At 5pm on March 21 – the first day of spring – devotees in Vrindavana, India sat on the steps leading down to the holy Keshi Ghat bathing area, waiting for the famous annual “Boat Festival” to begin. The morning had shown a threat of rain, but clouds passed quickly, leaving a clear, cool evening in its wake.
The Boat Festival has long been one of the most unique events at ISKCON Vrindavana’s Krishna Balarama temple. Every spring, devotees filled the temple’s courtyard with water to create a pool, decorated its surface with flowers, and took the temple’s presiding deities of Radha-Shyamasundar on a ride in an ornate, flower-bedecked boat.
But in recent years, the event became almost too popular, with huge crowds making the event uncomfortable for devotees, and even preventing many from being able to attend.
Some began to suggest that the location should be changed from the Krishna Balarama temple to the nearby Yamuna river. The switch took years to come into effect, but this year leading devotees and congregations from Vrindavana and neighbouring cities Delhi and Chandigarh sprang into action.
“It’s our first event in the new location, so naturally there were a few glitches, but everything turned out nicely in the end,” says organizer and long-time Vrindavana resident Dina Bandhu Dasa.
As the festival began, a swan-shaped boat carrying four-foot deities of Radha-Shyamasundar glided up and down the river, past the adoring devotees. Music from Aindra Dasa and his 24-hour kirtan group rang across the water from an island near the opposite bank, providing an inspirational atmosphere of devotion.
A boat ferrying local Vrindavana holy men pulled up alongside the swan, so that its passengers could shower Radha-Shyamasundar with marigold petals. Bags of flowers were then handed out to boats carrying other devotees, and the entire congregation followed suite until the waters of the Yamuna flowed with bright yellow and orange.
The deities, dressed elaborately by head priest Mukunda Dasa and covered with a gorgeous flower canopy, circled Keshi Ghat several times before stopping in front of Aindra’s kirtan party. “Over two hundred devotees were dancing ecstatically in the sand, and some even on the boats!” says organizer Dina Bandhu Dasa. “It was an amazing spectacle.” As they danced, a Chappan Bhog offering cooked by local deveotees was presented to Radha Shyamasundar.
The swan boat took another graceful round of the Ghat before participating in the traditional Yamuna Arati ceremony. As devotees beat drums and cymbals, Ganga Das, a local sadhu, waved a gigantic multi-tiered lamp over the waters of the Yamuna. Fellow sadhus and ISKCON devotees joined him, wielding smaller lamps, before pouring milk into the river from special spouted pots.
As the sun set over the Yamuna – known as Surya Putri, or “Daughter of the Sun” in ancient texts -- the festival wound down to a close with an energetic kirtan atop one of Keshi Ghat’s many elevated piers.
Afterwards, devotees flooded towards organizers Dina Bandhu Dasa and Jankinath Dasa, thanking them profusely for a wonderful festival. “They kept asking us why we hadn’t held it at the Yamuna before,” Dina Bandhu says. “We told them it was Radha Shyamasundar's desire – they had become tired of seeing their devotees pushed and shoved in a crowded temple room, and so they decided to come to the Yamuna, where everyone could peacefully participate.”
More images from the festival can be viewed here