ISKCON devotees in Australia have set up shop to serve delicious prasadam at the week-long music festival Bluesfest for the seventh time this year, from Thursday April 21st to Tuesday April 26th. The festival is a major earner, from which all proceeds will go towards the Deities at the New Govardhana farm community in New South Wales, as well as towards new accommodation for the devotees there.
Eighteen devotees, including “Govinda’s” catering crew organizer Ajita Dasa and ISKCON guru Mukunda Goswami, traveled the fifty kilometers from New Govardhana to the famous Byron Bay event in their twelve-ton custom-built truck.
A champion since 1990 of diverse music genres such as Blues and Roots, Latino Music, and African music, this year’s festival will see Bob Dylan headlining on its two final days, with artists such as BB King, Ben Harper, Grace Jones, and Elvis Costello also on the packed bill. Up to 17,000 people are expected to go each day to the event, which won the 2010 Australian Event of the Year award.
As usual for these kind of events, Ajita Dasa—who caters to festivals all over the country—spent the last six months in advance preparation: applying for the event, dealing with legal paper work and insurance, getting the goods, checking all appliances, and amassing his crew.
They then arrived at the site on the 120 hectare Tyagarah Tea Tree farm three days early to set up, and will cook non-stop from the first day of the festival until midnight on the last day.
The crew will be serving some 11,000 plates of sumptuous sanctified vegetarian food from their 9.5 meter mobile Govinda’s kitchen, fully-fitted out with commercial catering equipment. Festivalgoers will pay $11 for a plate of rice, coconut cream subji, halava, koftas, and tomato chutney, and $3.50 for a ginger lemon drink or mango lassi.
“We should use up about 1.6 tons of potatoes, 600 kg of carrots, 450 kg of sugar, 500 kg of flour, 150 cabbages, and 250 kg of green peas,” says Ajita Dasa. “We’ll cook and serve 2,300 litres of subji, 2,220 litres of cooked rice, 1,080 litres of halava, 880 litres of chutney, and 720 litres of drinks.”
It sounds like a Herculean feat, but of course Australian devotees are no strangers to cooking for huge amounts of people.
They began distributing prasadam at hippy events such as the Rainbow Festival in the 1970s, and branched into some small, one-day markets in the early 1990s.
“It was during that time, in 1992, that I first went to Bluesfest with just one other devotee, and we sold fried rice and cauliflower pakoras,” Ajita recalls.
Things moved up a level in 1993, when devotees started catering at the Mind, Body and Spirit festival, and sold $15,000 worth of prasadam in three and a half days. It became an annual effort, and yielded the opportunity to cater at other festivals such as The Big Day Out, a one-day outside rock concert attended by 50,000 youth.
Ajita continued to organize such catering activities while managing ISKCON Brisbane from 1992 until 2001, although when he later began managing the New Govardhana farm, he had to take a break as Vraja Gauranga Dasa kept the program going.
In 2003, New Govardhana lost a courtcase, and had to pay out $350,000 on top of an already-existing $150,000 in debt.
“I had to do something,” Ajita says. “So I called the Bluesfest organizers out of the blue—pardon the pun—and asked if we could cater for them. They told me that applications were closed, but they’d try. After a few days they called back with a positive reply; the only problem was that I only had two pots, a few spoons and three months to get ready.”
He grins at the surreal memory. “So I borrowed things from everywhere, and asked a born-again Christian, a blues fan, a gurukuli, a Rajneesh follower, a mentally unstable person and two devotees from the farm to help. That was the first team. Classic! We ended up cutting almost 800 kg of potatoes by hand and came out with $34,000 over five days. It was wild!”
After that, Ajita designed a new streamlined catering system and menu, and everything moved to a much larger scale in 2004. Devotees applied for and now cater at all the major Australian festivals, including Woodford, The Dreaming Festival, Splendor in the Grass, The Big Day Out, The National Folk Festival, and many others.
In between the larger festivals, they cater at smaller events—in fact, trucks go out almost every weekend. As well as supporting the temple, this industry has provided devotees with a spiritual means to supplement their income—although since the team varies, they do need other employment as well to maintain a regular income.
“We have a crew of thirteen to eighteen devotees, depending on the festival,” Ajita says. “For the large festivals, we have our twelve-ton truck, and we don’t pay the crew. All of the over $100,000 that we expect to make at Bluesfest, for instance, will go to the temple. For small to medium festivals, we have a different set-up consisting of three smaller trucks, and devotees get compensated for their work—$150 per day for servers and $200 per day for cooks.”
The response to the prasadam served is phenomenal. In fact, festivalgoers’ devotion to it probably rivals their enthusiasm for their favorite bands.
“Some people have told me they’ve bought tickets to a festival just to come and eat prasadam,” says Ajita. “Some come to our stall three times a day, although we have the same menu day in and day out. Some people will only eat at our stall, and get in great anxiety if we don’t make it to a festival, despite us being only one of about fifty other caterers there. One lady asked me if we were the official caterers for the Australian festivals! If you want proof of prasadam’s popularity, just go to any festival or even any major city in Australia and say you’re from Govinda’s… I guarantee that eight out of ten people will smile to their ears upon hearing the news!”
Devotees also take the chance to introduce Krishna consciousness in other ways. At many festivals, they set up book tables, and sometimes hold Harinamas—at the Big Day Out, they were actually requested to do so by organizers because it would “create auspiciousness.” At the Woodford festival, devotees even brought a Rathayatra cart with Deities of Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra and held six Rathayatras throughout the event.
Woodford Folk Festival 2010/11 from Paul Tuffery. The Video Guys on Vimeo.
Apart from providing a great service to festivalgoers by giving them the chance to see such wonderful spiritual culture and eat delicious prasadam, the Govinda’s team’s efforts have also drawn many to Krishna consciousness.
“They start off eating prasadam, then helping us to wash pots, and now several are in our temples chanting,” says Ajita. “One of them is even initiated!”
After this week’s Bluesfest, the adventure continues for our transcendental caterers with barely time to take a breath. After a series of small events, they’ll be catering at the three-day Splendor in the Grass in late July, as integral a part of the festival to many attendees as headliners like Coldplay and Kanye West.
It is the Higher Taste, after all.