This summer’s biggest blockbuster is not a movie—it’s Ratha Yatra, The Festival of Chariots. And what does that mean? It means Lord Jagannath, the most merciful Lord of the Universe, is coming to a town near you very soon!
A celebration dating back over 5,000 years, Ratha Yatra is still observed annually in the holy city of Jagannatha Puri in Orissa, India. Introduced to the West in 1967 in San Francisco by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada, it is now held in cities all over the world.
Participants believe that if they get the honor of pulling the ropes of the giant chariot carrying Lord Krishna, known as Jagannath, then, at the end of this life, they will be granted eternal service to the Lord in the spiritual world.
This summer, the Ratha Yatra season kicks off in North America with the two-day New York festival, on Saturday June 11th and Sunday June 12th.
The first day will begin at 11:30am with the centerpiece parade, in which an estimated 5,000 people will pull three 25-foot-high chariots carrying Jagannath, his brother Baladeva, and his sister Subhadra. The parade will make its way down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to Washington Square Park, where the colorful tents of the Festival of India traveling roadshow await.
From 2pm until 7pm, the public will be kept busy with world-class kirtans and bhajans, Bharata-Natyam and Odissi Dance performances, a dramatic production of “The Age of Kali” by ISKCON New York’s own Vaikuntha Players, a Multimedia 3D Presentation on the Bhagavad-gita, and of course a delicious seven-course free feast—last year enjoyed by over 10,000 people.
Krishna consciousness is known as “the kitchen religion,” and Brooklyn’s Radha Govinda Mandir will show why on the second day of the festival, serving out their famous mind-blowing 17-course gourmet brunch that has to be seen to be believed.
Later in the day they’ll follow it up with their equally famous “Maha Kirtan,” which will see hundreds of devotees and friends of Krishna gleefully bouncing up and down in a thrilling spiritual “moshpit.” This will be followed by the Vaikuntha Players’ epic eighty-minute drama, “Lord Nrsimhadeva Slays the King of the Demons,” and finally another ten-course vegetarian feast.
This jubilant festival is just one in a series of “screenings” for the spiritual blockbuster. Festival of India, run by Madhuha Dasa since 1982, works with local temples around North America to bring Ratha Yatra to cities all over the country.
The colorful chariots, tents, and cultural performances will be coming to Jacksonville, Florida on June 18th and 19th; Washington D.C. on July 3rd and 4th; Montreal, Canada on July 9th and 10th; Toronto on July 16th and 17th; Los Angeles on July 31st; San Francisco on August 7th; Vancouver on August 13th and 14th; Boston on September 17th and 18th; Philadelphia on September 24th, and many more cities. Highlights include the famous “Toronto Tunnel” kirtan, and devotees’ participation in the Fourth of July festivities in Washington D.C.
Meanwhile, this summer’s European Ratha Yatra tour kicks off with the huge London event on June 12th. The parade, featuring three forty-foot-high chariots, and, according to police estimates, drawing 5,000 people, will start at Hyde Park Corner at noon and travel to Trafalgar Square.
Forty thousand people are expected to pass through the festival site between 2:30pm and 5:30pm, listening to kirtan and talks on Krishna consciousness, watching play performances by the world-famous Bhaktivedanta Players, browsing stalls depicting ISKCON’s efforts worldwide, and even getting the chance to try on a sari or have their faces painted.
“We expect to serve out 20,000 plates of sanctified vegetarian food, which we’ll transport to the site in thirty-six 250 litre barrels,” says Festival Co-ordinator Titikshu Das. “The festival costs £60,000 to put on, which is entirely raised through donations. It’s staffed by 250 devotees, all volunteers, including myself. And its organization has to be negotiated with four different city authorities. It’s a huge effort.”
But for Titikshu, who built England’s Ratha Yatra chariots in 1982 and has been heading up the London event since 2000, it’s all a blast.
“When I was a five-year-old kid, I loved playing with colorful toy cars and trucks,” he says. “Now, Krishna has given me these huge brightly-colored chariots to play with—and to be honest, I’m having way more fun than I did as a kid! Devotional service is joyfully performed—for me, it’s always like, ‘Hey, let’s go out and play Ratha Yatra today!’”
On a more serious note, he explains what’s so special about Ratha Yatra: “All the primary limbs of the Krishna consciousness movement are included in Ratha Yatra—there’s Deity worship, book distribution, public chanting, and prasadam food distribution. Everything that we do as devotees is there.”
Determined to take advantage of the spiritual benefit derived from the festival, Titikshu also takes Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra’s chariots around Europe. After London, he’ll attend Ratha Yatras in Paris, France on July 3rd; Budapest, Hungary on July 9th; Prague, Czech Republic on July 17th; and then return to England for a festival in Birmingham, the nation’s second biggest city with a population of four million, on July 24th.
“Then on July 31st, we’ll go to Leicester, which has the largest Hindu community outside of London,” Titikshu says. “We’ll follow that with a trip to Ireland, putting on festivals in Belfast and Dublin on September 3rd and 4th. Then it’s down to Brighton, the oldest seaside resort in the UK, on September 10th, where we’ll be pulling the chariot down a promenade along the sea-front. Finally, we’ll go to Cardiff, Wales, on September 17th.”
At that point, Titikshu gets to put his feet up, but that doesn’t even come close to ending the list of European Ratha Yatras this summer. Parasurama Dasa, director of the UK’s Food For All charity organization, will hold another host of festivals alongside Titikshu’s with his handy pocket-sized chariot, still an attractive sight at fifteen feet.
Parasurama and his team will put on at least six more Ratha Yatras in the UK, as well as about a dozen in Northern European countries such as Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. And that’s not counting the independently-organized events in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Russia. With a population of nearly one billion people throughout Europe, millions are expected to see the Lord of the Universe.
“Jagannath is so kind and merciful,” Titikshu says. “And a story about ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada tells us just how merciful. Once, Prabhupada was speaking to an Indian gentleman in Mumbai about what happens at the time of death. He explained that your entire life flashes before your eyes like a movie.
But, he said, when you get to the point in the movie when you see Lord Jagannath on the Ratha Yatra chariot, at that point the movie stops, and you go back home, back to His eternal abode in the spiritual world.”
New York’s Radha Govinda Mandir is located at 305 Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn, New York 11217. For more information about New York Ratha Yatra, please email email@example.com
For more information about London Ratha Yatra, please visit www.rathayatra.co.uk , or call The Radha Krishna Temple, 10 Soho Street London W1V 5DA at 020 7437 3662. To view photos of last year’s London Ratha Yatra, please visit: http://davidc.zenfolio.com/rathayatra2010.