When the category 4 Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017, the U.S. territory’s only ISKCON temple, in Gurabo, was almost completely destroyed. The roof, veranda and porch were ripped off, the temple flooded, and equipment broken. For nearly a year after, devotees did not have electricity or running water, and groceries and gas were hard to come by.
Yet two months after the hurricane, they put on a small Rathayatra festival for the public, their fourth. There was no stage and only two small tents. But they sang the Holy Name and distributed prasad.
For their fifth annual Rathayatra, Puerto Rico devotees wanted to do something bigger and better for Srila Prabhupada and their gurus. So on December 30th, they held a major Rathayatra in the capital city of San Juan, broadcasting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and bringing Lord Jagannath to thousands of people.
Gurabo temple president Arisudana Das feels that the achievement is another confirmation of Srila Prabhupada’s oft-made statement that “devotional service cannot be checked by any material impediment.” (Lecture, Montreal, August 3, 1968)
“Nothing can stop the spreading of Krishna consciousness – even hurricanes,” Arisudana says, smiling.
Devotees from the Dominican Republic, Alachua, Orlando, Philadelphia, Dallas and North Carolina came to assist with the Rathayatra. Madhuha Das of Festival of India donated tents and display panels about Srila Prabhupada and the Bhavad-gita, and came himself with his team to help set up the tents and stage.
The Rathayatra procession makes its way down the streets of Old San Juan
The Rathayatra parade began at 2pm, with devotees pulling Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra on Their chariot through the streets of Old San Juan, a beautiful 500-year-old colonial Spanish settlement.
As the area was packed with tourists and shoppers, thousands of people saw the Lord. Many came to help pull the chariot or join the devotees in chanting and dancing. All received packets of sweet almonds offered to Gurabo’s Sri Sri Krishna Balarama – the first Krishna Balarama Deities installed in the continent of America.
“There were more people than in all previous years – this was our best Rathayatra yet,” says Arisudana.
Back at the cruise ship docks, a stage and brightly colored Festival of India tents adorned Pier One. Thanks to the power of prasadam, the Port Authority had given devotees the venue for free for the first time.
While the procession was going on, prasadam and Prabhupada’s books were distributed from the tents, and kirtan rang out on the stage.
A Festival of India Exhibit on the Pier
At 4pm, when Lord Jagannath’s chariot arrived at Pier One, the program amped up, with more elaborate singing and dancing on the stage, kathak dance, and a moving drama about how becoming Krishna conscious can change one’s life for the better. The festivities continued on until 8pm.
“Interestingly all the stage performances were by local devotees,” says Arisudana. “Even though we are a small community, many of our devotees have an aptitude for being artistic.”
Puerto Rico devotees aim to continue holding Rathayatra in San Juan every year, and to make it bigger and better every time.
And while they are still in the process of rebuilding their temple as a concrete structure that will be able to withstand further hurricanes, Rathayatra has left them feeling positive about the power of devotional service.
“At this Rathayatra thousands and thousands of people were able to hear the Holy Name, see Lord Jagannath, and see Srila Prabhupada,” Arisudana says. “And every single person that saw us stopped, looked, and appreciated.”
He adds: “The people of San Juan are recognizing that this chariot festival is going on every year – and now they are starting to expect it.”
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