A Little Goes A Long Way at Toronto Carribean Carnival
Devotees from ISKCON Toronto, who organize the Canadian city’s hugely successful annual Festival of India, took a risk and faced major challenges while participating in the Toronto Caribbean Carnival’s showcase parade on August 4th.
But despite more low-key participation than they expected, Lord Jagannath’s beautiful smile still worked its magic. And devotees realized that Lord Krishna’s Holy Name is truly for everyone, and that even a small effort can plant the seed of devotion in many hearts.
The Toronto Caribbean Carnival—formerly known as Caribana—has celebrated the city’s multicultural and multiracial society since 1967, heralding its 45th year this August.
Today, the festival, which ran for three weeks from July 17th to August 12th this year, draws over one million people. Most of these turn out to watch the parade, with its bejeweled masqueraders, huge, colorful and elaborate costumes, and its pulsating Calypso, Soca, Steel Pan, Chutney and Reggae music.
Toronto devotees received an opportunity to participate in the parade this year when West Indian devotee Ajamila Singh introduced them to his nephew Marlon Singh, a Carnival parade organizer.
“Mr. Singh wanted 300 chanting and dancing devotees to be part of his group Calalloo, one of sixteen different groups in the parade,” explains Keshava Sharma, who helped organized the devotee effort. “His group’s theme centered around Sinbad the Traveler, and he wanted us to appear with a banner reading ‘Sinbad Meets the Holy Men from India.’”
The idea sounded exciting. But from the beginning, devotees ran into what seemed like endless challenges. Mr. Singh was difficult to contact, and they themselves were already overburdened with organizing Festival of India, their biggest event of the year. In the end, their first meeting with Mr. Singh wasn’t until July 23rd—only eleven days before the parade.
Still, eager to make an impression, they arranged to attend with Toronto Rathayatra’s huge forty-foot high chariot, and campaigned amongst the devotee community to get 300 volunteer participants.
But there was a significant push-back from the Toronto devotees. The Toronto Caribbean Carnival, they said, didn’t have a good reputation amongst wholesome people, with its pounding music, gyrating bodies, costumes leaving little to the imagination, and smoking and drinking.
What’s more, the festival had a long history of violence. One man was killed in a 1996 shooting at the festival, four were shot in 2003, and one killed in 2005. More recently, two men were shot—one fatally—in 2009, and once more in 2011, a man was killed and a woman left in hospital.
“Given all this, many in the ISKCON Toronto community didn’t feel it was right to bring the devotees or Lord Jagannath to such an event,” says Keshava. “Myself and Mahabhagavata Dasa, who headed up our effort, agreed.”
At the last minute, with devotee participation in the parade on the verge of cancellation, however, a compromise was reached. Devotees would attend only the first part of the parade, held at Exhibition Place away from the crowds. They would then return to the safety of the temple, leaving a truck to pull the Rathayatra cart for the remainder of the 3.5 kilometer parade.
Meanwhile, rather than bringing the temple’s Deities of Lord Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra, a beautiful papier mache Jagannath created for Bhakti Marg Swami’s Toronto drama troupe would be dressed up in old Deity outfits and preside over the parade.
With this new plan, devotees pushed on despite continued difficulties, making their participation in the parade a small success that is certain to make a big impact on parade-goers lives.
Although only fifty devotees rather than the planned 300 participated, they were a sight to behold: the men all dressed in matching white robes and red sashes, the women all resplendent in vibrant colors. They were beautiful to hear, with singing led by devoted chanter Amala Kirtan Dasa from Dallas. And they were different and unique, with the Rathayatra chariot drawing attention from impressed parade organizers and TV reporters alike.
“We arrived at 9:00am as we were told, only to find that we were number six of sixteen different groups, and wouldn’t start moving until 1pm,” Keshava says. “It wasn’t easy waiting there in the parking lot, baking in the sun for hours. But we made a good situation out of that, too—because we were one of the first groups there, the TV stations were all over us!”
When the parade did begin, difficulty struck yet again. The mixer on the Rathayatra chariot blew, and the kirtan was drowned out by the other floats, eighteen-wheelers that boasted dozens of speakers blasting out 100,000 watts of soca music.
In the meantime, most of the devotees, exhausted by their hours in the sun, returned to the temple, leaving five dedicated preachers with the Rathayatra chariot and the truck pulling it.
Pushing onward nevertheless, the remaining devotees contacted some colleagues to have a new mixer rented and transported by taxi all the way to the festival site.
“Moments before reaching the judges’ area, the sounds of kirtan boomed out, and the Rathayatra chariot’s canopy flew up,” says Keshava. “Then an announcer introduced “The Holy Men of India,” and said, ‘These are the Hare Krishna devotees, and they’re here today chanting, dancing and drumming.’”
While the judges may have been more impressed to see a larger group of devotees, they were struck by the unique quality of Lord Jagannath’s chariot amongst the same costumes and floats that appear at the Toronto Caribbean Carnival every year.
The chariot, with amplified kirtan and the small group of devotees, continued along the rest of the parade route to resounding success.
Everything that the small group could carry—about 140 spiritual books, 1,400 prasadam sweets, 2,000 prasadam lollipops, and 2,500 cards inscribed with the temple’s contact details and the Hare Krishna-mantra—were distributed.
Meanwhile, 10,000 festivalgoers chanted and danced with the devotees throughout the day. Over one million saw Lord Jagannath’s Rathayatra cart and heard the Maha-mantra. And millions more watched the Lord and his devotees on live television.
Devotees were interviewed, explaining that they were bringing the spiritual sounds of the East to the Carnival, on five different television stations, including national network CBC, City TV, CP24, and One Caribbean, broadcast on the Caribbean islands.
“The CP24 television anchor even chanted and danced along with devotees, in a clip that was shown eleven times that day,” says Mahabhagavata Dasa.
At 10:00pm, at the very end of the day, the invigorated devotees continued to chant and dance in the rain, although the other groups had run out of energy hours before.
“In the spirit of trying to share Krishna consciousness with others, sometimes you have to go into very unique spaces,” says Keshava, looking back. “We took risks, and they paid off.”
He expects that if devotees are asked to take part in the Toronto Caribbean Carnival again, they will agree.
But next time, they’ll handle the delicate reality of attending such an event with even more care. And they’ll know what to do and what not to do to ensure that their participation is appropriate according to Vaishnava principles, safe and comfortable for devotees, and leaves an indelible impression on the minds of the public.
“We learned a lot of lessons from this,” says Keshava. “Overall, it was a very humbling experience.”