New York City – On Saturday, June 14, 2008, more than five thousand Krishna devotees, guests, and festival-goers braved scattered thunderstorms and downpours to attend the annual Ratha Yatra (Festival of the Chariots) parade and Festival of India.
The all-day event, put on by the New York chapter of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), began with a colorful procession of three 40-foot high traditional Indian chariots, bearing sacred images of Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra Devi, pulled by hand down the world-famous Fifth Avenue. The festivities continued at Washington Square Park, with a traveling mela showcasing India’s spirituality and culture, and featuring a stage-show, display booths, and a “bazaar-style” outdoor market.
There was no admission fee, and visitors were treated to a complimentary multi-course vegetarian feast of rice, puris, subji, halava, burfi, and lemonade. ISKCON New York served approximately eight thousand people the hot, freshly prepared food.
“Several police officers assigned to the parade told me that this is their favorite day to work,” said Caitanyananda Dasa, a second-generation devotee who served as a festival coordinator. “They said that they had never seen a festival on this scale where everyone was so cooperative and respectful.”
The parade managed to complete its route under sunny skies, but the afternoon festivities at Washington Square Park found festival-goers ducking under umbrellas, or seeking shelter from the rain in the many colorful tents and display booths set up.
“As they say in Hollywood, the show must go on,” joked Ramabhadra Dasa, president of the ISKCON temple in Brooklyn, New York, as performers took to the rain-slicked stage despite the storms.
The rain, however, had been the least of the devotees’ worries when they were organizing the festival several months ago; renovations in Washington Square Park meant that ISKCON would not be granted its usual festival site. Determined, the devotees appealed to the community board to be granted an alternate site in the park. Though board members were hesitant at first, when they learned of ISKCON’s practice of serving free meals to one and all, they voted unanimously to grant the permit.
In 1976 A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the worldwide Hare Krishna Movement, inaugurated the New York City version of the ancient Ratha Yatra parade held yearly in Jagannath Puri. Since then, the festival has been gracing New York City for more than thirty years, and is one of only fifteen “traditional annual Fifth Avenue parades” that the City has allowed to continue despite new measures to limit processions down the famous street.