ISKCON Toronto’s Ratha-Yatra and Festival of India
By Lakshman das
For 40 years, this annual parade has brought the splendor and tradition of India’s spiritual roots to Yonge Street, generating a vibe like no other summer event in the Greater Toronto Area.
Continuing this tradition, Toronto’s 40th Annual Festival of India provided a spectacular parade on July 14th at 11:00 am that cruised down Yonge Street, beginning at Yonge & Bloor, and making its way down to the shores of lake Ontario.
In spite of the extremely hot weather, all the devotees, (dressed for the part or not) were jubilantly marching, pulling the 40-foot tall floats by hand amidst ecstatic singing, drumming, and dancing, creating a wondrous carnival-like atmosphere. The smiles on their faces demonstrated so nicely the ecstasy derived from serving the Lord in this humble yet personal manner.
When Srila Prabupada, Iskcon’s Founder-Acharya brought this very ancient tradition to the Western world, very few could imagine what a precious gift he gave the whole world. All things associated with this Festival of the Chariots brings out the best of cooperation from all the participants as each makes an enormous effort to please the Lord, simply by the process called Bhakti Yoga, devotional service. In this way, all people eventually get to see the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His form as Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, with His beautiful smile, His big wide open eyes, along with His Brother Lord Balaram and sister Subhadra.
In particular, ISKCON Toronto’s Festival of India is especially successful due to the devotion of the volunteers who begin the background process a full 6 months before. The expert organizational skills of the team leaders bring hundreds of volunteers together, creating an atmosphere of cooperation and family. The result is one of the biggest Ratha-Yatra Festivals in the Western world.
All the festivities begin on Wednesday, the 11th of July 2012 with a pre-Ratha-Yatra promotion at Yonge-Dundas Square. Yonge-Dundas Square is Canada’s version Times Square in New York City. The Y-D Square is chock full of lit up billboards, giant outdoor television screens and almost all manner of big advertisement known to modern society. Various events take place, like in a bazaar, including a samosa-eating contest! This event is attended by several of the big television and radio media, including live web-cast. It’s quite funny to see the samosa-eating contestants vying for the prize when they wolf down very spicy samosas!
To compliment this event, all are treated to a large Kirtan accompanied by ecstatic dancing and singing of the Lord’s Holy Names. Bada-Hari das Prabhu and Madhava Prabhu were working everyone into a frenzy of love for the Holy Name.
On the Friday, July the 12th, all the early festivities were embellished by a 12 hour Kirtan at the ISKCON Toronto Temple at 243 Avenue Road, starting at 10:00 AM. By 8:30 am, participants and audience start to flow into the temple, creating quite a buzz, charging the atmosphere at the temple with enthusiasm. Setting up mics and speaker systems, the fine tuning of mridangas, harmoniums, voices generates such a feeling its almost electric. At 10:00 am, HH BhaktiMarga Swami Maharaj begins the kirtan, setting the tone and giving everyone a taste of what’s to come.
Many other kirtan leaders graced the mics with their love of singing the Holy Name. Some notables are Dhira Grahi with the Gaura Shakti band, Bada-Hari das Prabhu, Madhava Prabhu, Gaura das, Nam Rasa Das, Bali Das, Jitu, the youth from the Festival of India as well as the bus tour all joyously sing their hearts out, creating an outpouring of Krishna-Prema.
By 10:00 pm the magnificent performances winds down, but not out, as the participants enjoy a huge pasta prasadam (blessed food) feast fit for the Lord Himself! Now everyone is fully charged and ready for pulling Lord Jagannath’s Chariots the very next morning.
All the major public transport systems in Toronto are plastered with advertisements about the Festival of India, where again everyone can see the Lord’s beautiful smiling face, inviting them to come and join in the festivities. And come they do, in the thousands, like 40+ thousands.
Now for the fun stuff! At 11:00 AM, with all the chariots ready, the gathering crowd begins to pull the massive ropes that tug on the Lord’s Chariots, taking Their Lordships down Yonge Street, the longest street in the world, heading south towards the water’s edge and the ferry boats. The first pulls on the Chariots are blessed by coconut aartik, which involves breaking coconuts and releasing the waters inside. The chanting has already started with HH BhaktiMarga Swami Maharaj leading one kirtan, each chariot having its own aartik and kirtan group.
HH Bhakti Brihad Bhagavad Maharaj, HG Malati mataji, HG Dravida Prabhu, Bada-Hari Das Prabhu, HG Laxminath Prabhu, and many others from all over North America enhanced the already auspicious day!
To add to Their Lordship’s pleasure, and the hot weather, it was also Ekadasi!
