History of London Rathayatra
For over 5000 years the Rathayatra festival has been celebrated in India by millions of pilgrims. This transcendental festival was brought from India to the west in 1967 by the founder of the Hare Krishna movement: His divine grace A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The Rathayatra festival is now celebrated every summer in over 200 cities around the world.
London’s first Rathayatra took place in 1969. The festival was arranged by 8 pioneering devotees and their congregation. The procession started at Marble arch and proceeded to Trafalgar Square. Shyamasundar Dasa built the first chariot for Lord Jagannath in London. Headlines in national papers read “Krishna Chant Startles London”. Srila Prabhupada instructed “make the Deities so beautiful that everyone will be attracted to them”. Under this direct order Shyamasundar Dasa carved the Deities of Jagannath Baladeva and Subhadra. These Deities are still worshiped in London today, and once a year they come out of the temple to ride through London to Trafalgar Square.
A new year, a new chariot a 50 foot high chariot proceeded majestically through the streets, whilst on all sides Londoners chanted and danced in great happiness. The Back to Godhead Magazine stated “Londoners still have not recovered from that initial shock of that transcendental sound vibration in 1969. The Radha Krishna Temple (music band) has not let them”. The devotees in London, now numbering 30, continued to bombard England with Hare Krishna on records, television and radio.
They were also in the movies, newspapers and magazines. Devotees chanted and danced down Oxford Street every day. This was the first major Rathayatra with devotees from all over Europe and America attending. This was the beginning of the fulfillment of Lord Chaitanya prophesy that the chanting would take place “In every town and Village”. The Hare Krishna devotees overtook Leicester square with huge flashing billboards announcing “Holy Jagannath Car Procession”. All the newspapers were filled with descriptions of the 1970 Rathayatra, they had never seen anything like this in London before. On seeing these headlines Srila Prabhupada stated. “You see my devotees have conquered London”.
This was a special year because the Rathayatra was attended by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada Founder Acharya of ISKCON. Although Srila Prabhupada was 74 years of age, he chanted and danced throughout the entire procession. He ignored the elegant seat on the chariot, which was offered to him, much to the delight of the assembled devotees. This festival was Srila Prabhupada’s triumphant moment looking out at thousands of people chanting the Holy name in Trafalgar Square. This festival was organised by the young Maha Vishnu Swami (a current leader of the Hare Krishna movement), who donated £10,000 pounds left to him in a will to make this an extraordinary festival with publicity on public buses and a feature film made. The Police commentated “this was the most delightful of public displays that they had ever seen, everyone was perfectly mannered”. The next day front page headlines of the Guardian newspaper read “ISKCON Rathayatha is rival to Nelson’s column”. Srila Prabhupada writes in Caitanya Caritamrita. “Just as the residents of Puri compared the Rathayatra cart to Mount Sumeru, the residents of London considered the cart rival to the Nelson Monument.”
Rathayatra now proceeded from Marble Arch to Battersea Park, allowing for a larger festival at the end of the procession. What followed were years of memorable outdoor stage performances, dances, dramas, and transcendental chanting. The park provided a family atmosphere on the banks of the river Thames.
This year marked the ‘Prabhupada Centennial’, the 100th Anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s appearance in this world. The procession had over 8,000 people on it in 1996. This was made even more momentous by the news that after a decade of struggle, Bhaktivedanta Manor (the temple near Watford) was to remain open for public worship.
The Festival returned to the original route, and to its original promise of Ratha yatra, as a festival where the Lord gives His audience to the whole of London. A triumphant return to a new and traffic free Trafalgar Square was made. To celebrate this event over 10 Sannyasis (senior leaders of the movement) attended this event and it was filmed for the international TV series Abhay Charan.
After many years of caring for the Rathayatra chariot, Titikshu Dasa gained permission from the local authorities to build two more glorious chariots for the London Rathayatra. From this year onward London has three chariots to make this colourful procession and festival even more spectacular. Also in 2004 (as if by miracle) Trafalgar Square was redesigned so the top terrace was opened up. This provided a means to display the three chariots, and the new steps allowed everyone a clear view of Their Lordships on the three chariots. The procession was now befitting London’s status as the world’s leading city.
The chariot which has been in service for the last 26 years was completely rebuilt this year. The Queen’s wheelwright was commissioned to make the huge wooden wheels in the traditional style. The carpentry and paintwork is all the work of dedicated volunteers. These chariots are built to last at least 25 years.
The chariots are built to last, and so is this Rathayatra festival. As the years go by Rathayatra is becoming established as a prestigious event.
50th London Rathayatra – the story continues …