Toronto’s celebration of Rathayatra—the ancient Indian parade festival in honor of God’s form as Jagannath—is amongst the largest in North America.
With a dedicated young team of organizers, it aims to attract the general public to the culture and philosophy of Krishna consciousness, rather than catering to an internal crowd. And forty years in, it’s practically a household name in the Canadian city.
This year, celebrating its 40th anniversary, Festival of India hosted a series of public events from July 11th to 15th, with more unique features than ever. Here, ISKCON News takes a look at some of those highlights in photos.
1. The Spicy Samosa Contest
Spicy Samosa Contest winner Angus turns eating prasadam into an Olympic sport
Festival of India launched this year’s event on July 11th with a pre-festival bash at Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto’s answer to Time’s Square.
One of the most popular draws at the launch, drumming up excitement and publicity for the free vegetarian feast to be served on Centre Island from July 14th to 15th, was the Spicy Samosa Contest.
Sixteen brave contestants endured three rounds: in the first, they competed to see who could eat two extra spicy servings of the traditional savory snack the fastest. In the second, they had to finish just one, but at lightning speed. In the third, the remaining contestants’ plates were weighed, as they tried to eat the most samosas in two minutes.
“In a dramatic finale, Angus from Australia won by just 0.1 grams,” says Festival of India chairman Keshava Sharma.
In the meantime, Festival sponsor Global TV reported the weather live from the contest, with weatherman Anthony Farnell calling out the countdown and popping a samosa himself.
2. The Four-Hour Kirtan
A magic carpet lands a traditional temple kirtan in the middle of Toronto's busiest square
The Spicy Samosa Contest was merely the warm-up act for the pre-festival party’s main attraction—a four-hour kirtan from 6:30pm till 10:30pm, bang in the center of Toronto’s busiest public square.
Two hundred devotees, headed by celebrated kirtan singers Bada Haridas and Madhava Dasa, sat upon an ornate carpet and chanted their hearts out, as a huge crowd of fascinated passers by gathered around to see the surreal scene. As the daylight faded, and the lights and screens in the square glowed brightly, the effect increased.
“It was like two huge hands had scooped up one of ISKCON’s famous 24-hour kirtans right out of a temple room and dropped it in the middle of Yonge-Dundas square,” says Keshava. “The juxtaposition between our sublime mantra meditation and this massive commercial mecca was astonishing.”
3. A Live Window into the Spiritual World
Yamuna Jivana's live art brings Krishna to Yonge-Dundas Square
During the pre-festival party, as the Spicy Samosa Contest raged on and passers-by browsed a South Asian Bazaar, artist Yamuna Jivana Dasa produced a beautiful painting live in the square.
Depicting Lord Krishna dancing in the midst of devotees playing various instruments, it attracted an impressed public, who snapped away with their cameras and cell phones.
Introducing people to the beauty of spiritual art is nothing new for Yamuna Jivana (Yovany Cabanas), whose swanky, upscale tattoo studio in downtown Toronto—the wonderfully-named “BluGod”—features a giant shopfront painting of Krishna.
4. Forget the Four-Hour Kirtan—How About 12 Hours?
Rocking out to 12 hours of kirtan
Following the pre-festival four hour kirtan in Yonge-Dundas Square was the real thing, a 12-hour chanting extravaganza at the ISKCON Toronto temple.
Featuring Bada Haridas, Madhava Dasa, the Mayapuris, and a whole host of other kirtan singers, devotees rocked out, spiritual style, the whole day long. Cue the most blissful Friday the 13th, like, ever!
5. Lord Jagannath’s Grand Parade
Thousands throng Yonge Street in celebration of Jagannath's parade
On Saturday July 14th, the day of Toronto Rathayatra itself, the Deities of Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra were carried on three huge, colorful chariots down Toronto’s famous Yonge street.
Nobody could miss the parade as over 5,000 devotees and uplifted members of the public chanted and danced in celebration, ending in a thrilling ‘spiritual moshpit’ in the Toronto Tunnel, now a signature of the Toronto Rathayatra.
6. Colorful Choreography Cranks up the Spectacle
A choreographed splash of color
Heading up the front of the parade and adding to its spectacle were between 20 and 30 young women from Toronto and Montreal, who danced in beautifully organized, choreographed rows.
Lead by Tara and Radhika Kripa from the Rathayatra committee, the group took after the Eastern European model of organized dancers often seen at festivals in Poland with Indradyumna Swami.
