“Every year, there’s some new challenge that comes up while organizing Toronto Rathayatra, and we joke that Lord Jagannath always throws us a curveball,” says Rukmini Dasi, co-chair of the Rathayatra Committee along with Anjaneya Tirtha Das.
Little did they know, however, that 2020 would bring the ultimate curveball – a global pandemic that required people to social distance from each other and saw all gatherings and public festivities banned.
Historically Toronto Rathayatra, or Festival of India, has been known as one of the largest Rathayatra events in North America. The parade down Yonge Street (dubbed “The Longest Street in the World”) typically featured three chariots and about five thousand participants, while the two-day festival on Centre Island was attended by some 40,000 people.
So naturally, when COVID-19 came along and derailed all of this, the Rathayatra Committee – consisting of mostly second generation devotees – was shaken. But they quickly pulled themselves together and began planning an epic virtual festival, along with a small creative in-person element following COVID-19 regulations. All events were broadcast on the ISKCON Toronto and Toronto Festival of India Facebook pages, as well as the ISKCON Toronto Youtube page, and remain available there to watch.
One positive feature that the virtual festival could afford was a much longer event; organizers split the twelve days from July 1st to 12th into two sections – the first catering more to a devotee audience, and the second to the general public.
Mahasundari Madhavi Dasi commentates from her home as Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra ride down Yonge Street in Their Mercedes convertible
Kicking off the festivities on the 1st was a Canada Day six-hour virtual kirtan. Nine temples across Canada collaborated for the kirtan -- ISKCON Toronto, Brampton, Fredericton, Moncton, Ottawa/Russell, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary – and chanters included Bhaktimarga Swami, Amogha Lila Das and family, Kadamba Priya Das and Nittilam.
From July 2nd through 5th, a series of seminars were held with devotees speaking live from their homes, including Vraja Lila Dasi on Spirituality: A Woman’s Perspective; Deva Madhava Das on Lessons from the Garden of the Heart; Hari Parshada Das on the glories of Jagannath Puri and Rathayatra; and Dravida Das on The Journey from Snana Yatra to Rathayatra. Due to the passing of beloved ISKCON guru and GBC Bhakti Charu Swami on July 4th, that day also featured a memorial with senior devotees Bhaktimarga Swami, Krsnanandini Dasi, and Krishnadas Kaviraj Das sharing their recollections of Maharaja. The seminar series culminated in a Snana Yatra Ceremony by resident devotees at ISKCON Toronto in which small Deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra were bathed and prepared for Rathayatra.
From July 6th to 9th, more newcomer-friendly programs were presented online, with Vrindavana Vinodini Dasi and Ira Ruiz from New York teaching yoga; and Radha Vallabha Das doing a sattvic cooking demonstration on Ayurvedic kichari and eggplant pakoras from his home in Silicon Valley. Meanwhile Venkata Bhatta Das and Hari Prasad Das gave wisdom talks on the theme of “Yogi in the City,” speaking on the topics “Watering the Root” and “You Rise When Your Pride Falls” respectively.
Ira Ruiz teaches a yoga class from her home
Simultaneously, throughout the entire virtual festival from July 2nd to 12th, children were kept busy at home with live broadcasts of different devotees telling stories about Lord Jagannath, doing puppet shows, Bharatanatyam dance, and cooking demos, and guiding them through drama workshops, kids yoga and a craft project on how to build your own Rathayatra cart.
On the morning of Friday July 10th, Sacinandana Swami graced the live Facebook feed with his talk entitled “Lotus in the Swamp.” In addition, as Friday is the day ISKCON Toronto traditionally holds a massive 12-hour kirtan leading up to the weekend festivities, devotees held a virtual version of the event. From 10am until 10pm on July 10th, many well-known chanters each took a slot to sing the Holy Name from their homes, including B.B. Govinda Swami, Bada Hari Das, Madhava Das, Gaura Mani Dasi, Akincana Krishna Das, Mitra Sena Das and Maharha Dasi, Nadiya Mani Dasi, Amala Harinama Das, Kishor Gopal Das, Amala Kirtan Das, Acyuta Gopi Dasi and Krishna Kishor Das.