As the chariots began their southbound journey, a group of young Matajis were leading with beautifully coordinated dancing, the multi-colored saris caught the eye of many people on the sidewalks, creating interest in the event itself. Along side the growing crowd of people pulling on the Lord’s Chariots, many devotees were distributing books, literature, prasadam sweets and juice/water, keeping the crowds hydrated, as it was so hot.
Every once in a while, the tall tops of the Chariots had to be collapsed due to low wires. This was particularly helpful when the Chariots were in the final phase of the parade as they passed underneath a bridge. As with every year, the chariots and the crowd gather together under this bridge to hold a massive kirtan because of the acoustics under the bridge. As the kirtan reaches a crescendo, the crowd gets really fired up and ready for the last leg of the journey, which will take the Chariots, as nowhere else in the whole world, to the ferryboats. Yes, you read correctly, nowhere else in the world is Lord Jagannath, Lord Balaram and Lady Subhadra and Their Chariots are taken aboard a large ferryboat to Toronto’s Centre Island for the two days of festivities.
These devotees, now in the thousands, line up at the ferryboat ticket counter foe their turn to follow the Lord to the island. Sometimes the lineups are so long it can take 2 or 3 hours just to get across. But they line up nonetheless because they are hungry for celebrating with Their Lord! This is the biggest party? so big that even God shows up… waiting for you to join Him, so please come one and all on Toronto’s Centre Island.
As all the festivities on the road are taking place, there are large numbers of devotees setting the tents and various bazaars all over the designated area on Centre Island. Especially notable is the large tent area where all the cooking is already underway for soon the crowds of transcendental revelers will be arriving en mass. There is also a very large tent set up for the various classical India dances and dramas, which are on of the highlights of the festival.
Of course, the pujaris (priests) are also setting up the temporary temple/alter for Their Lordships when They arrive anytime soon. This is an area where the spiritual pilgrims will be gathering in large numbers over the next two days to offer Their Lordships specially prepared plates of fruits.
Along with these tents, smaller temporary facilities are set up for the India Bazaar where Srila Prabhupada’s books are made available to one and all. The Gopi Dot face painting and sari-wearing booth is also very popular. There are also several booths offering various tasteful devotional clothing and other items for one’s devotional life.
A Spiritual Q&A booth, health booths, , Ayurvedic and yoga booths also compliment the array. However, one booth in particular was very busy: our own Govinda’s Dining booth, offering simple fare like vegetarian samosas, burfi sweet, along with a free bottle of water with most purchases proved to be quite successful.
There were several amazing Indian dance performances from various internationally renowned Indian Dance Troups, as well as the Bhakti Dance Seva, coming to Toronto all the way from Florida. The main stage was also home to many amazing musical performers like internationally acclaimed Madhava Prabhu and all musicions.
HH BhaktiMarga Swami known as the “Walking Monk”, is the founder of Swami Productions, which performed the Jagannath Story to a large audience. As always, Maharaj’s group performance did not disappoint. In some parts of India, where there are large groups of devotees, if you say drama group, it is understood that you are talking about HH BhaktiMarga Swami, period!
The whole set up and all the tents are always traveling in the Festival of India truck, an enormous 18-wheelers that is all over the USA and Canada during a 4-month period. During this time, they set up Festival of India in town after town, and we are very grateful for their selfless endeavor in bringing Lord Jagannath’s Mercy to one and all.
Most events on Sunday were extensions of the previous day, with some variety. One notable event on the Sunday morning of the Festival is called the Yoga Meltdown, where hundreds of yoga aficionados gather one the side of the lake and go through their rigorous processes, later on partaking of prasadam, therefore participating in Bhakti Yoga, even if they don’t know it.
In another corner of the grounds, besides a smaller performance stage and right next to the Lord’s Alter, one can see an authentic Vedic wedding, followed by traditional Gaudiya-Vaishnava initiations accompanied by a fire ceremony, where timeless Vedic Mantras are recited for purification and auspiciousness.
One tent that is always buzzing of course is the prasadam tent, where people of all walks of life and backgrounds line up to get plates of free vegetarian food that s first offered to Lord Krishna, and Lord Jagannath, therefore considered blessed food. During the course of these two days there are approximately 40 thousands plates of prasadam served, which represents an huge devotional service for all the cooks who must endure blazing heat from the propane cookers, and well as temperature nearing 40C.
All this of course is made possible due to the enthusiasm of the multiple donors who offer thousands of dollars to promote the festival and buy the foodstuffs that will feed the large crowds. Last but not least, are the nearly 200 volunteers who start planning this event nearly 6 months before, bringing everything to blossom on this, 2 days of the Festival of the Chariots!
To bring everything to a marvelous conclusion, the heavens opened up to a torrential downpour just as the Sunday started to wind down. In the shastras (scriptures) it is said: “pushpa bristi”, which expresses auspiciousness from the demi-gods for the Lord’s Festival.
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