Twenty French gurukulis—devotees who were born and grew up in ISKCON—are banding together this August for the second year in a row to put on a grand celebration of Sri Balaram Jayanti, the appearance day of Lord Krishna’s brother, at France’s New Mayapur farm.
The idea originally rose from the energy gathered by Kuli Mela 2010, a major gathering in New Mayapur of the European gurukuli community.
“That summer, all the French kulis had such a nice experience working together, that we really wanted to continue doing so with another project,” says Chandravali Dasi, a 30-year-old gurukuli who attended Gurukula school in New Mayapur and lives close by now. “We thought about it, and decided we wanted to put our energy into organizing spiritual events at ISKCON New Mayapur. Most of us grew up there, or at least visited often, so it is very close to our hearts.”
It wasn’t difficult to decide which festival to organize. The Krishna-Balaram Deities in New Mayapur are the only ones in Europe; and the only other set of Krishna-Balaram Deities in the world, apart from those in Vrindavana, India, that were personally installed by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada. And it was on Lord Balaram’s appearance day, in August 1976, that They were installed.
So the team of gurukulis—ranging in age from eighteen to forty—decided to organize a grand Balaram Jayanti festival that would last several days and draw devotees from all over Europe.
They worked hard throughout the year, and from August 9th to 13th 2011, 250 devotees from France, England, Spain, Italy, and Holland gathered in New Mayapur to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Sri Sri Krishna Balaram’s installation. They were delighted at what they saw.
“The typical central France setting makes it particularly attractive for visitors from abroad,” says Rukmini Dasi, one of the main co-organizers of the festival along with Chandravali and Bimala Prasad Dasa. “The temple is an historic early 20th century chateau, surrounded by 80 hectares of lush forests and pasture, with a lake and beautiful rose gardens. It’s located in an area well-known for mysticism and magic, and is very peaceful and rejuvenating.”
The main building of France`s Nouvelle Mayapur farm
For the first four days of the festival, ISKCON guru Sacinandana Swami gave an enlightening two-hour seminar on the philosophy and practical application of japa meditation every morning. Afternoons featured music workshops on instruments such as the mridanga, harmonium and kartals. And in the evenings, devotees observed Jhulan Yatra, a celebration in which the Deities of Sri Sri Radha Govinda Madhava and Krishna-Balaram are pushed on a decorated swing.
Every evening after Jhulan Yatra, devotees were in for a special retreat: lila-kirtan, a tradition often practiced in Bengal and Orissa, with Sacinandana Swami and renowned kirtan singer Madhava Dasa.
“They would chant devotional songs or the Hare Krishna mantra for several minutes, then Sacinandana Swami would describe the pastimes of Krishna and Balarama while the music continued softly in the background,” explains Rukmini. “Then the kirtan would begin again, and they would alternate back and forth in this way.
Afterwards, the kirtan would continue with Madhava Prabhu for around two hours until 11pm.”
The five-day festival concluded in grand style with Balarama Jayanti itself, featuring greeting of the Deities, an abhisekha bathing ceremony, offering of gifts to Lord Balarama, spiritual discourse and singing throughout the day, and a sumptuous feast.
This year, the dedicated group of gurukulis will again organize the festival, this time a four-day event from July 30th to August 2nd.
Along with the return of Jhulan Yatra and lila-kirtans, Sacinandana Swami will return to give daily morning seminars, which he will co-facilitate with Madhavananda Dasa, editor of the Bhubaneshwar-based devotional magazine Krishna Kathamrita Bindhu. This time, the topic explored will be Lord Balaram’s qualities, with a special focus on His sweetness.
“Every year, we want to have seminars focusing on a different quality of the Lord,” says Chandra.
Other classes this year will discuss what various items of Sri Balaram’s transcendental paraphernalia represent, and what role they play in the devotee’s spiritual life.
“For instance, Lord Balaram, the ultimate spiritual master, uses His plow to soften our hearts, so that we can more easily grow the seed of Bhakti, or devotion, in our hearts,” Chandra says. “Fascinating explanations will also be given for why He carries a mace, why He wears a blue dhoti, why His skin is the color of the moon, and much more.”
Classes on musical instruments will also be offered again this year, including a seminar by Jahnavi Harrison, a member of the US kirtan group As Kindred Spirits, on how to share kirtan with groups and give them a strong spiritual experience.
Jahnavi will also give traditional Bharat-Natyam Dance workshops, while several French gurukulis will offer workshops on Odissi dance. The workshops are expected to culminate in a grand stage show for the glorification of Lord Balaram on His appearance day, with a children’s drama and singing performances joining the dance.
Ratikala helping in the kitchen
Capping off the event, devotees are expected to hold a Harinama, or public chanting performance, with visiting guest Janananda Swami in the local town of Tours.
To make all this happen, the gurukuli team behind the festival have already been working throughout the year, designing posters and t-shirts, promoting through Facebook and balaramjayanti.com, holding regular conference calls, booking guests, organizing the schedule, and putting together teams to handle different facets of the event.
“Then leading up to the festival, the whole team will go to New Mayapur and spend two or three weeks helping to clean the property, prepare the guest house, and otherwise ready New Mayapur for the event,” Chandra says. “Finally, during the festival, we’ll be welcoming everyone, cooking, serving the prasadam, printing the programs, announcing the schedules, and making sure everything is running properly and all the devotes are comfortable.”
Many of the kulis are in their twenties and thirties, and with families, jobs and other responsibilities, their volunteer effort is a true labor of love. But it clearly thrills them too—they see Balaram Jayanti as not just a nice way to help for a couple of summers, but a long term plan with far-reaching effects.
“We want to see it grow bigger and bigger every year over the next ten years,” Chandra says.
This means not only making the festival a staple project for gurukulis throughout France, and improving it for devotees, but also expanding it to include the general public. In the future, the organizers hope to feature one “Open Day” in which locals and tourists are invited to a “Festival of India at New Mayapur” and can experience Krishna conscious culture, philosophy and food.
Little Anjali already has a taste for kirtan
Balaram Jayanti is also an outlet through which the gurukulis can help develop the New Mayapur community, which has struggled for many years, and requires renovation in many areas. During each annual festival, they’ll renovate parts of the Castle or guest house, and replace equipment—this year, for instance, they’re upgrading the community’s sound system.
For the senior devotees who have been dedicated to the New Mayapur project for decades, its invigorating to see the next generation so involved. At last year’s Balaram Jayanti, cook Sundara Gopala Dasa and head priest Visesa Dasi were delighted to have help from a whole team of young devotees, while the youth in turn were eager to learn from their elders and share such valuable time in service together.
“Most of us have really good memories here, and while we may not feel we can live in the temple full-time, helping with the festivals inspires us, brings us deeper into Krishna consciousness, and makes us feel really involved in the community,” says Rukmini.
To help the gurukulis sponsor this year’s Balaram Jayanti feast at New Mayapur, or to find out how you can help with the project long term, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.