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Three Rathayatras in Trinidad Bring Island Community Together

By: for ISKCON News on April 19, 2018

A group play steel pan (the national instrument of Trinidad) to accompany maha-mantra kirtan

Three Rathayatra festivals in Trinidad – one in the capital Port of Spain on April 20th, and two following soon after in the villages of Dede and Chaguanas – are bringing devotees all over the island together in service to Lord Jagannath.

Trinidad’s first ever Rathayatra was celebrated in Chaguanas in 1991 with a flatbed truck used as the chariot. In 1994, devotees put on the first Rathayatra in Port of Spain, building a float onto a truck chassis. But it wasn’t until 2006 that organizer Baladeva Das built the first proper Rathayatra cart with the help of a friend.

Today, there are two carts and three Rathayatras. This year the first, in Port of Spain, was preceded by a Snanayatra at the Madhuvan farm. Set on thirty-three acres deep in the countryside of Cumoto, the farm is a key part of the history of Rathayatra in Trinidad, because the island’s Deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra were carved there by local devotees twenty-five years ago.

Lord Jagannath makes his way down Frederick St in Port of Spain

Taking place on April 7th, opening ceremonies of the Snanayatra were conducted by North American Deity Worship Minister Jayananda Das. Priests then bathed the four-foot-tall Deities using huge buckets of ghee, yoghurt, honey, and fruit juices during an ecstatic kirtan.

“All 200 devotees who had come from all over the country also got a chance to bathe the Lord using a fresh coconut, picked straight off the tree locally,” says Baladeva.

Port of Spain Rathayatra, meanwhile, will begin at 10:30am on April 20that the Queen’s Park Savannah. The two-hour parade will make its way down Frederick Street, the capital’s main thoroughfare. 

The festival has been getting increasingly more popular with the public, particularly after a prime-time newscast two years ago that was seen by three quarters of the island. As a result the sidewalks are expected to be packed with people.

Minister of State Ayanna Webster-Roy gives a speech at Port of Spain Rathayatra

“There’s usually also lots of working people coming out onto the balconies of their offices or sticking their heads out of windows to see Lord Jagannath,” says Baladeva. “We try to distribute laddhus to as many people as we can.”

The parade will end at Independence Day Square with a festival on the promenade. A cultural presentation will include classical Oddissi and Kathak dance by Trinidadian youth. There will also be kirtan accompanied by guitar, trap set and local musicians playing steel pan, the national instrument of Trinidad.  

Politicians like the Minister of Culture and the Indian High Commissioner will give speeches, while GBC Guruprasad Swami is also expected to speak. After an arati to Lord Jagannath and a mega kirtan, 1,500 to 2,000 plates of prasadam will be distributed to the public.

“We don’t sell anything at our Rathayatra, except for Srila Prabhupada’s books,” says Baladeva. “All the prasadam will be free of charge, including cake and ice cream which we’ll give out at the end.”

One of the many colorful cultural performances at Port of Spain Rathayatra

A second Rathayatra will be held in the village of Dede on Saturday May 5th, and a third as yet unscheduled festival soon after in Chaguanas. 

These village Rathayatras are more spontaneous, with no requirement to even set a date in advance. Devotees simply pull Lord Jagannath’s cart down the main street in the village, chanting and dancing to their heart’s content. Afterwards, there’s a cultural presentation and prasadam distribution in a football field at the side of the road. But there’s a sweetness and vibrancy to these Rathayatras that make them ISKCON Trinidad’s pride and joy.

“Our Rathayatras are the one time in the year when all the devotees come together and engage in so many different services to put them on,” says Baladeva. “During the rest of the year, we focus on events in our individual temples. But Rathayatra brings everyone across the whole island together. There is no question about that.”

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