Around 1,500 devotees from all over the U.S., Canada, and South America attended the fifth annual Festival of the Holy Name in Alachua, Florida this Thanksgiving Weekend from November 28th to 30th.
The increase in popularity of the homegrown, gurukuli-organized festival each year despite a total absence of advertising shows the power of word-of-mouth from attendees who’ve had a truly lifechanging experience.
Leading up to the main event this year as usual was a whole week of home kirtans at local devotees’ houses, building up the energy, immersive devotional mood, and attendance, as 100 people on the first night grew to several hundred by midweek.
Finally at 10:00am on Friday November 28th, everyone gathered in a huge 40’ x 80’ rainbow-colored tent on the ISKCON Alachua grounds for the main event.
To create an atmosphere conducive to deep, meditative chanting, inspirational quotes on the Holy Name had been hung on the walls, paper lanterns depended from the ceiling, and four-foot tall Deities of Sri Sri Nitai Gaurachandra looked out mercifully from a beautifully decorated altar.
Heaters to keep devotees warm in the cooler weather, and madrases and cushions to sit on made the experience a comfortable one too.
Proceedings began with the closely knit second-generation team behind the festival praying to Srila Prabhupada, Sri Sri Nitai Gauracandra, Sri Sri Krsna Balarama, and Sri Sri Radha Shyamasundara for Their blessings and setting the intention for the event.
“If you so desire, please bless us by manifesting on our tongues and in our hearts,” they said. “Please allow us to continue to serve and please You in this way and bring joy and connection to our community by Experiencing Kirtan Together.”
Visvambhar chants as the devotees crowd around
ISKCON youth leader Manorama Das then led the first kirtan, a simple, heartfelt, “old school” offering to set the devotional tone.
For the next two twelve-hour days of kirtan different chanters took turns leading for half-an-hour to one-hour segments. No schedule was posted until the day before the festival, so that the focus would be on the Holy Name rather than “rock star kirtaniyas,” as co-organizer Govinda Syer puts it.
The layout also reflected this mood, with the musicians and “kirtan facilitators” sitting on the floor and facing the Deities along with the other chanters, to guard from an attitude of “performers” and “audience.”
Of course, some devotees well-known throughout ISKCON for their ability to facilitate kirtans well did chant, but they were mixed in amongst an incredibly diverse roster that represented the community.
There was a kids’ kirtan. There were kirtans led by a family of husband, wife and children together. There were kirtans by young devotees who weren’t well known and didn’t often get a chance to sing. There were kirtans by Prabhupada disciples like Yadubar Das, Panchaguada and Purusartha. And there were also kirtans by well-known chanters like Agnideva, Madhava, and the Mayapuris.
One of the interesting features of the festival was the mix of personal styles, influences and instruments along with the traditional kirtan elements.
Parijata Dasi from France delivered her unique style of gritty New Orleans blues kirtan that had devotees grooving.
Lilananda Das, accompanied by a virtuoso violin player and Shyamala Kishori from Gainesville’s Krishna House on vocal harmonies, delivered a moving classical-influenced tune that was at once wistful and joyful, and soared straight into devotees’ hearts.
The kirtan had the audience dancing in bliss
And musician Ekendra Das and his wife Tulasi Priya created one of the special moments of the festival with their St. Augustine “beach bhakta” melody. Acoustic guitar, ukulele, mandolin, fiddle, and electric bass all melded together with Tulasi Priya’s spirited vocals to capture a breezy, upflifting vibe that had the entire crowd calling out blissfully to Krishna and dancing in spontaneously choreographed moves.
Madhava’s epic four-and-half-hour finale from 7:30pm until nearly midnight, meanwhile, saw a chanter known for his meditative kirtans delve deeper than ever before, holding the same slow tune for three hours straight with atmospheric dim lighting, before the lights went up, the kirtan exploded, and the whole tent broke out into full-blown dancing.
“Everyone went with him on the journey,” says co-organizer Govinda Syer. “The tent was more packed than it has been in five years of festivals, and everybody was calling out to Krishna. What blew me away was seeing this multi-generational group of devotees coming together, sometimes holding hands, sometimes embracing, in complete ecstasy.”
As the hours of chanting went on, organizers made sure to care for the festival attendees, and families in particular, as Alachua is a family community. A nutritious lunch and dinner were served each day. A Kid’s Camp engaged children in coloring, making handcrafts, playing games, and making sweets to offer to the Deities, so that their parents could attend the kirtan. And the securely sectioned-off, heated children’s sleeping area attached to the main tent allowed kids to doze safely in their sleeping bags as kirtan went on into the evening.
The festival concluded with a closing ceremony at 11:00am on Sunday, as a smaller group of fifty to sixty devotees did some unscheduled kirtan and both crew members and senior Prabhupada disciples like Yadubara Das and Dinatarini Dasi shared their experiences of the festival.
“They talked about how amazing it is to see Srila Prabhupada’s family of all ages come together, how people who haven’t come to the temple for 15 years are coming to these festivals, and how there’s a lot of hope that Srila Prabhupada’s movement is in good hands for the future,” says Govinda. “Devotees also shared how they had deepened their connection with Krishna and how they felt gratitude and appreciation for one another.”
He’s clearly moved by the memory. “It was very emotional,” he says. “Often there were tears. It’s clear that this festival, this collective chanting together, is a very transformational experience.”
The Festival of the Holy Name was broadcast live and the full 24 hours of kirtan are available now to watch on Youtube – simply search for “Festival of the Holy Name 2014.”
Audio of the preceding week of home kirtans is available at http://www.alachuakirtan.com/audio.
Multi-channel audio of each kirtan will begin to be posted within a few weeks, and will be announced at https://www.facebook.com/festivaloftheholyname.[ alachua ] [ chanting ] [ florida ] [ holy ] [ holy-name ] [ maha-mantra ]