The city of New Orleans, no stranger to color and festivity with its annual Mardi Gras celebrations, will see a very different kind of festival this November 21st.
Ratha Yatra, the Festival of The Chariots, originated thousands of years ago in Jagannatha Puri, Orissa on the North Eastern coast of India, where it is still observed by over five million people. The event is also celebrated in every town across India.
Channeling this ancient historical tradition, a mammoth thirty-five foot high chariot carrying deities of Lord Jaganath, Baladeva and Subhadra will be pulled by rope along a parade route from French Market through Canal Street, ending at the Festival of India site on Decatur St.
“This is New Orleans’ first Ratha Yatra since 1985,” says Festival Coordinator Shraddhadeva Manu Dasa. “During the intervening years, ISKCON’s New Talavan farm and ISKCON New Orleans jointly organized a Lord Jagannath float to appear in Crescent City Parade during Mardi Gras, usually held in February or March.”
But ISKCON wanted to have its own Chariot festival every year, rather than just a float in the Parade, realizing the incredible outreach potential. “Devotees can sing and dance on the street, and many books and plates of vegetarian food can be distributed,” Shraddhadeva says. “And of course being a city of both historical and musical significance, New Orleans is a perfect candidate for Ratha Yatra.”
The Ratha Yatra Festival Committee decided to hold the event in November rather than the more traditional summer period, since hurricane season lasts from June till October in the New Orleans area.
To put the festival together, around fifty devotees worked hard round the clock. The aptly-named Jagannath Dasa, a Ph.D. in structural engineering who has worked for major shipping companies, oversaw construction of the chariot. Others collected donations, painted the cart, bought groceries, made garlands, printed fliers, made souvenirs and banners, and coordinated with city officials for route details and city permits.
“It has been a very intense experience, yet at the same time very exhilarating, because we are all working together to please Srila Prabhupada,” Shraddhadeva says.
Plenty of work has also gone into setting up the Festival of India to be held from 1:00pm to 5pm after the three-hour parade. The event at Decatur St. will include a free vegetarian food booth, a book stall, a question and answer booth, a children’s booth, and a Chant and Be Happy booth, where people will be encouraged to chant the Hare Krishna Mantra on beads 108 times to receive a free copy of the book,“Chant and Be Happy.” The Festival will also feature many other booths, including exhibitions on Ayurvedic medicine and yoga.
The thousands of visitors to the French Quarter expected to take part in the event won’t have any shortage of entertainment either. Kirtan music artists Karnamrita, Bada Haridas, Kamiya, Keshavacharya Das, the Wild Lotus band, and Ashish Khan, son of the famous Ali Akbar Khan, will all perform on the main stage.
Special guests include City Council member Mr. James Carter, Congressmen Mr. Joseph Ciao, and Bir Krishna Goswami, with Bhakti Purushottam Swami being received as the guest of honor. Over three hundred other devotees are expected to attend from all over North America.