Saturday, 10 July 2010

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Another Great Ratha Yatra

Toronto, Ontario

I picked up a copy at the reception desk of the “India Observer” newspaper. On page 18 is an article called “Another Great Ratha Yatra” written by yours truly. Here it is:

Every summer the city of Toronto hosts events that appear to the public like layers upon layers of flavours of delectable ice cream scoops stacked onto a delicious crusty cone. There are events such as a Caribana with the flavour of the islands’ music and dance; the Jazz Festival with its New Orleans musical flair; reflections of Athens with the Greek festival; the light heartedness of the comedic Just For Laughs. The scoops keep coming. But perhaps one of Toronto’s best kept secret events is Ratha Yatra (translated as “The Festival of Chariots”), which has its rootes deep down, stemming from the eastern part of India.

There’s everything “Indian” about Ratha Yatra festival like the large temple-domed chariots with colours loud enough to make you gawk for a while. There are sari-clad ladies swaying to music and men who take to serious finger tapping on two headed drums. Then there’s the food; everything hit by some spice, yellowed with curry, and beckoning you to want seconds.

And there’s also everything not so “Indian” about the festival, like the usual Toronto potpourri or kichari; people participating from (I hate to say the over-used phrase) all walks of life. There are men in pants as well as dhotis. African djembes are popping out beats in the air. Ancient mantras are vibrated sometimes with the twist of Bollywood, but you’ll find vocals in crooner tones as well, and sometimes catch a dash of rock on the instrumentals.

Here is one of the most stunning attributes of Ratha Yatra – it’s booze free. Please don’t get me wrong. There’s no free booze. In fact drinking is taboo here. And if someone is found ‘high’ on something he or she may even be escorted out, lovingly of course. That is unique!

The event is billed as a chance to “Feed Your Soul” and it’s the spirtual overtones that make this party stand out. What to do? You can’t make any excuses for the overtones because anything that is sourced from India, especially the oldie-but-goodie stuff, has that undeniable mystic edge to it.

How so?

Well, for case in point, let’s just take the original story of the Ratha Yatra itself. King Indradyumna was a man hoping to get closer to God. He heard of an extraordinary beautiful icon of Krishna secretively worshipped by a tribal chief in a place tucked away in the eastern hills of the district of Orissa, India. The king was intensely curious but his search for this sacred icon went in vain when he discovered it missing. The icon was never found (Maybe hijacked by the chief?). The king then took the next course of action.

He commissioned the most expert sculpture of the time to carve out of a wooden log an image of Krishna in whom he could repose his love. Since Krishna is usually never alone, two companions, Krishna’s brother and sister, Balarama and Subhadra respectively, were also whittled out of the one log. The monarch could not get a better-packaged deal. In the end, you have a happy king who accepted three, very crude and simple, but adorable images who reflect the joy of each other’s company as demonstrated by their wide eyes and oceanic smiles.

Now, how does a chariot ride fit into the story? The Puranas tell us that once, on a solar eclipse, the three famous siblings, Krishna, Balaram, and Subhadra went on a journey via chariot to the north in Kurukshetra. This pleasure ride is reenacted annually in the city of Puri situated on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. It’s an event that has gone on for at least two millennia and pilgrims come from far and wide anticipating a chance to pull one of the three celestial ropes attached to the chariots.

There you have the story in brief.

What if some innocent bystander was to come along and ask, “Just what is this all about?” Well, I would say, “It’s a rope-pulling event but much more. One day, Krishna, along with his brother and sister wished to go for a pleasure cruise to catch the favourable breezes and receive their followers. This momentous occasion is being re-enacted right here on Yonge St. moving south to the Toronto Harbour. It’s a story from India. If you pull the rope you’ll make the king happy.”

By the way, Toronto, which now boasts the 38th Annual Ratha Yatra festival, has no monopoly on the program. Ratha Yatra – the festival of chariots – occurs in cities around the world and is sponsored by ISKCON, better known as the Hare Krishna movement. And the Toronto community just happens to host one of the largest Ratha Yatra gatherings in the western hemisphere. If you travel around and check those other sites, then you’ll see that the added feature here is the ecstatic kirtan (chanting session) as it moves and resounds uproariously at the bast of Yonge, under the Gardiner Expressway. The youth call it the ‘Toronto Tunnel’. That portion of the event is like the cherry on top of all the flavourful scoops of ice cream.

Oops! I forgot about Centre Island. I don’t know how we can fit this portion of the event on top of the cherry. That takes a whole new ice cream cone by itself. Let’s call it a tofu mango ice dream. Oh, and the kitchen department did inform me that the free feast on the island includes delicious edibles for vegans as well. Other features are Yoga Meltdown (an outdoor yoga festival), live theatre and music, kirtan chanting, exhibits, and an active kiddie corner too.

To wrap this up (before the ice cream melts), I have a confession to make – I have been involved in Toronto’s Ratha Yatra almost since its inception. The event is growing and seeing a good future. We just don’t need city strikes and torrential rains to visit us for this splendid outdoor event. The history shows that spirits have never been dampened. It’s extremely popular. It’s high energy. Throughout the year, wherever I go in the GTA area, dressed in my robes, I have people come up to me reciting like a mantra “Hare Krishna Ratha Yatra, Centre Island”. That’s a good sign, because they and their family members and friends have had the experience of their lives – a good time, a social gathering and a pilgrimage of sorts.

Do come and pull the rope! Make the king happy!

Ratha Yatra: Festival of India

Saturday, July 17th and 18th, 2010

Parade starts at 11 AM on Saturday @ Yonge & Bloor to Centre Island.
Festivities take place on Centre Island all weekend – Saturday 12 – 9 PM and
Sunday 12 – 6 PM

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