The San Francisco Rathayatra, ISKCON’s first, returned on August 14th after missing the year 2020 due to the pandemic, with a bright and colorful celebration for the Lord of the Universe at Golden Gate Park.
With the exception of last year, San Francisco Rathayatra has been held annually since 1967, when Srila Prabhupada sketched a truck with a four-pillared canopy on the back and organized his early disciples in introducing Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra to North America.
The very same deities from that first Rathayatra, carved by Shyamasundara Das on Srila Prabhupada’s instruction, rode in Their chariots during this year’s parade.
The aptly-named Jagannath Swami Das, temple president of ISKCON Berkely, took on the service of organizing the Rathayatra in the 1970s after the passing of the previous organizer, the renowned Jayananda Das. Jagannath Swami explains that this year, ISKCON Berkely was first permitted to hold a smaller Rathayatra on Telegraph Avenue, just next to the Berkeley temple, on July 11th.
Four weeks later, devotees were given permission to hold the San Francisco Rathayatra on August 14th. The parade began at 11:30am and lasted an hour and a half, during which three stunning colorful chariots carrying Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra made their way down John F. Kennedy Drive, where Srila Prabhupada himself rode on Subhadra Devi’s chariot in 1974.
Devotees from St. Louis, San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose, Mountain View, and Santa Cruz chanted and danced ecstatically along the way, playing kartals and mridangas. Also spotted were an accordion, and a harmonium hung about the neck of one chanter. At the head of the parade was a beautiful Gaura Nitai float. “When they pushed the float and turned it around, it looked like Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda were dancing,” Jagannath Swami Das says.
The parade ended with a festival on Robin Williams Meadow in Golden Gate Park. Previously called Sharon Meadow, this spot also holds historical meaning for ISKCON devotees, as it is where Srila Prabhupada is famously pictured sitting on the grass next to Lord Jagannath and chanting, facing Hippie Hill, in 1967.
Festival attendees received a free multi-course vegetarian feast, featuring mattar paneer, basmati rice, puris, and halava. Meanwhile, food booths offered mango lassi, samosas, pakoras, pizza made in a portable pizza oven, hot tea and natural soda.
The event also included a gift shop, a booth selling Prabhupada’s books, and Festival of India exhibits on the science of reincarnation, cow protection, vegetarianism, transcendental art, Srila Prabhupada, and more.
Devotional entertainment included bhajans and Bharatanatyam dance on stage, as well as a George Harrison Tribute Concert. Against a backdrop of Srila Prabhupada standing next to the Beatle, Jagannatha Swami Das and friends played George Harrison songs with devotional lyrics, such as My Sweet Lord, Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth), and Awaiting on You All.
“Everyone who attended left with a beautiful feeling,” Jagannath Swami says. “They’re still talking about it.”
Next month, Jagannath Swami plans to thank donors and event staff with an “appreciation field trip.” Devotees will rent two open-air trains and travel through the redwood forest in the Santa Cruz mountains, before heading to a specially-reserved beach spot for bhajans, lunch and guest speakers.
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