Tri-state Area Invited to Celebrate Ancient Indian Chariot Festival in Moundsville


By Madhava Smullen

After Festival of Colors (Holi) drew 5,000 people last September, tri-state area locals are invited to come and participate in another one of India’s most ancient and popular celebrations, Festival of Chariots (Ratha-Yatra), in Moundsville on Saturday July 18th.

In the holy city of Puri in Orissa, India where it originated, the annual procession – full of music and dance — draws over one million pilgrims. Each hopes to get the honor of pulling the ropes of the 45-foot-high chariots carrying the deity of Jagannath (Lord of the Universe, a name for God) and His companions, Baladeva and Subhadra.

For the British ruling India in the 1800s, the festival was such a powerful experience and the sight of Lord Jagannath on His chariot so awe-inspiring that it originated the word “juggernaut.”

The historic festival was first transplanted to the Western World by the Hare Krishna Movement in San Francsisco in 1967. Today, it’s held every summer in over 200 cities worldwide.

The Hare Krishna temple in the unincorporated village of New Vrindaban, near Moundsville, has been celebrating its own Festival of Chariots since 1973. But this one, its 42nd, is the first time locals have been invited to participate on a large scale.

Between 800 and 1,000 people are anticipated for the event, with locals from the tri-state area expected to join Hare Krishna devotees from along the East Coast.

The day will begin with the usual early morning worship at New Vrindaban’s Krishna temple, followed by a talk at 8:00am explaining the history and significance of the Festival of Chariots.

“For all faiths, although we understand God is everywhere, we go to the temple, church, synagogue or mosque to see Him,” says Malati Devi, who helped organize the first Festival of Chariots outside India in 1967. “But not everyone goes to those places. So Jagannath comes out of his temple on Ratha Yatra so that everyone can see him, smiling from His chariot.”

Everyone will be able to see Jagannath’s broad smile – His defining characteristic – when the parade starts at 11:30am on McCreary’s Ridge Road.

The over five-foot tall deity will look out from a hand-carved chariot with a vibrant red and yellow canopy topped with a gold spire that will rise 30 feet into the air.

The colorful parade, filled with balloons, flags, joyous Mantra music and dancing, will last around two hours and cover just over a mile.

It will pass the Palace of Gold – dubbed one of the eight religious wonders in the U.S. by CNN – as well as a recreation of India’s sacred Kusum Sarovara lake and giant figures of 15th century Bengali saints on its way to the Hare Krishna temple.

At the temple, a sumptuous Indian vegetarian feast will be served from 2:00 to 3:30pm free of charge, featuring rice, vegetable curry, vegetable frittes, and mango yoghurt drink. For dessert, there’ll be rice pudding, and gulabjamun, a spongy milk powder sweet soaked in rosewater syrup that has to be tasted to be believed.

At 4:00pm, visitors will get the chance to push smaller deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra on an ornate swing in a ceremony called “Jhulan Yatra.” This will be followed by a play portraying the Festival of Chariot’s history, and a traditional arati worship ceremony in the main temple space.

“Meanwhile, we’ll be offering continuous temple tours from 3:00 to 7:00pm,” says director of public relations Vrindavan Das. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about this ancient culture and interact with practioners from different parts of North America.”

The day will end in grand style with the “Swan Boat Festival” from 9:30 to around 10:15pm. Tiki torches will cast an echanting glow in the darkness as small deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra ride on a swan-shaped boat across the mirror-like waters of Kusum Lake. There’ll be more mantra music and dancing, culminating with a firework display in the night sky.

The saying, ‘And a good time was had by all’ fits the Festival of Chariots perfectly,” says Malati. “It’s just a great family day out with a wonderful, congenial atmosphere.”

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