Dressed in bright pastel colors, with flower sashes, gopi dots, and flowers in their hair, the girls were coordinated in their dress as well as their dance moves.
“They were such a dedicated team, meeting weeks before the festival to practice and go over dance steps,” Keshava says. “They brought a nice semblance of organization to what is normally a crazy parade!”
7. Did Someone Say, “Giant Lollipop Cake”?
40th anniversary lollipop cake
You heard right. To celebrate its 40th anniversary since its humble beginnings in 1972, Festival of India organizers decided to display a huge cake at the Festival grounds on Toronto’s Centre Island.
But with concerns about the practicalities of baking such a monster, what to speak of having it attacked by insects outside and staying intact in the sun, they went for a lollipop cake instead!
Four feet tall, and topped with a big number “40,” the anniversary cake was made from a Styrofoam base covered in wrapping paper, and adorned with hundreds of the sugary treats.
“Naturally, kids at the festival went crazy, but what we didn’t expect was that mothers went even more crazy!” says Keshava. “They were walking away from that thing with handfuls of lollipops!”
8. A Step Back in Time
Toronto Rathayatra then and now
In another unique way of celebrating Festival of India’s 40th anniversary, organizers trawled through old photos of the festival to create seven “before and after” shots which were displayed at the Centre Island event on attractively designed boards.
The photos, carefully chosen so that recent shots of the festival matched perfectly with similar scenes and angles from the 1970s and 1980s, compared “Then and Now” promotional posters, Rathayatra parade, Jagannath Deities, and stage performances.
9. The Art of Devotion
An art graduate paints Jagannath live at the festival
The final 40th anniversary special at this year’s Festival of India was the Arts Corner, featuring the spiritually themed work of five art-school graduates in watercolor, oil or sculpture.
Complete newcomers to Krishna consciousness, the artists were briefed about the meaning and message of Rathayatra ahead of time. Resonating deeply with the image of Lord Jagannath, each created their own art piece centered around Him live at the festival.
One was a sculpture showing Jagannath in palanquin atop an elephant; another a cartoon showing drummers surrounding the Lord; and another depicted the Lord with four arms dancing and playing the flute, while devotees danced in front of the Toronto skyline.
“We feel that the arts community are just as ready for Krishna consciousness as the yoga practioners,” says Keshava. “So we’ve been trying to build that inroad through Rathayatra. We hope this is a pilot project that will get bigger and bigger every year.”
10. What Would I Look Like if I Were a Hare Krishna?
A festivalgoer texts her friend about dressing up as a Hare Krishna
An incredible 40,000 people attended Festival of India on Centre Island this year, and as usual, many of them got the chance to try on traditional saris and gopi dots at a special tent sponsored by national channel Global TV.
This year’s twist? Dressed-up visitors could also have their photo taken in front of a beautiful background of Indian-style arches. They then got to take their photo, instantly printed on a postcard reading “Thank You for Coming to the 40th Annual Festival of India,” home as memorabilia.
11. Media Darlings
As this video is embedded from Global TV's website, please note there will be some commercials before the footage of Keshava on Global TV's Morning Show starts
While Toronto Rathayatra’s dedicated promotions team have got the festival good traction every year, this year they hit a home run.
“The festival took off in the media like wildfire,” Keshava says. “Nearly every major news network, newspaper, and radio station was all over it!”
Highlights included Keshava’s appearance on Global TV Toronto’s Morning Show, where hosts Liza Fromer and Dave Gerry sampled some spicy samosas and chatted about the Festival. Meanwhile, on 24-hour news channel CP24, which is viewed in gyms and dentist’s office across the city, kirtan band the Mayapuris talked with the hosts about growing up in the Hare Krishna movement and performed a mridanga drum demo before chanting Hare Krishna live on air.
“By the end of the segment, they were teaching the male host how to play mridanga and showing the female host how to dance,” Keshava laughs.
The dedicated team that makes it all happen
Of course, no project as big as Festival of India Toronto can happen without the people behind it. This year, over 200 volunteers worked long hours to make the festival a smash hit.
The most amazing thing? Most were complete newcomers to Krishna consciousness, who volunteered through postings on university and job boards.
“It’s wonderful that their first introduction to ISKCON was doing service for Lord Jagannath,” says Keshava.
The Festival of India Toronto team would like to help other ISKCON centers to develop their Rathayatra festivals into more public-friendly events, and are happy to share all of their tips, tricks, and resources. For more information, please contact Keshava Sharma at Krishna@festivalofindia.ca.