Toronto’s 40th Rathayatra Sees Young Devotees Bond in Service
Toronto’s celebration of Rathayatra—the ancient Indian parade festival in honor of God’s form as Jagannath—has come a long way since its beginnings in 1972.
Praharana Dasi, one of ISKCON Toronto’s seniormost members, recalls that back then, devotees in the Canadian city had heard Rathayatras had been introduced in 1967 in San Francisco and were now being held all over the USA. Since they were already worshipping Jagannath, they decided it was time to jump on the bandwagon and hold their own festival.
The problem, in an age prior to the Internet, was that they didn’t have much information about how things were supposed to look or what exactly they were supposed to do. Somebody said they had heard Lord Jagannatha was sick during Rathayatra, and that they were supposed to bring Him to the sea, where the fresh air would make Him feel better. So, putting the Deities of Jagannath, His brother Baladeva, and sister Subhadra—the first Deities installed in Toronto—on a makeshift chariot made with an old wagon, a ragtag team of young devotees led Him through the Toronto neighborhood known as “The Beaches.”
As they did, they knocked on the doors of confused residents, announcing, “The Lord of the Universe is passing through! Please donate any fruits and flowers that you can!” Although no one had a clue what they were talking about, their sincerity and innocence were so endearing that people loaded their arms with fruits and flowers.
Forty years later, a lot has changed. Toronto Rathayatra is now one of the largest in North America, and a hugely popular summer festival for the public in Toronto, where it’s practically a household name. Just as it was forty years ago, however, it is still organized by young devotees, who draw inspiration and energy from their service to Lord Jagannath.
Over 40 years a lot has changed. The magnificent Parade marches on Toronto's Younge Street
The multi-day festival they’re organizing in celebration of the festival’s 40th anniversary will begin on Wednesday July 11th with a Rathayatra Launch party at Yonge-Dundas Square, a cultural hub in the center of the city known as “Toronto’s Times Square.”
Indian and spiritual merchandise, a cooking demo, a spicy samosa eating contest, yoga classes, and a five-hour kirtan will give the city a sneak preview of what to expect during the Rathayatra itself.
“The kirtan will not be on a stage, as free live performances in the Square usually are,” says Keshava Sharma, 31, who joined the Rathayatra committee in 2000 at the age of 18 and is now its chairperson. “Rather, to recreate the true kirtan experience, the kirtan party will be sitting on the ground in the middle of the Square, with concentric circles of devotees and the general public around them, and dancers on either side. It’ll be like two giant hands scooped everybody up from the middle of the temple room, and just plopped them down right in the middle of Toronto’s biggest public square.”
Just the right thing, then, to prepare devotees and guests for a mega twelve-hour kirtan at Toronto’s ISKCON temple on Friday July 13th, featuring international kirtaniya Madhava. Debuted last year, the event will be taken to new heights this year, with a separate kirtan group heading out to chant in public at Yonge-Dundas Square during the day.
Dynamic kirtan in the tunnel
On Saturday July 14th, the main event, Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra will be carried on three huge, colorful chariots down Toronto’s famous Yonge street. Meanwhile, devotees and uplifted members of the public will chant and dance in celebration, culminating in a thrilling ‘spiritual moshpit’ in the Toronto Tunnel, now a signature of the Toronto Rathayatra.
“Last year, there were 5,000 participants in the parade,” Keshava says. “This year, we’re planning for even more.”
And that’s nothing compared to the crowd expected on Centre Island for a fun-packed family day out after the parade—nearly 40,000 attended last year, and organizers await to see how many more will show up this year with nervous excitement. It’s one of the biggest public festivals put on by ISKCON in North America, with members of the public completely dwarfing devotee attendees, and professionalism and newcomer-friendliness a priority throughout.
A South Asian Bazaar, exhibits on ancient spiritual culture, delicious sanctified food, spiritual seminars, a Krishna conscious children’s area, and an extremely popular non-stop kirtan tent known as the Bhajan Kutir will all be clearly marked with explanatory signage, avoiding the kind of newcomer confusion experienced in 1972.
