Thousands Gather for 50th Ratha Yatra in San Francisco

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Sunita Sohrabji, India-West Staff Reporter

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Several thousand Indian Americans, along with other devotees of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, gathered together here Aug. 14 to celebrate the 50th annual Ratha Yatra.

“I have come every year since 1994,” Mohini Raj, bearing several garlands of marigolds which she offered to Sri Jagannatha, told India-West. The elderly woman brought her young grandchildren along this year, to clap, sing and dance at the joyous festival. “This reminds me of the festivals I would go to in India,” she said.

Four colorful carriages – bearing replicas of Srila Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness; Lord Jagannatha; Nityananda Prabhu and his devotee Nitai Guaranga; and Sri Baladeva and Sri Subhadra Devi – were pulled by devotees, who wound their way down a mile-long path in the park. The red-and-gold chariots and sparkling outfits of the revelers cast a spell of sunshine onto the fog-driven morning.

The Ratha Yatra is a centuries-old festival, originating in Puri, Odisha. Devotees of Sri Jagannath – the Lord of the Universe – traditionally pull him in his current form as Krishna, back to Vrindavan.

As a child, Srila Prabhupada would recreate the festival for his neighborhood in Kolkata. Arriving in the U.S. in the mid-60s, the ISKCON founder held the first Festival of Chariots in San Francisco in 1967. Similar festivals are now held annually at more than 100 cities throughout the world.

Srila Prabhupada arrived in New York in 1965, with just $5 in his pocket, at the behest of his spiritual master who asked him to spread Krishna Consciousness throughout the world. The first Ratha Yatra was held in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury District in 1967.

“It was the summer of love,” Jagannath Swami Das, who has organized the festival for 40 years, told India-West. “There were lots more people on the street,” he said, estimating that more than 15,000 people came to the first Ratha Yatra.

The festival is smaller now, but Swami Das believes it is still relevant to present its culture. “It does a lot of good for the public. It makes everyone happy,” said the New York native, adding: “Police say there is less crime in their cities on parade day.”

“There is so much trouble in the world today, because people identify with the body too much,” said Swami Das. “But each of us have a super-soul, God in our heart. And when you chant “Hare Krishna” you are directly associating with God.”

Swami Das recalled the first time he met Srila Prabhupada, at the San Francisco airport. “He was glowing,” he recalled to India-West.

“I walked next to him, in a spiritual bubble,” said Swami Das reverently.

The 2016 procession of chariots – which began with a blow on a conch shell – ended at Golden Gate Park’s Sharon Meadow with a mela. Long orderly queues snaked around the meadow clad in colorful canopies for a free vegetarian lunch, while pizza, watermelon, samosas and lassis were also available for a price.

Several spiritual leaders of ISKCON Berkeley and Silicon Valley offered advice to those seeking it. Another booth allowed devotees to make offerings to the deities, who had been taken off the chariots and placed on seats.

Students of sitar maestro Pandit Habib Khan performed bhajans onstage. Swami Das – playing American drums – and Khan performed an East/West fusion mix.

Daly City, Calif., Mayor Sal Torres attended the festival and bestowed a proclamation. A representative of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s office also attended and declared Aug. 15 “Festival of Chariots” day.

“We are here in the hopes of bringing peace to our world, which is very much in need of an intervention right now,” ISKCON devotee Aditya told India-West, as he danced to the rhythm of drum-beats and temple bells co-mingling with chants of “Hare Krishna.”

“Imagine a world where every one of us daily chants for peace; what a joyful world we would be,” said the young worshipper, clad in white robes.