The 38th annual Festival of the Chariots, a Hare Krishna celebration commemorating Indian Lord Jagannatha, will take place locally on Sunday, Aug. 3.
Dating back thousands of years to Jagannatha Puri, India, the Festival of the Chariots honors Indian history and culture while offering a free feast, entertainment and exhibits for the public. Three fully decorated four-story tall chariots will lead a parade from the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium through Main St. towards the Ocean Front Walk Plaza at Venice Beach.
The local festival presents a procession of the devotees, food offering to Lord Jagannatha and a period of “kirtana”- the chanting of the names of the Lord. The colorful decorations and exciting music transform the Venice area, said communications direction Janice Gunn. The festival intrigues both festival regulars as well as various Venice and Santa Monica residents.
According to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Hare Krishna is a branch of Hinduism that began in the 16th century and was brought to the U.S. in 1966. Religious documents say the name originates from its chant- Hare Krishna- repeated by devotees over and over. Hare Krishna spiritual leader His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who later took the name Srila Prabhupada, is reported to have brought the first festival to America on July 9, 1967 in San Francisco. Prabhupada established 500 Hare Krishna temples around the world and became the Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He created the celebration to honor King Krishna and his deities.
According to the Hare Krishna religion, the Festival of the Chariots, also referred to as Ratha Yatra, recognizes King Krishna’s return to the Vrindavan temple. According to the story, during Krishna’s return, many childhood friends see him as a king and decide to pull him back to their town to relive their younger days. This “pulling back” is recreated at present-day festivals. Lord Jagannatha, which means Lord of the Universe, is a particular Deity form of Lord Krishna who has been worshiped for many centuries. Made from wood and brightly colored paint, Lord Jagannatha sits on the chariot to be recognized by the public.
“The meaning of our festival chariot is reuniting God with his beloved, intimate friends and devotees,” Gunn said. “We are pulling the ropes of the chariot because we are pulling God back into our hearts. It’s an emotional experience of meeting again with God.”
The festival is separated into two distinct parts, said minister Arcita Dasa. The first part involves pulling the chariots to Venice while devotees chant and dance before each cart accompanied by traditional instruments including kartalas and mridunga drums. Part two is the celebration at the Venice Pavilion, which includes information booths and dance performances.
Inspired by Indian traditions, organizers initially used huge wooden chariots for the local festival. Over the years, it became difficult to maintain and house the chariots for the remainder of the year, so a festival devotee constructed aluminum, collapsible chariots. A large aspect of the festival includes the 8,000 plates of vegetarian Indian food served to attendees. The food is a sanctified offering to God because it is prayed over prior to distribution, Gunn said. It is considered a holy communion offering to the approximate 20,000 people that attend each year.
Many people at the festival are of Hare Krishna faith, but there are also other people who attend to enjoy the food, festivities and learn about tradition and culture, said Gunn.
“Krishna consciousness is a huge cultural exhibition; it isn’t just religion,” Gunn said. “It’s philosophy and culture.”
Arts and crafts will be offered for children in tents, along with free hatha and bhakti yoga lessons. There will also be exhibitions explaining reincarnations, vegetarianism and East Indian art and history. Performances will take place on two stages: the first stage will feature “bhajan” style style music – a common style at festival such as the Bhakti Festthat is dedicated to glorify God and invoke feelings for Him, said Gunn. Various East Indian and west rock and roll fusion bands will also perform here. The second stage will feature classical Indain “Bhata-natyam” style dance performances by a troupe taught by the famous Viji Prakash.
This is the 30th year the festival has been celebrated and it is performed in every country of the world, according the Festival of the Chariots website.
“The atmosphere is one of great joy and happiness,” Dasa said. “Devotees are excited to serve the Lord in this way and the public usually is attracted to the joyous, festive atmosphere. We have experienced that many summer visitors to LA time their vacation to include participation in our festival.”