The mood is charged with intense excitement. Three huge, flower-bedecked chariots with sanyasis and acharyas at the helm are ready to be drawn by thousands of Krishna devotees. The 41st Rath Yatra of Kolkata is about to be flagged off from Park Circus Maidan by the chief minister. As the chanting and dancing to cymbals, mridanga and trumpets on Hare Krishna Mahamantra rise to a crescendo, the hot Kolkata sun seems to suddenly give way and the truant rain god, too, joins in the celebration. What follows is a sight to behold. A few people, mostly photographers, scamper for cover, while most others stand dancing, singing and soaking in the spiritual ecstasy of the moment.
As the huge procession with the chariots, dancing devotees, harried volunteers and vigilant policemen begins its journey down the serpentine roads of Kolkata, a sea of people reaches out to pull the ropes of the chariots or for a glimpse of the lord.
The Kolkata Rath Yatra, organised by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), gets bigger and more grandiose every year. The nine-day festival, June 21-29, is considered the biggest of all Iskcon celebrations here. Kolkata is the birthplace of the society’s founder A C Bhaktivedanta Srila Prabhupad, and there is a concerted drive among devotees across the world to give the Kolkata Iskcon and its activities top priority.
As he inspects the arrangements for the mela at the Brigade Parade Ground, the vice-president of Kolkata Iskcon, Acharya Ratna Das, a saffron-clad brahmachari from Pune, gushes, “The rath yatra is being celebrated in over 500 cities across the world. Srila Prabhupad, who introduced Krishna consciousness and the rath yatra to the world, wanted the Kolkata Rath Yatra to be the biggest one. By the grace of God, we are realising the dream of our spiritual master.”
The rath yatra, according to Vaishnava belief, commemorates the wish of Krishna’s gopis to pull his chariot from the battlefield of Kurukshetra back to Vrindavan. According to Prabhupad, the yatra represents the effort to bring Krishna into people’s hearts.
Over the years, the rath yatra has become the annual festival at which the deities of Jagannath, Baldev and Subhadra Devi are taken through the streets of different cities. “When a patient is sick, he goes to the doctor, but when he is grievously ill, the doctor has to come to him. So the rath yatra is basically the journey of the world’s biggest doctor to see his very sick patients who cannot come to see him in the temple,” says Ratna Das.
“Krishna Bhakti in Russia” is the theme of this year’s yatra, so visitors to the mela ground are greeted at the entrance by a replica of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the famous church on Moscow’s Red Square. “We decided to highlight the glorious struggle of our Krishna devotees in Russia, as they suffered massive persecution under the Communist regime,” explains Radharaman Das, general manager of Kolkata Iskcon. The most recent incident of intolerance, he says, was Russia’s move to ban the Bhagavad Gita as “extremist” literature. The move was “thankfully dismissed by the Tomsk city court in Siberia last December.”
Apart from Russian landmarks, an exclusive stall highlights the journey of Russian devotees since Prabhupad’s four-day visit to Moscow in 1971, to the days of imprisonment and torture by successive regimes, until today when there are about 130 Iskcon temples, 30,000 sanyasis and over 1 lakh devotees in Russia. But the most eye-catching feature is the Russian devotees themselves — they are troupes of tall, fair men and women dressed in traditional Indian dhoti and sari with Vaishnava tilak and sindur.
While cultural troupes from Moscow have performed on all days, dancing kirtans by Russian devotees between 7 pm and 9 pm every day appear to be the biggest draw. As they sing and dance to Harinam Sankirtan in perfect unison, they appear to really be in a trance.
“Their level of devotion and dedication to Krishna is at an amazingly higher level than that of any of us here,” says Shiv Prasad Sunke, a dhoti-clad foreign devotee. “As Russians, they understand the importance of Krishna consciousness and Indian culture better, probably because they have got it the hard way. We rarely tend to honour things we get easily,” says a senior official from a navratna company.
The crowd is a mix of saffron-clad sanyasis, dhoti-clad devotees and donors, apart from the teeming mass of visitors in colourful festive attire. While there are separate pandals for stage performances, discourses, VIPs, life members and regular prasad distribution, the most imposing one is undoubtedly the replica of Puri’s Gundicha Temple, which houses the deities.
Footfalls, says the GM, are much higher this year. “While last year about 7 lakh people took the prasad, this year the number swelled to approximately 12 lakh.”
The number of activities, too, has markedly increased. The day-long youth festival has events in elocution, fancy dress and shloka recitation, as well as drama and dance competitions involving school students. Amongst the stalls there is one where students from IIT-Kharagpur offer counselling on stress management based on insights from the Bhagavad Gita. And there have been thousands of registrations for various preaching programmes and courses, say the volunteers.
“The rath yatra also proves to be a powerful preaching tool... Thousands [of visitors] enrol for Iskcon courses, the most popular ones being ‘Discover Your Self’ (DYS) for adults and Value Education for school kids,” says Tripti Shaw, who works at an MNC. Shaw is well known in Iskcon circles as Tulsi Manjari, and conducts all its youth-related programmes and events.
After the yatra, the next big event Iskcon devotees and volunteers are preparing for is Janamashtami in August.