Rathayatra. The ancient festival, transplanted from Jagannath Puri, Orissa to the West by ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada in 1967, is the essence of summer for ISKCON devotees.
The colorful red and yellow chariots, silhouetted against a blue sky and carrying the widely beaming Lord Jagannath—the Lord of the Universe—along with his brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra, and being regaled by crowds of chanting devotees, lifts the heart like little else.
In North America, as we enter another summer of Rathayatras, there are of course many hardworking devotees we must thank for putting in the effort to make dozens of festivals happen all over the country. Without one particular devotee, who celebrates thirty years of serving Lord Jagannath this summer, however, many cities would not even see the iconic chariots.
Simple, quiet, and dedicated, French Canadian Abhay Charan Dasa joined ISKCON in Montreal in 1981, and began his service to the Lord of the Universe immediately. In 1982, he helped the then Festival of India organizer Devi Deva Dasa modify his three wooden Rathayatra chariots and bring them to New York and Washington D.C. And for the following ten years, he set up the chariots at Rathayatra festivals in Montreal, and, occasionally, Toronto.
But Abhay Charan, a professional machinist, was dissatisfied with the amount of time and effort it took to assemble the chariots.
“It took three or four days to set up a chariot, and then we’d only use it for half a day!” he says. “Then, the day after Rathayatra, we’d have to disassemble it. I decided, to simplify my existence, that I would build a chariot that would be easy to assemble and transport.”
In 1992, Abhay Charan set to work building a unique Rathayatra cart with a steel main frame and wheels. Twenty-three feet long and thirteen feet wide, it could be retracted and compressed to less than fourteen feet long and eight feet wide, in order to fit into the back of a straight-body truck. It could then be extended to its full size using a mechanical system. With its decorative canopy fully erect, the chariot stood at thirty-five feet tall.
Abhay Charan`s chariot truck
Even better, it took only one hour to set up!
And with that, everything changed. The old chariots had been so inefficient to set up that Abhay Charan had only been able to take them to Montreal Rathayatra, and occasionally to Toronto. But in 1993, he took his new chariot to Montreal, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Toronto, with ease.
“In 1994, I added Washington D.C., Queens, Jersey, and Atlanta to my itinerary,” Abhay Charan says. “Then the management of ISKCON New York asked me to build two more chariots. I purchased a trailer which attached to my truck and could house my two new ‘folding chariots,’ so that I could transport all three at once. In 1995, I used all three chariots for the first time, and added San Francisco to my list. Nearly every year, another new temple would ask me to come.”
For the past twenty years, Abhay Charan has not missed a single Rathayatra he’s been asked to attend, despite the trials and tribulations of the road.
Once, while passing through Reno, Nevada, on his way to San Francisco, the frame of his trailer cracked, a catastrophic event which might have had him stranded. By the mercy of Lord Jagannatha, he just happened to have a welding machine and generator with him, although these were not items he usually traveled with. Pulling into a rest area, he welded the frame together and was ready to go again within just one hour.
“Another time, around three years ago, I was on my way to Toronto the day before the Rathayatra when the water pump on my truck broke,” says Abhay Charan.
“I had to fix it on the side of the road, and didn’t get to the Toronto temple until 1:00am. Just four hours later, at five o’clock in the morning, it was time to set up all three chariots. Let’s just say I didn’t get much sleep that night—but the Rathayatra still happened!”
In more recent years, Abhay Charan has been visiting many more cities than he did in the early 1990s—in 2004, he brought his chariots to no less than seventeen Rathayatras. This year is a little more relaxed—he’ll be traveling to nine different Rathayatra festivals.
The New York Ratha Yatra
Baltimore, Maryland, kicked off the season on May 3rd; New York will follow on June 9th. Next, Abhay Charan will go to Chicago on June 24th, and Bloomington, Illinois on June 30th, where a Hindu temple whose members are friends with ISKCON Chicago temple president Nityananda Prana Dasa are holding their own Rathayatra festival for the first time this year.
After that, it’s on to the US Capital, Washington D.C., for an Independence Day Rathayatra on July 4th, followed by Montreal on July 7th and Toronto on July 14th. On July 20th, Abhay Charan will attend Detroit Rathayatra, and two months later, on September 22nd—Srimati Radharani’s appearance day—he’ll be at Philadelphia Rathayatra, which will upgrade this year from using only one of Abhay’s chariots to all three.
No longer on his itinerary are the West Coast Rathayatras, including San Francisco, where devotees are now using ISKCON Los Angeles’ chariot built by Ratnabhushana Dasa; Vancouver, which also has its own chariot; and Calgary in Alberta, Canada, to which Abhay Charan recently sold one of his three chariots.
“I finished building a brand new, bigger chariot to replace it in April this year,” he says. “The new chariot has eight wheels rather than four, a bumper to protect people from the wheels during parades, and is about a foot higher than the others. I will debut it at Montreal Rathayatra this year.”
Now fifty-eight years old, with less robust health than in his youth, Abhay Charan is beginning to find transporting and setting up three carts singlehandedly a challenge, and is making plans to have a younger devotee take over in the future.
“But for now, I’m okay, and glad that my retractable chariots are making it much easier to hold many Rathayatras around the country every summer,” he says.
“Temples that organize the festivals don’t have to go through the difficult and expensive process of finding and renting a parking space in the city for several days while they set up their chariots. Instead, I unload the chariots from my trailer onto the street on the morning of the Rathayatra, and set all three of them up in only three hours.”
“I am happy,” Abhay Charan concludes, “That Lord Jagannatha has bestowed his mercy upon me by allowing me to render this service for Him, and for all his devotees.”