An incredible eight thousand devotees flocked to a small village on the Black Sea Coast near Odessa, Ukraine for the mega Bhakti Sangam festival during the first week of Sep8,tember.
A large percentage of the crowd hailed from Ukraine itself, were there are over 10,000 devotees. Others came from all over the world to see for themselves a phenomenon that has to be experienced to be believed.
Organized by ISKCON Ukraine regional secretary Achyuta-priya Das and guru Niranjana Swami, the annual event began in 1996 with an attendance of only 400 and an entrance charge to cover costs.
Since then participation has grown exponentially every year, and the festival was made free to all and remains so to this day.
“It didn’t sit right with me that we were refusing devotees from participating,” says Niranjana Swami. “We did away with the festival fees, relying on voluntary donations instead. To reduce the overhead, all the festival’s hardworking staff stopped taking any compensation for their efforts. And all the senior devotees speaking at the event volunteered to cover their own travel expenses.”
This year’s festival ran for five days and included ecstatic kirtans, edifying seminars, delicious prasadam and stellar Vaishnava association, living up to the festival’s name – “Bhakti Sangam” roughly translates as “A meeting place for devotees.”
Each day began with a full morning program. After that, with three seminar “blocks” of six parallel seminars every day, participants had a lot of nectar to choose from. And the speakers were the cream of the crop, including Niranjana Swami, Krishna Ksetra Swami, Prahladananda Swami, Devamrita Swami, Chandramauli Swami, Sacinandana Swami, Subhag Swami, and Deena Bandhu Das.
Then there was the non-stop kirtan with Indradyumna Swami, Havi Das, Madhava Das, and many others.
“This year devotees chanted and danced in great ecstasy and relished each others association more than ever before,” enthuses Indradyumna Swami.
Many said the festival transformed the small Ukrainian village into “a second Mayapur.” Photographer Arjuna Bhattacharya, who captured a host of incredible moments, marveled at the ocean of devotees in a tent as big as an airplane hangar, “with hands raised, waving like a wheat field in the wind!”
The festival is the highlight of many devotees’ year, and inspires a deep spirit of service and cooperation.
“Devotees come with a strong desire not only to hear and chant, but to serve each other,” says Niranjana Swami. “And it’s that spirit of service that really overwhelms me and predominates the festival.”[ black ] [ niranjana-swami ] [ sea ] [ ukraine ]