Another artistic poster
This year, on top of all this, the Rathayatra’s 40th anniversary will be celebrated in a variety of unique ways. There’ll be “before and after” photo displays matching 1970s images of the Rathayatra with modern photos from the same angle; a social media wall on festivalofindia.ca featuring live video reactions from the festival; and a host of other special surprises yet to be unveiled.
This vast fair is the only Rathayatra in North America to use every single tent in traveling Festival of India producer Madhuha Dasa’s inventory. “Not only that, but we also order our own tents, including a giant 60’ x 100’ tent that seats 700 people for our mainstage program,” says Keshava.
Knowing that highly polished ‘bridge attractions’ will draw newcomers in, Rathayatra organizers feature high profile South Asian Dancers well known in the Canadian arts community, in an immaculately scheduled professional stage show. They then seal the deal with a headline performance by ISKCON’s Krishna Culture
Youth bus tour, and a rocking two-hour kirtan.
A walking Bhagavad-gita joins the parade
Also drawing many newcomers—700 last year—is Yoga Meltdown, an entirely separate section of the festival for which Toronto Rathayatra will be partnering with a dozen yoga studios this year.
The twist? Yoga meltdown is billed as a full experience of Bhakti yoga as well as a chance to do outdoor physical yoga with some of the best teachers in the city. Upon entrance, attendees will receive Srila Prabhupada’s book Perfection of Yoga, visit the hugely popular mantra meditation tent, see vegetarian cooking demonstrations, and get samples of kirtan and prasadam.
“They all know that it’s a Hare Krishna festival, and they all have nothing but good things to say about it,” says head of marketing and promotions Mahasundari Madhavi Dasi.
Toronto’s Rathayatra has generated such a high level of mainstream interest that it has attracted partnerships with major corporations. National television station Global TV, for instance, not only advertises the festival, but also has its own tent on site. Inside the tent, marked with Global’s logo, festivalgoers can have their faces painted with Vaishnava tilak and “gopi” dots, and can try on a sari.
“Last year, Global’s own staff wore gopi dots and saris for a portion of the festival, and attended the kirtan,” says Madhavi. “Having a mainstream TV station not only as our flagship sponsor, but also participating in our culture, lends credibility to both Toronto Rathayatra and ISKCON.”
Volunteers cutting potatoes for the free prasadam distribution
In fact, the festival has become so popular that it may be outgrowing Centre Island, and may have to move to a new, larger location on the mainland in the future; where, without the effort needed to take the ferry, numbers could double.
What’s especially wonderful about all this is that the entire festival is orchestrated by a team of second generation devotees as well as young newcomers to Krishna consciousness, which has grown to 25 people since its beginnings in 2000. This team’s dedication to creative promotional techniques ensures the crowds: Colorful and contemporary posters, created by artist Manish Thorat, advertise the festival on the Toronto subway system, in mainstream newspapers, and at ISKCON gatherings; while interactive Facebook campaigns build up excitement amongst the Internet crowd.
Of course, promotion is just a small part of the festival preparations: the Rathayatra organizational team features no fewer than 20 different departments. To plan effectively, all team members begin holding bi-weekly meetings in January, and switch to weekly meetings in early summer. Closer to the festival, they attend conference calls every single evening, sometimes lasting until 4 or 5 in the morning to meet deadlines.
A poster advertising the Yoga Meltdown event
“Then every year during the week of the festival, we take over one of the rooms in the Toronto temple, which we dub the Rathayatra War Room,” laughs Keshava.
“It’s a sight to behold. There are laptops and old prasadam plates strewn everywhere, and a weird, all-pervading sweaty smell!”
Despite being young professionals and students with work deadlines and exams to attend to, the Rathayatra team stay dedicated and focused to making the best possible festival happen each year, because they are so deeply attached to their service to Lord Jagannath. Madhavi, for instance, has been on the team for six years, while Keshava has been involved for thirteen.
“Bhakti Vaibhava Swami once told us that to grow in Krishna consciousness, just as a plant needs sunlight and water, we need chanting and association,” Madhavi says. “By serving together on the Toronto Rathayatra team, we have all made extremely lasting devotee friendships—I met all my closest friends in Toronto through the Rathayatra. And that goes a long way.”
The 2011 Yoga Meltdown on Toronto's Centre Island