for Folio Weekly on April 2, 2010
The cover story for northeast Florida's news and opinion magazine.
The sun is shining, the streets awash in color, the mood buoyant. A gaggle of girls dressed in red and orange saris dances along the Bayfront in downtown St. Augustine. Men wearing robes called dhotis and a single lock of hair in the center of their bald heads — a sikha — pull a vibrant chariot featuring the deities Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra, while women hand out a free feast of traditional Indian fare — pakoras (vegetable fritters) and panir (cheese cut from milk). A double-headed drum called a mrdamgam carries the rhythm and everyone chants: “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama/ Rama Rama Hare Hare ... ”
On March 20, Hare Krishnas took to the nar- row streets of the Nation’s Oldest City for the fifth annual Festival of the Chariots — a celebration of love, life and God. The annual event is sponsored by the Alachua branch of the Inter- national Society for Krishna Consciousness (or ISKCON), a strand of Hinduism devoted to the Lord Krishna, which was founded in New York in 1966 by Indian guru A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Krishnas were steeped in controversy for years after their emergence, the religion often compared to a cult, but the group has become less insular in recent years — in part because financial pressures meant fewer followers actually lived in Krishna temples. Though not exactly mainstream — its prescription for living is ascetic, shunning tobacco, meat, alcohol and sex outside marriage — the religion is at least less foreign to modern eyes.
That said, the Festival of the Chariots (called Ratha Yatra in India) is certainly one of the most colorful and multicultural events in the Ancient City. Gopala, a member of ISKCON for more than 30 years, explains the Krishna belief sys- tem. “We believe that the soul is eternal, we believe in reincarnation, we believe in only one God,” she says. “We believe that as the body’s soul continually passes, it changes from boy- hood to youth to old age.”
Music is a huge part of Krishna tradition, including chanting mantras in Sanskrit and playing Indian instruments like the sitar, tam- bura and kartalas. Combined with the brightly dressed followers, balloons, flowers and the chariot, the festival is a bold event in a rather homogenous city.
Gopala estimates that there are about 1,000 Krishna members in Northeast Florida. On Sun- day, June 6, the group will hold the sixth annual Festival of Chariots in Jacksonville Beach.
“Our aim in general, in the Hare Krishna movement, is just to spread the word of God,” she says. “We’re trying to awaken that dormant love of God that’s in everyone.”