Lucy Barton, Oxford chanter and student, wrote this account of the London Rathayatra which took place in June. Thank you Lucy!
On the 12 of June was the 41st London Rathayatra or “chariot festival”. Based on a traditional Indian street festival, London Rathayatra is lively event in which three fifty-foot chariots process from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square; pulled along by ropes by the enthusiastic crowd. Rathayatra always draws a crowd, and many of the regulars of the Oxford Kirtans, undeterred by the wet weather, went along to take part in the festivities.
Rathayatra has been performed for over two thousand years in the town of Jaganatha Puri in Orissa. However in the past forty years, this ancient parade has extended beyond the boundaries of the Subcontinent, taking place all over the world: in over a hundred cities such as New York, Montreal, Paris, Singapore, Venice, and in towns across the UK such as Birmingham, Leicester and Brighton. However, the London Rathayatra is held in special esteem, with participants travelling from a far a field as Scotland and Belgium. Many of Oxford’s favourite visiting kirtans leaders, such as Kripamoya, Tulasi and Gaura Hari were also there.
The whole procession takes about two hours, and is accompanied throughout by exuberant kirtan. Those amongst the crowd, who are not pulling the chariots, clap their hands and joyously chant in response; some of the braver and more energetic dance at the front of the chariots. This Ratha yatra it rained the whole time, and part of the joyfulness was dancing through the puddles and getting soaking wet! The chariots, carrying the wooden images of the divine siblings Jaganatha, Baladeva and Subhadra, are decorated with brightly coloured canopies and fresh flowers. Although this year enclosed in a waterproof covering, Jaganatha’s beaming smile was still visible, bedecked in flowers, on the only day of the year that He leaves the temple.
As the procession draws to a close and the chariots are taken the last few the meters by the attendants, the festival-goers continue on to Trafalgar Square. The square has been transformed, and is filled with colourful tents offering meditation workshops, activities for children; as well a free vegetarian feast, and a stage show with more kirtan and dramas about spirituality. In this way, the festival continues on until into the early evening.
The festival is open to all, and with its vibrant colours and music, it has universal appeal and accessibility. As you look across the crowd, although many who attend are from the Indian Diaspora, you see people of many ethnicities and walks of life, of all ages, in pushchair to wheelchair, absorbed and invigorated by the kirtan. For those of us who are used to performing kirtan within the security and focused space of four walls, it might seem that, with the distractions of being out in the open and together with such a number of people, it would not be possible to maintain concentration and that the magic of the kirtan would be lost. On the contrary, the group brings it own focus within a kirtan, which is simply brought to a bigger scale at Rathayatra, and it lifts the consciousness above the surroundings; you no longer feel that you are in central London, but within that same spiritual space that every kirtan brings.
Photos by Matthew Lloyd: At Zimbio.