The Rathayatra That Started Them All Comes to DVD
Over the summer, devotees all over the world celebrate the ancient festival Rathayatra, by pulling chariots carrying Lord Krishna and his brother and sister—in their Deity forms as Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra—down the streets of their city.
But there’s never a good time to stop meditating on Jagannath, considered the most merciful form of God. And as Rathayatra season comes to a close, devotees can immerse themselves in the one that started them all in ISKCON film-maker Vasudeva Dasa’s new English language version of his little-seen 1992 classic, Pulling Krishna Home.
Premiered this July 17th at ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur, India and simultaneously on the web at Mayapur.tv, this in-depth documentary about the 1990 Rathayatra parade in Puri, Orissa, was first released only in French, Vasudeva’s native tongue.
But soon after its release, Vasudeva left film-making for sixteen years, only returning to the service in 2008 when he was encouraged by Mayapur devotees.
After making two brand new documetnaries—No Suffering on Safari, about a spiritual safari in Bangladesh, and Within Ten Miles of Mayapur, about ISKCON Mayapur’s charity work in local villages—he turned his attention back to his old film.
Vasudeva first translated the entire script from French to English, and edited it with the help of renowned ISKCON editor Umapati Dasa. Then, at Umapati’s suggestion, he also clarified the ultimate meaning of Rathayatra, which had not been clear in the French version.
“To me, Rathayatra can be summed up in the three words of the title: Pulling Krishna Home,” says Vasudeva. “The first word, which denotes having some influence on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is paradoxical—if there’s one thing you don’t do with God, it’s pull Him; but on Rathayatra, you can. Krishna, of course, means God. And the last word of the title refers to God’s home—not the kingdom where he reigns supreme, but rather the village where he plays like a child. And it’s the fact that God is pulled back to this childhood playground by his devotees for one week every year, that makes Rathayatra so sweet.”
A Rewarding Start
Vasudeva started his film career back in 1986 when, with no prior training and only a very amateur camera, he travelled to South India to make his first documentary about the holy place Tirupati. More documentaries of various holy places followed, as well as “A Day on Padayatra,” a film about the first ISKCON “walking festival” with Lokanath Swami.
“All these films were very amateurish, but they were very devotional too,” Vasudeva says. “And so even though they weren’t on a par with serious standards, devotees liked them.”
Believing in Vasudeva’s natural talent, ISKCON Television (ITV) director Nrsimhananda Dasa trained him in editing with the then professional level VHS editing suite, and encouraged him to pursue the service with everything he had.
Raising some money through selling paintings, Vasudeva bought himself new, professional film-making equipment, and returned to India in 1988. There, he visited Devprayag in the Himalayas, the sacred place where the Ganges begins, and filmed “Timeless Village of the Himalayas.”
Impressed with the documentary, Nrismhananda of ITV prompted Vasudeva to enter it into Hollywood’s 1989 American Video Conference (AVC) awards—a competition amongst professional documentary makers from across the entire United States of America.
“He thought I might get lucky and be granted a nomination,” Vasudeva says. “So when the film far surpassed our expectations and won first prize, we were stunned. I thought that either there had been a huge mistake, or Krishna wanted to somehow lift me up in his own munificent way.”
The award was presented on Sunset Boulevard, at the Director’s Guild of America, by the American Film Institute, Billboard, and the Hollywood Reporter, four of the most prestigious institutions in the film world. Timeless Village of the Himalayas remains -- to our knowledge -- the only ISKCON film ever to receive an award from a conventional film organization.
Feeling that he was now up to standard, Vasudeva created his own production company, BhakTV, later that year.
Now, he was ready for his next project—filming the 1990 Jagannatha Rathayatra parade in Puri, Orissa.
Pulling Krishna Home
For devotees who have attended Rathayatras in their own countries for years, as well as for members of the general public fascinated with Indian tradition, Puri Rathayatra seems rather unapproachable—a legendary and near mystical event, the grandfather of them all.
