For many, the season of Rathayatra, or the Festival of Chariots, won’t start until the summer. But Florida, which has become “The Rathayatra State” with a record-holding one dozen festivals in-state and more organized by Florida devotees out-of-state, is already kicking off its celebrations.
Most of the festivals are organized by devotees from Alachua county’s New Raman Reti, the largest ISKCON community in North America. They include former president Bhadra Das, second-generation devotee Govinda Syer, and Dharmaraj Das, who organized Rathayatras in his native Guyana for fourteen years before beginning the same service in Florida in 2002.
During that first year, Dharmaraj helped organize three Rathayatra festivals, and that number has been growing ever since.
This year, the season began at the ISKCON Alachua temple on March 8th with Snana Yatra, during which three-foot Deities of Jagannath (the Lord of the Universe), His brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra were bathed in a special abhisekh ceremony. The Deities are cared for by Yadunandana Dasi, who has worshipped Lord Jagannath for the past thirty-five years.
The first Rathayatra of the year took place on March 21st in historic downtown St. Augustine, which was founded in 1565 and is the oldest city in the United States.
That will be followed by Rathayatras in Tallahassee on March 28th; Clearwater Beach on May 10th; and on May 23rd Daytona Beach, where last year Mayor Derrick Henry and his police commissioner brother Patrick Henry attended a pre-parade ceremony where they read Bhagavad-gita verses aloud and honored prasadam (sanctified food).
Next on July 19th comes Tampa Bay Rathayatra; on August 15th Jacksonville Beach, where farmers’ markets and local yoga groups participate in the after-parade festival; and on September 23rd a Rathayatra at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. A festival in Miami is yet to be confirmed.
Devotees will also bring Lord Jagannath’s chariot and kirtan to join in on Clearwater Beach’s Centennial Parade on May 27th; the 450th anniversary of the town of St. Augustine on September 8th; the Gator Football Team’s homecoming parade in Gainesville in October; and Christmas parades in High Springs and Alachua in December.
But that’s not quite enough for Dharmaraja, who built the festivals’ two chariots – one of them 36 feet tall – with his son Nitai Pran. He’s also organizing Rathayatras outside of Florida in Nashville, Tenessee; Valdosta, Georgia; and North Carolina this year.
Even more incredibly, he’s even involved in festivals overseas. Last year, he and other devotees helped organize the first Rathayatra in San Juan, Puerto Rico, building a new cart there; bringing all the equipment needed for a festival, and even chartering an airplane to bring participants from Alachua.
“It was very successful – the location right in downtown old San Juan was packed with thousands of people,” he says. “And they loved us so much. The permit had taken five-and-a-half months to get, but right after the parade the authorities came and handed us our permit for 2015.”
This year, the second annual San Juan Rathayatra will be held on December 27th, after which devotees will transport Lord Jagannath’s chariot by ferry across to the Dominican Republic for a Rathayatra in its capital Santo Domingo. There are even tentative plans to hold a festival in Jamaica too, possibly as soon as next year.
Each Rathayatra begins with an inauguration ceremony consisting of a small fire yajna, mantra-chanting, and the local mayor sweeping the road in front of the chariot with a broom, as the King of Puri, the original home of Rathayatra, traditionally does.
A parade follows in which devotees pull Lord Jagannath’s chariot through the city or down the beach with large ropes, as others chant and dance, attracting the smiles and intrigue of onlookers.
After the parade, a two to three-hour stage program is presented in an auditorium or outdoor bandshell featuring philosophical dramatic skits, Bharatnatyam or Odissi dance, speeches by city officials, and a big concluding kirtan which has members of the public dancing and singing along.
Seven hundred to as many as 3,500 of Srila Prabhupada’s books are passed out, as well as over 2,000 plates of prasadam. Meanwhile guests can browse devotional clothing, books and other items at the gift store, or find out more about Krishna consciousness at the Question and Answer tent.
Youth and second generation devotees from Alachua often help out with the festivals, assisting in setting up the 5,000 pound collapsible chariot and the tents on the festival site, and participating in dramas, kirtans and more.
Florida’s Rathayatras have been a major success and ingratiated devotees to officials and dignitaries. Last year Fland Sharp, the mayor of Jacksonville Beach, requested every business along the beach to advertise Rathayatra with fliers in their stores.
Sharp also issued a proclamation for “Rathayatra Day,” while the Rathayatra chariot won first prize at the St. Augustine Christmas Parade in 2012 and 2013, getting dubbed “most unique float” and “best overall float.”
“I’m told it’s the first time in North American history that ISKCON Rathayatra festivals received trophies for first place two years in a row,” says Dharmaraja.
Praise has come from overseas, too, from none other than the very top as far as Rathayatra is concerned – the King of Puri.
“He sent me emails thanking us [ISKCON] for having Rathayatras all over the world,” Dharmaraja says.
Florida Rathayatras have also attracted many people to Krishna consciousness. Some have joined ISKCON as a result of the parades; a preaching center is being established in Jacksonville as a result; a Bhakti Vriksha congregational community is growing in Tampa; and the Indian community of Daytona Beach is offering ISKCON land to build a Jagannath temple there.
Within the next month, Dharmaraja expects his Festival of Chariots Foundation Inc. to receive 501C3 non-profit tax exemption status, meaning Florida Rathayatras will receive financial support from businesses rather than just devotee donations, allowing them to be more sustainable for the long haul.
Besides that, Dharmaraja has received a request from ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission to do something special for the 50th anniversary in 2017 of the first Rathayatra festival in the West. Ideas include a manual on how to do everything required to organize a Rathayatra, from building a cart to presenting yourself to city authorities and getting permits. Dharmaraja also wants to establish a website with links to schedules and plans for all ISKCON Rathayatras throughout the world.
“From day one, Rathayatra has been the service I settled into in Krishna consciousness,” he says. “So naturally it has become my heart and soul.”
For more information, please visit festivalofchariots.org or facebook.com/rathayatras.[ florida ] [ lord-jagannatha ] [ ratha-yatra ]