The largest event of its kind outside India, the Festival of Chariots fuses ancient ritual and SoCal flair
By Beige Luciano-Adams
The Festival of Chariots — a two-mile parade of colorful three-story carts pulled by rope from the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to a community feast on Venice Beach — steps off once again on Sunday, marking the 40th year of this iconic stitch in the Westside’s cultural fabric.
As much a devotional procession as it is a tourist attraction, the Hare Krishna temple in Culver City’s annual celebration includes a daylong program of free food, musical performances and cultural activities that typically draws more than 20,000 people.
Festival organizers say the Rath-yatra (“cart journey”) festival dates back 5,000 years to when Lord Krishna — the Hindu deity often depicted as a cerulean cherub — made a religious pilgrimage from his seaside kingdom to Jagganatha Puri, where the annual Rath-yatra now draws more than a million people.
Temple president Svavasa Das, who has overseen the event in Los Angeles for 30 years, described a network of consecutive festivals throughout the U.S. connected by a caravan of devotees who truck the collapsible chariots from city to city.
“Ours is the largest in the West,” he says, meaning outside India. “Around the world everyone knows about this one. People come from all over.”
Here the festival plays to its mixed audience with a mélange of ancient ritual and contemporary festival atmosphere, with chanting, yoga and cultural music and dance blending with children’s activities and vendor booths during the free feast.
The continuation of a centuries-old Hindu sect, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was founded in the U.S. in 1966. Today the organization includes hundreds of centers and affiliated vegetarian restaurants — like Govinda’s Natural Foods, the one attached to the temple in Culver City.
To celebrate its silver anniversary, ISKCON is extending the festival this year, starting Thursday with chanting and seminars at the temple, which organizers expect will draw thousands of participants.
The vast majority of attendees expected on Sunday, however, are not affiliated with the Hare Krishna movement but people who come for the spectacle — entertainment, food and perhaps also benediction.
“It’s also an opportunity for people to see the deity. Anybody who sees the deity of Lord Krishna or the cart festival is blessed. And if they participate by carrying or pulling the rope — because this is all manpower, we pull the carts
with rope — they also are benedicted,” Das says.
Priests ride atop balconies perched around the 30-foot-high carriages, chanting and tending to the deities.
This year, a 16-piece band of U.S. military veterans will accompany chanting as the parade proceeds down Main Street, Rose Avenue and Ocean Front Walk on its way to the feast at Windward Avenue.
“There are so many people. When we get down on that boardwalk area, it’s phenomenal that we can even move forward. It’s a crunch. A crunch of humanity,” Days says.
The larger of two stages on the boardwalk feasting ground features performances by renowned classical Indian dancers, ritual chanting, Indian music and, Das says, “a bit of rock ’n’ roll.”
Funded by ISKCON’s congregation, the festival has gradually increased over the years, says Das, but remains volunteer-run and free of commercial interference.
“It’s a big budget. It’s a bit of a strain on us. It’s worth it though. We’re doing it out of devotion,” he says. “We also do it because we want people to see what the Hare Krishna movement is about.”
You may have noticed the change: Gone are the fervent, saffron-robed monks at LAX. Along with an evident rebranding, ISKCON now takes a more subtle approach to outreach, orthodoxy having given way to a more relaxed and inclusive approach to membership.
“Yes, we’ve changed, but it was just a natural march, I think, to a natural, cultural society. It was always meant to be that way,” Das says.
“Obviously we can’t have everyone living on this block,” he adds, referring to the area around the temple, where ISKCON owns several apartment buildings that house devotees.
“So we want to introduce it to their life. You know, just ‘Try this. Just integrate it within your own lifestyle.’ We’re trying to give people an opportunity to see what the Krishna devotees are doing, and maybe take some aspect of that and add it to their life,” Das says. “Lots of people are stressed out, always anxious about their future, and we want to help. And we feel we can help by giving them some kind of substance” — which, he notes, includes chanting and a vegetarian diet.
The Festival of Chariots steps off at 10 a.m. from the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (Main Street and Pico Boulevard), arriving by noon at the Venice Boardwalk near Windward Avenue. Call (310) 836-2676 or visit festivalofchariots.com for more information, including a detailed event schedule.