Rain or Shine, Lord Jagannath will get his Festival
By Śyam Mohini Devi Dasi (Shrinithi Karthikeyan)
After the success of last year’s Chariot Festival, the anticipation of celebrating yet another successful festival was running high. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) chapter in Saint Louis, Missouri was excitingly preparing for celebrating The Chariot Festival for the fourth year in a row. This year the organizers and volunteers had worked day and night for months to pull off this festival, wanting to make it the best one yet!. They had meticulously prepared for everything and were expecting a smooth sailing festival. But, the weather had other plans.
On July 29th, 2018, the forecast was rain. Fortunately, the rain did not start until after the volunteers and organizers were setting up the shelter and decorating the cart. The organizers and volunteers arrived at the site at 8 am and immediately began to set up and decorate the very colorful, tall and impressive chariot cart. Other volunteers began to put up activity tents and set up a stage and chairs. Around 2 pm it started to drizzle, but the crowd still walked around to the activity booths and explored.
Most people first went to the welcome booths to learn about and get connected to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness chapter in St. Louis, and the Ratha Yatra Festival. They also visited the Question and Answer booth where they could ask anything from “who am I ?” to “should I become a vegetarian/vegan?” and get thoughtful, thorough, and fulfilling answers given by persons who studied Indian scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, and who were open, relatable, and experienced. They also visited the Books, Gifts, and More stalls where they could buy Indian jewelry, clothes, artifacts, and life-changing books such as the Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Krsna Book, Chant and be Happy, and other various texts written by the founder of the ISKCON, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.
The next activity tent was called Mantra Meditation. In this tent, you would be given chanting beads, which are a string of 108 beads made out of tulsi (holy basil), and taught to chant the Maha Mantra, (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna / Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama / Rama Rama Hare Hare), on each bead, and complete one round. Doing this five-minute activity connects you to your soul and gives you peace of mind, tranquility, and a newfound spiritual energy. During this festival almost 100 people chanted one round for the first time in their life. The next tent activities were Henna Tattoos and Face-Painting, and a bouncy house. These tents were the kid-magnets of the festival, and parents had a hard time pulling their kids away to go home. This year, a new tent was also added: a photo booth! The youth members painted a background featuring Lord Jagannath, and visitors were able to take pictures in front of it with various props and share their pictures on social media outlets with the hashtag: #stlchariotfestival2018 to show they attended the Chariot Festival !. Many visitors loved this booth and families created fun memories like taking their first family photo with a newborn baby! There was also a bake sale tent which sold delicious Indian ice cream in three flavors, amongst other scrumptious Indian delicacies. And the last tent was the Prasadam (food) tent which served free plates of a delectable, sanctified Indian vegetarian feast to the public. All this time while people were walking around the weather was cold and sky was gray, but the rain was still only drizzling.
But as soon as it was time to pull the cart around the park, it started pouring! Even though the organizers started to worry that the crowd would be scarce, the park started to quickly fill up with people of all ages, races, and all religions, eager to experience this 1000 year old Indian cultural event, and some even wearing colorful Indian clothing. The Kirtaniyas (Indian Musicians) started to uplifting melodies of the Hare Krishna Mantra (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna / Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama / Rama Rama Hare Hare), and the public started to gather around the chariot cart or Rath, and dance to the music in the rain.
Sitting in the cart were three majestic deities. They were Sri Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, who has a black complexion, Subhadra Maharani, the younger sister of Sri Jagannath, who has a yellow complexion, and Sri Baladev, the elder brother of the other two personalities, who has a white complexion. These three deities have big wide eyes, and are extremely compassionate and merciful to those who worship them. These deities are replicas of the original humongous deities worshipped by sincere devotees in a famous temple in Jagannath Puri in Odisha, India. Every year in Jagannath Puri, these deities are put onto three magnificent chariot carts and pulled by the devotees through the city from their main temple to another nearby temple. This cultural event attracts millions of people and is known throughout India as Ratha Yatra. Through ISKCON, this festival is now being celebrated all over the world, and was more recently celebrated in St. Louis, Missouri.
As the music got louder and the rain fell harder, the crowd started to grab the ropes of the rath and began to pull. With organizers in front of the crowd and on top of the cart controlling the speed and course of the chariot while communicating with the crowd with signs saying stop and slow, and volunteers passing out umbrellas and rain ponchos, the rath was pulled through park successfully. With joyful and lively people enthusiastically dancing and singing while drenched by the rain, it was an amazing sight to see. As the parade part of the festival came to close, the deities were moved from the chariot to an altar by the stage, and the public began to settle inside of the Turkish Pavilion shelter.
Everyone was getting ready to watch the many entertaining stage programs. There was an enlightening and intriguing address to the crowd explaining the significance of the festival, exquisite classical Indian dance performances that had the audience in awe, and a lively kirtan that had everyone singing and clapping. The ISKCON temple congregation prepared more than 90 various Indian and American dishes and offered them all on three eight feet long tables to the deities on the altar and then sold the offered, sanctified food (prasadam) to the public. The most spectacular event of the evening however was the Aarti (worship ceremony) of the deities. Sweet smelling incense, gleaming lamps, and beautiful flowers were offered to Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladev, and Subhadra Maharani. During this time there was also rapturous music and ecstatic dancing. Everyone was star struck by the beauty of the smiling deities and felt so blissful at the end.
At the end of the festival, everyone left feeling wet and cold, but they also left feeling content and amazed. They left with a sensational experience and a new understanding, appreciation, and respect for Indian culture, and most importantly: the desire to come again next year! And, they knew that no matter what the weather, Lord Jagannath’s Chariot Festival will successfully go on!