But BhakTV’s Pulling Krishna Home makes it a reality.
Starting on the peaceful morning of the Rathayatra, it soon throws you right bang into the surreal majesty of it all. The three gigantic colorful carts tower over an ocean of hundreds of thousands of fervent worshippers, and as Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra are carried out, it seems like something completely out of this world. The size and scale of everything—the crowd, the chariots, the Deities—is far beyond anything seen in international Rathayatras, and creates a dizzying experience.
Then the camera descends into the throngs, and as people jostle it around and grin at it, it seems like you’re right there in the midst of this impossible scene.
Vasudeva worked hard to create the experience. “My equipment wasn’t the best, and I had no crew but myself,” he says. “On top of that, it was probably the worst possible environment to work on a film—I had to constantly try and navigate my way through about a million-strong pilgrims. Even while I was filming overhead shots from the roof of a building opposite the temple, there’d be 100 or so people clamoring around me, also trying to get a look. And I’d have to either fight them or soften them up by explaining that I was doing service for Lord Jagannath.”
Vasudeva even managed to get stunning close-ups of the Deities and their chariots. While in Puri, he stayed at the home of Gajendra Mahashaya, a well-known businessman and craftsman who connected him with the Pandas, or priests of Lord Jagannath. Through them, he was allowed on the chariots right next to the Lord, a priviledge otherwise denied to westerners during the parade.
The bulk of the film spans a period of two days, as Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra are carried out to their carts, leave on their parade, stop for the night, and the next morning continue on to Gundica Ghar. This is Puri’s spiritual equivalent to Vrindavana, the childhood village of Lord Krishna, where the Deities will take a one week “holiday” before returning back to their temple.
That’s the structure the film follows. But within it, Vasudeva delves into every detail of the festival and everything surrounding it. A warm and comforting guide amidst all the commotion on screen, the Frenchman’s tone is light and friendly, very expressive and full of wit. And the wealth of fascinating information he doles out is full of facts you probably wouldn’t have even found out if you visited Puri yourself.
“Puri temple’s legendary kitchen is probably the world’s largest, with its capacity to feed as many as 100,000 people each day,” he explains, for instance. “Only a sample of every dish is physically placed on the Lord’s altar because there are no less than fifty-six preparations on ordinary days, and nearly 100 on special days. The temple makes seven tons of cooked rice on normal days, and ninety tons on special days.”
Through his host Gajendra Mahashaya, Vasudeva was even able to get an interview with His Majesty Gajapati Maharaja, the King of Puri. Likeable and down-to-earth, he explains that Baladeva’s chariot is the first to leave and start the parade. It’s named Taradwaja, is about forty-six feet high, and has fourteen wheels. Baladeva’s sister, Subhadra Devi, moves second. Her chariot, called Darpadalana, is the smallest amongst the three, and has twelve wheels.
“And last comes Lord Jagannath, in his chariot called Garodvaja,” says the Maharaja. “With sixteen wheels, it is the biggest of them all.”
As you watch the huge chariots rolling along at an alarmingly fast speed, you’re reminded of how the British derived the word “Juggernaut”—meaning a large, overpowering, destructive force or object—from the word “Jagannath.” And Vasudeva is ready with some more fascinating facts to bring the point home.
While the chariots have wheels, he explains, they have no steering systems, so taking a corner simply means pulling en masse in the right direction. What’s more, custom forbids the chariot from moving in reverse—so in the past, electric poles, and even whole walls, have had to come down for the chariots to complete a turn. Once, a whole house had to be demolished to allow for the onward march of a chariot.
Pulling Krishna Home is chock-full of these kinds of compelling tidbits. But it’s in the little visual details that Vasudeva especially excels: A group of gong players welcoming Jagannath with a tumultuous clanging, intense, swaying in an unusual rhythm. Tiny children standing ready to pull the chariot with ropes as thick as their bodies. A deformed beggar wearing shoes on his hands and cheerfully dragging himself along after the cart, a huge grin on his face. A young man on crutches who seem to be always singing his heart out to God in a voice more enchanting than that of any professional singer.
