Ratha Yatra: Joined by hundreds of Chicagoland devotees, ISKCON celebrated the Chariot Festival of India in the Windy City
Chicago, IL – On Sunday September 29, ISKCON Chicago celebrated the renowned Chariot Festival Of India, more popularly referred to as the Ratha Yatra, in the Little India of Chicagoland.
This was ISKCON Chicago’s 40th Ratha Yatra, the journey of deities, sages/saints in a chariot accompanied by joyous devotees. Around 600 people, of different ethnicities attended and participated, organizers told Desi Talk. The festival came to the streets of the Windy City, with devotees of various ethnicities, gathering and joining the dancing and praising of their Lord Krishna.
This festival is associated with the traditions of Hinduism across India, and over decades, has become very much a part of the faith’s observances across the world. It’s origin from Jagannath Puri in Orissa where millions congregate to celebrate, to the rest of the world, was furthered by ISKCON, and today, the Chariot Festival takes place in almost all the major cities in the United States.
Every year the festival is held in different parts of Chicago, noted Gajendra Shekhawat, one of the main ISKCON organizers. This year, the festival was put together on just two weeks notice from the city authorities who issue the permit,
“Devon Ave. was the site many years ago, so it was time to come back to it. We also got a spot where the cultural festival could be held,” Shekhawat told Desi Talk. “In other places, like parks etc., there is always a limit on the number of people who can come, and we don’t do that with Ratha Yatra. It is open to everyone, of any faith.”
As a result of the short notice, organizers substituted a float for the chariot.
“A chariot takes a long time to make, and so we had to go with the float because of the short notice, but only as an exception,” Shekhawat explained. “Based on the prasadams we distributed, about 600 people came, and the feedback was good. People liked to mingle and enjoy,” he added.
At Chicago, the Head of Chancery and Community Affairs at the Consulate of India, P.K. Mitra, joined in the celebrations which
assembled on West Devon Avenue, the heart of Little India.
As promised by organizers, the highlights of the parade and the culmination of the yatra on the intersection of California Ave. and Devon Ave., included singing of kirtans, meditation, vegetarian eats, yoga literature, and children’s activities.
The primary ceremony of the festival is observed by carrying the three deities of Lord Jagannath(Vishnu Avatar), Balabhadra (his brother) and Subhadra (his sister) out of the temple on an elaborately decorated chariot, accompanied by a public procession. Devotees believe that the Lord comes out of the temple on this day to meet his devotees, hence the joyful celebrations.
“We are not a religion, but rather a philosophy of how to live life,” Shekhawat said. “Ours is an educational institute that teaches Krishna Consciousness. There is no bar on who can attend. People like to get together and share their experiences of Krishna Consciousness.”
Starting at 1:30 pm on a Sunday afternoon, the parade progressed towards the Devon Republic Bank parking lot where cultural festivities started two hours later.
Devotees pulled the float in which the three deities rested. Devotional songs, kirtans, rang out in the street as members of the crowd danced while marching down the parade route alongside the float.
“Mantra meditation is so attractive, during the parade and at the end,” Shekhawat noted about the participation from the crowd that gathered.
The Devon Republic Bank parking lot turned into a mela-like atmosphere, where white canopied stalls were set up, each with a different activity. The stalls offered a wide range of products for sale from jewelry to clothes, yoga, mantra meditation, mehendi, face painting, baked goods, snacks, books and gifts.
The prasadam or food blessed by the Lord, was served and included rice, chana, aloo matar sabji, papad and halwa to everyone who had come
The expansion of the Rath Yatra around the world is attributed to Acharya Bhakti Vedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, who brought this festival to the United States back in the 1960’s when he first visited America with a vision of spreading Krishna Consciousness around the world.
This Hare Krishna movement has been growing steadily since then, and the Rath Yatra is now celebrated in more than 100 cities around the world.