ISKCON devotees across Italy have begun planning the first ever Rathayatra in the country’s famous capital, Rome, nearly one year in advance. The ancient Vaishnava chariot parade festival will be held sometime in May 2014, in honor of ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada’s visit to Italy in May 1974.
The first Rathayatra in Italy was held seven years after that visit, in 1981, in the Tuscan town of Viareggio.
“It is very famous, at least in Italy, for its carnival chariots,” says ISKCON Villa Vrindavana temple president Parabhakti Das, referring to the Carnival of Viareggio held every year since 1873. “So devotees at the time decided to have Rathayatra there.”
The first Viareggio Rathayatras drew devotees from all over Europe and attracted some 20,000 visitors. People and the media were fascinated, as Parabhakti says, “because it was something completely new.”
But as time went on, attendance dropped to under a thousand. Parabhakti and other members of Villa Vrindavana decided to move the annual festival to Florence.
“Viareggio is a nice city, but nobody really knows it,” he says. “Florence has much more visibility, and is more prestigious on a national and international level.”
Today, as well as in Florence, an annual Rathayatra is held in Milan every September. Rathayatras have also been held in Verona in Northern Italy, as well as a small internal one at the rural Villa Vrindavana community in Tuscany. But in forty years of ISKCON Italy, there has still as yet never been a Rathayatra in the country’s renowned capital, Rome.
The Ratha Yatra in the center of Milan, at Piazza Duomo
There have been different reasons for this. Mostly, it’s down to the small ISKCON Rome community not having the manpower or resources to pull off such a major festival.
But the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s visit to Italy is about to make the dream come true.
The thought of doing something special for the ISKCON Founder has united devotees all over Italy, making the Rome Rathayatra a national, rather than local, effort.
“It’s a way to unite the different devotees—progressive and conservative—under the same flag,” says Parabhakti. “Srila Prabhupada can pull everyone together. We were already having meetings with the devotees, and it was difficult, because there are different positions on Krishna consciousness. But when we started to talk about Srila Prabhupada, and arranging something for him, all the disagreements went out, and the devotees started to cooperate with each other.”
Depending on what day the local government okays, the Rome Rathayatra will be held on either the second, third or fourth Saturday in May—one of the busiest months for tourism in the capital.
Devotees are currently negotiating a parade route that will take Lord Jagannath through the center of Rome. And in the evening, they plan to set up a stage in a major central location for a public festival.
Rathayatra in the historical city of Florence (the huge dome of Duomo di Firenze in the background)
The event will be a typical ISKCON program featuring music and dance, delicious vegetarian prasadam food, and Srila Prabhupada’s books. But as this will all be very new for Rome, Parabhakti expects it to draw a lot of public and media attention.
“We decided that Rathayatra would be the best thing to capture the attention of the media,” he says. “They will be very curious about this strange chariot and festival. And we will be able to use the opportunity to speak about Lord Jagannath and also about Srila Prabhupada.”
Devotees hope the festival will see members of the public returning home with a beautiful experience in their hearts and more knowledge about Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON.
They’re also enthusiastic about how far the media attention will spread their message of Krishna consciousness.
“Rome is the capital, so anything that is done in Rome is much more effective on the national level,” says Parabhakti. “If national newspapers write something it will be read by people all over Italy. And of course we will turn the attention to Srila Prabhupada—explain what he did, why this movement has continued, and what is our strategy.”
Rathayatra in Rome is also expected to benefit ISKCON on an international level.
“Especially for religion and interfaith, I think that Rome is one of the most important places in the world,” Parabhakti says. “The Vatican is there, and all religions have delegations and offices in Rome. So [holding Rathayatra] is a good way to establish better and better relations with the Vatican.”
If the Rathayatra is successful, local devotees in Rome will avail of the infrastructure created for the first festival and continue holding it annually in the capital city.
The initiatives taken in organizing the Rathayatra are also expected to continue to unite ISKCON devotees across Italy, as festivals and conferences throughout the rest of 2014 put special focus on Srila Prabhupada.[ ratha-yatra ] [ rome ]