But the stand-out is a shot of the priests rocking Jagannath back and forth as they carry him to his chariot, while the crowd sways around them, reaching out to touch the Lord.
“For a few moments more, the devotees delight in showering Jagannath with this very particular tenderness,” Vasudeva narrates. “A rare intimacy seems to be unfolding before our eyes between a crowd and its cherished child. Once upon his throne, Jagannath will again dominate the world. But though he may be God, he can also enjoy a few moments of informal bonding with his worshippers. Jagannath looks as though floating in an ocean of his devoted souls, in this exceptional public mixing with scores of them.”
It’s beautifully sweet, a moving vignette that’s one of the most affecting moments in the whole film.
Those that wanted to could certainly find a few complaints to make about Pulling Krishna Home. The quality of the film, made with equipment that wasn’t the best twenty years ago, can be blurry and looks dated. And with a fifty-minute running time, there are segments where some tightening would not have gone amiss.
But overall, Pulling Krishna Home captures the wonderous spectacle of Puri Rathayatra in a way that is inspiring, funny, and deeply moving. Vasudeva has said that he hopes the film gives viewers the feeling of being right there, in the crowd, experiencing the ongoing relentless intensity of it all—but without the hassle. And he can feel content in his mission, for that’s exactly what it does.
“Perhaps because I had some sincerity, Krishna took the reins of my chariot and took me to where I had to be,” he says. “That’s the way I see it. I know I could not have done any of it without the Lord’s help.”
For Vasudeva himself, attending the Puri Rathayatra as a film-maker was the best way he could have participated in this unique experience. “For me, it was much more absorbing than if I had just been there as a pilgrim, watching or taking photos just for myself,” he says. “I researched and meditated deeply on the origin of the festival, the rituals, the tradition… things I wouldn’t have looked at otherwise.”
Vasudeva feels that Pulling Krishna Home has the same mood as his award-winner Timeless Village of the Himalayas—the same humor and light-heartedness around a deep and lofty subject; in this case, God. “My intention was to make it accessible to the general public, and at the same time exciting enough for devotees to really sink their teeth into,” he says.
Vasudeva hopes that his film about Lord Jagannath brings audiences together just as Lord Jagannath himself brings people together.
“Rathayatra gives us the opportunity to worship the Lord collectively, rather than individually,” he says. “For Jagannath is the most accessible and merciful form of the Lord.”
The King of Puri puts it very well at the end of the film: “We may live in India, or England, or America, but we are all Jagannath’s children. So we are really all brothers, we are all united together in this one very real sense.”
A Lifelong Service
Next up, Vasudeva will be filming a documentary about the sacred hill Govardhana, in Krishna’s birthplace of Vrindavana. Sponsored and co-produced by Dhanurdar Swami, it’s due for release by Gaura Purnima (March) 2011.
He’s also simultaneously working on The Holy Life in Mayapur, a two-hour film in six parts. The documentary will depict life at ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur, India, including temple worship, festivals, the Vedic gurukula school, and Nagar Sankirtan—a Food For Life program in which devotees chant Hare Krishna and distribute prasadam to hundreds of local villagers at a time.
Vasudeva has also been commissioned to chronicle the construction of Mayapur’s brand new Temple of the Vedic Planetarium by its management team, and this will comprise part of The Holy Life in Mayapur. Vasudeva expects to finish and preview half of the film by Gaura Purnima 2011, while the full documentary is expected by Gaura Purnima 2012.
After sixteen years away from BhakTV and devotional film-making, Vasudeva is excited about the future.
“Sometimes we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be doing for Krishna—and it may take years before we become sure,” he says. “That’s the way it was for me. Now I realize that making films was my best contribution to Prabhupada’s mission. And I feel inspired to get back into it, and determined to do something meaningful. I hope to keep doing this until the day I die.”
Pulling Krishna Home and Vasudeva’s other films are available to purchase from www.Bhaktv.com.