Down memory lane – ISKCON Bangalore’s Ratha Yatra

I vividly remember the first Ratha Yatra of ISKCON Bangalore temple which was held on a Friday in December 1985, after it started functioning from its new premises near Cauvery theatre on Bellary Road, opposite the Bangalore Palace grounds. Madhu Pandit Prabhu and Chanchalapathi Prabhu were managing the temple along with a few full-time temple devotees.  Of course, whenever there was a festival at the temple, a large number of congregational devotees and other well-wishers were ready to help out in any manner they could.

Advertisements about the Ratha Yatra festival were placed in the daily newspapers and it had got a lot of publicity. The preparations for the Ratha Yatra took place next to the ever-busy Silver Jubilee Park Road near Town Hall. Two beautiful, gigantic Rathas were being decorated.  One was meant for Lord Krishna and the other for Lord Balarama. It was about 4 p.m. and a large number of people had gathered. After the puja for the Deities, we were all asked to start pulling the Rathas. When we all strained to pull the Rathas with full of enthusiasm to the accompaniment of loud chants of – Hare Krishna / Hari Bol – one of the chariots came crashing down as its axle broke. All the puja paraphernalia and the devotees who were on the Ratha fell down on the road. Fortunately, nobody was injured. All of us were crestfallen when this happened. After many days of preparation, there were tableaux which were following the chariots with folk dancers enacting Krishna’s pastimes. I was working for the City TAB, an English weekly tabloid in Bangalore as sub-editor then.  As I was part of the congregation at the temple, I too participated in the Ratha Yatra. I gave a short write-up about the celebration for this tabloid which was published in its December 1985 issue. A scanned image of the same is reproduced below.

Without wasting time, the devotees huddled together and quickly arrived at a solution. As the other chariot was still sturdy, it was decided to carry both the Deities – Krishna and Balarama – on the same chariot and continue the Ratha Yatra. However, this time we were all cautioned to pull the chariot delicately. Even in recent years in Bangalore when Ratha Yatra takes place and I see Chanchalapathi Prabhu sitting on the Ratha with a microphone and instructing the people pulling the chariot to slow down when there is a turning or a road hump, it reminds me of that incident.

The route of the Ratha Yatra though short from Silver Jubilee Park to Ravindra Kalakshetra, it took more than an hour to cover it, thanks to the devotees who were continuously singing the sweet melodies of the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra. The entire route was spiritualized by the vibration of the sankirtana. People came forward and danced to the tune of Hare Krishna kirtan all along. Prasadam was distributed to the public who were near the chariot or following it throughout the Yatra. None of the people along the route wanted to be just bystanders; they too wanted to have a go at pulling the Lord’s chariot.

Commenting on the incident of one chariot breaking down, I recollect one of the senior devotees saying that it was all Krishna’s Lila. Both the brothers – Krishna and Balarama – wanted to be on the same chariot and not in separate ones; that is why one of the chariots broke down. After the Ratha Yatra, I remember Madhu Pandit Prabhu telling us – one day the whole of Bangalore will participate in this Ratha Yatra. In this age people are lazy about spiritual life, hence the Lord goes out to the streets in His chariot to bless them.

Now on January 19, 2019 we will be witnessing the 34th Ratha Yatra of ISKCON Bangalore. Compared to the first Ratha Yatra in 1985 to the latest, the celebrations have indeed come a long way. In 1985 Bangalore city was very small compared to what it is now and the population was very less.  The Rajajinagar locality was just developing. ISKCON also was not as well known in Bangalore then. Today it is a household name.

When ISKCON Bangalore’s first ratha rolled down the road in 1985 we had to physically water the road and keep it clean. Volunteers like me would borrow water buckets from houses /shopkeepers en route, to water the road in front of the chariot. Whereas during the recent Ratha Yatras there were water tankers with sprinklers to clean the road and many ladies from neighboring houses were standing along the route of the Ratha to conduct pooja by offering coconut, flowers, etc. (looking at all this brings tears to my eyes). The number of people participating in the parade was so huge that traffic had to be diverted and hundreds of policemen were on duty and it was a spectacular sight to see the Ratha lit with decorative lights as the evening wore on with folk dancers, different bands, musicians, sankirtan parties, etc., in the parade.

Now the temple staffers take precautionary measures like deploying a wheel protection team (who ensure that people don’t come in close proximity to the chariot wheels) and there is a public address system to communicate with the thousands of devotees to ensure smooth progress of the Ratha.

The Ratha that is used now is a blend of modern technology with traditional features. It has a number of state-of-the-art features. To name a few – air brakes, a steering wheel with good suspension which makes it easier to travel long distances by just replacing the wheels with tyres. The canopy of this chariot is another distinctive feature, which, with the help of a motor can be moved upwards or downwards, when branches of trees or overhead wires come in the way. The height of this Ratha is about 26 feet from the ground level when the canopy is fully lifted. The Ratha has 110 feet long sturdy ropes on both sides of it (one for men and the other for women) making it possible for about 500 persons to pull it at a time.

During last year’s (2018) Ratha Yatra what was very impressing to me was the distribution of the hot and tasty prasadam in donnas (leaf cups). Volunteers could be seen distributing it to almost every pedestrian, people waiting at the bus stops, motorists, including bus drivers, conductors and also to passengers who put their hands out of the bus windows. The volunteers could be seen weaving in and out of the traffic while they smilingly doled out prasadam to residents on the road who had lined up with their own containers.

The Ratha Yatra lasted for over three hours covering a distance of nearly six kilometres. The celebrations were also webcast live on the Iskcon Bangalore website, not to mention the coverage in local TV channels.

Ratha Yatra will also be celebrated in Hubballi, Dharwad and Mangaluru. Yes, the same Ratha that is used in Bengaluru will travel to all these other places after the wheels are replaced with tyres. Interested devotees can book for pilgrimage trips organized by ISKCON Bangalore and participate in all these Ratha Yatras.

ISKCON Bangalore Ratha Yatra ki Jai! Srila Prabhupada ki Jai!!