June 23 this year, so all the participants will attend the Ratha Yatra as part of their program,” says Varshana Dasi. “Twelve leading sannyasi monks will also participate, including Bhakti Charu Swami, Lokanatha Swami, Jayadvaita Swami, and Mahavishnu Swami.”
At Trafalgar Square, where the procession is expected to conclude at around 2:30pm, cultural and educational displays and exhibitions will be set up, revealing to the general public the spiritual heart of India. Revellers will be able to participate in lively workshops and sample music, food, and literature, or try sari-draping and face-painting.
From the stage, festival-goers will be treated to traditional temple dance, drama, and music, including a performance by popular kirtan group The Mayapuris. The festival will be topped off by free, sumptuous Indian vegetarian cuisine, and will end at 5.30pm.
“Each year, we aim to make the Festival of the Chariots a more vibrant and colourful festival for London,” says co-ordinator Titikshu Das. “Now over forty years on, it’s amazing to see yet another generation of Londoners enjoying the Ratha-Yatra celebrations here in our capital.”
After London Ratha Yatra, Titikshu’s team will take one of their carts to over twenty Ratha Yatras all over the UK and the rest of Europe, including Paris, Budapest, Prague, Munich, Amsterdam, and Milan.
The US’ Festival of India, which puts on New York Ratha Yatra, will continue to tour, holding over a dozen Ratha Yatras across North America and Canada throughout the summer in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Boston, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.
For more information about Ratha Yatras in the UK and Europe, please visit www.rathayatra.co.uk. London Ratha-Yatra will be streamed live simultaneously at www.mayapur.tv and www.krishna.com on June 20th starting at noon GMT. The live feed will cover Lokanatha Swami and the Mayapuris` kirtan party during the procession, followed by footages of the carts and the main stage program in Trafalgar Square.
To find out more about the US Festival of India tour, visit www.festivalofindia.org. To view videos from the New York Ratha Yatra, visit Radhagovinda108.com.