A 46-year tradition returns this weekend after a two-year hiatus: ISKCON LA’s Festival of the Chariots.
The festival, featuring music, dancing, vendors, a vegetarian feast and the famous parade of chariots from Santa Monica to Venice, is set to take place on Sunday, Aug. 7. The parade was scheduled to begin at 1855 Main Street — outside the Civic Auditorium — at 10 a.m. that morning. Chariots were expected to arrive in Venice by 12:30 p.m.
ISKCON, which stands for International Society for Krishna Consciousness, hosts the yearly celebration in concert with similar parades and festivals that take place the world over called Ratha Yatra, which began in India millennia ago.
The chariots are massive wooden structures on wheels with 30-foot canopies that raise and lower to go under power lines along the parade route. Each chariot honors a deity — Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balarama, and Lady Subhadra — and is decorated with vibrant colors and flowers.
“It’s very, very colorful,” one organizer, who goes by Divya, said. “The floats are decorated with fragrant marigolds and gardenias … The canopies are bright red and yellow. The floats are just jaw dropping. It’s not like a little hokey float or whatever.”
The chariots are not fueled by gas or electricity: spectators pull them along the parade route. Divya said there was also “traditional Indian chanting” including chanting of the Maha Mantra — “the great chant to deliver the mind.”
Although the parade is a religious celebration, organizers from ISKCON LA, Karuna and Divya, said anyone of any faith background is welcome to attend. In the past, the Venice Festival of the Chariots has drawn crowds of 40,000, organizers said.
“It’s open to everybody, and it’s mainly people that are non-Hindu, non-Hare Krishna,” Karuna said. “It’s open to people in their bathing suits. There’s no requirements — everyone comes. I guess the only thing would be to bring water and sunscreen.”
In addition to having multiple food vendors available, the first 5,000 attendees will be treated to a “free vegetarian feast,” the organizers said.
The celebration carries on the tradition of the original events, which began thousands of years ago in Jagannatha Puri, India, and today ISKCON LA sees it as an opportunity to promote unity and understanding across people living in the Los Angeles area.
“The whole goal or purpose is to get people off of the belief that, ‘Oh, I’m white or I’m Black, or I’m man or I’m woman, or I’m Democrat or I’m Republican,’ The whole goal is to actually unify us that we’re all here for a higher purpose, to serve and develop love,” Divya said.
Karuna said experiencing the culture of acceptance and unity in Santa Monica is her favorite part of the event each year.
“I grew up in LA and I really love Santa Monica. I love the people, and I love that this is a cultural event that brings a kind of brotherhood to all the people,” Karuna said, later adding, “When we go down Main Street, I remember all the people from the outdoor vegetable market; they all stand and gawk and they’re just awestruck when they see the chariots. And in Venice, you know, the people start dancing on the Boardwalk and singing — they start singing the mantra with us.” Karuna called it a “feeling of love and brotherhood.”
ISKCON LA is currently recruiting volunteers for various tasks before and during the festival.
For more information on volunteering or visiting the event, go to www.iskconla.com/rathayatra.