On the morning of Saturday July 11th, Chandramauli Swami gave a talk on a topic very apt for our times, “The Light at the End of the Tunnel.” Then, showcasing the Toronto Rathayatra Committee’s creativity, in place of the traditional Rathayatra parade, a masked husband and wife pujari team took Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra Devi in a convertible on Their usual route down Yonge Street. The drive was broadcast so that devotees could watch it online; and adding to the experience, host Mahasundari Madhavi Dasi commented on the feed from her home, talking about each key landmark along the route.
Sacinandana Swami gives his talk 'Lotus in the Swamp' online
Next, to provide socially-distanced in-person darshan, Their Lordships traveled to three different outside locations in the city, close to smaller ISKCON centers: Milliken Park in Scarborough in the East End of Toronto, Earl Bales Park in Central Toronto, and the ISKCON Brampton parking lot in the West End. There, devotees in their cars could take “drive-by” darshan, and receive pre-packaged cookie prasadam, distributed contactlessly and from a safe distance using a grabber tool.
Simultaneously during these events, virtual programs continued on Facebook and Youtube throughout the day. These included another cooking demonstration by Braja Manjari Dasi, yoga sessions with Ashta Sakhi and Sakhi Harini, and a seminar entitled Choosing Healthy, Helpful Relationships by Urmila Dasi.
Finally on Sunday July 12th, the day began with a Bhagavatam class by Bhutabhavana Das entitled “Unity and You: The Truth About How to Heal the World.” This was followed by events themed after the Yoga Meltdown program which has been a big attraction for yoga practitioners and the general public at Toronto Rathayatra over the years. These included a virtual version of Temple Groove with kirtan and Kundalini yoga practice, another cooking demonstration by Radha Vallabha Das, and a pre-recorded Bharatanatyam dance and Bhaktimarga Swami Drama, Gita Concise, filmed pre-pandemic.
Bhaktimarga Swami passes out prasadam cookies, social-distance style, at the drive-by darshan in the ISKCON Brampton parking lot
This year’s Toronto Rathayatra virtual festivities concluded with a class by Srila Prabhupada disciple Rukmini Dasi entitled “Journeying Beyond the Festival,” on how to take the inspirational mood of the previous two weeks into the rest of the year, and a closing kirtan by Amala Kirtan Das from Texas.
All told, over forty events were streamed, with three-and-a-half to five thousand viewers participating live, while a total of over fifteen thousand have watched both during and since the festival. Viewers could ask questions live of seminar presenters via an anonymous questions and answers link without disclosing their identity; and could of course comment on, like and share videos.
To establish follow-up with participants, organizers provided a link where everyone could give their contact details if they wanted to receive further information about the temple’s activities, along with a free gift.
In addition, to continue Toronto Rathayatra’s tradition of prasadam distribution, the organizing team partnered up with a local long-term care facility to provide free vegetarian meals for 110 frontline healthcare workers.
Radha Vallabha Das, founder of Yogi Plate, gives a sattvic cooking demo during the virtual festival
“I think what surprised us most about this virtual festival is that although we thought it would limit us by not being able to see all our friends from different cities coming together, not being able to have the parade down Yonge Street etc, we ended up feeling a lot more liberated,” says Rukmini Dasi. “We had the opportunity to connect with a lot of great devotees who may not normally have come to Toronto, and to present our festival on a platform that’s easy for everybody to access.”
What’s more, the drive-by darshan element allowed community members to see the Deities in person for the first time in four months, thrilling everyone and moving some to tears.
“No matter what – even if there’s a global pandemic – Lord Jagannath’s mercy still shines through,” Rukmini concludes.
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