The annual Festival of the Chariots march will follow in Lord Krishna’s footsteps, accompanied by a daylong arts-and-food-filled celebration
By Michael Aushenker
Call it a “Namaste mainstay” – the color and the majesty of the Westside’s re-enactment of Lord Krishna’s epic journey to birthplace Vrindavan, returns to Santa Monica and Venice with the 37th annual Festival of the Chariots.
“We’re alive and well!” reported a sanguine Svavasa Das, president of the West Los Angeles branch of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The local Hare Krishna procession will trek from Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to Windward Plaza in Venice (where Windward Avenue meets the Boardwalk) Sunday, Aug. 4, beginning at 10 a.m.
Annually each August, three towering 40-foot steel chariots, pulled by revelers wearing their traditional saris and dhotis, come barreling down Main Street to the fanfare of thousands, in a re-enactment of the ancient traditional procession attended by millions of pilgrims in Odisha (formerly Orissa), known as “the soul of India.” The Festival of the Chariots derives its theme from the Vedas, ancient Indian scriptures recounting the story of Krishna, who, as a king, visited his cowherd village birthplace. His grand chariot was pulled by old friends he re-encountered to his native rural village of Vrindavan.
“He’s living as a king in a city called Dvarka,” Das explained. “He wanted to go back to his birthplace.”
In Venice, devotees will partake in the bhakti-yoga, a personal devotion for the Supreme Lord Krishna, a.k.a. “the Lord of the Universe,” a.k.a. Jagannatha.
While a few years shy of rounding its fourth decade on the Westside, “this has been going on for hundreds of years” in India, Das noted of the celebration.
Das, who grew up Catholic in Chicago, eventually hit a wall with his birth religion. He first attended the Krishna festival in Denver in 1973. Das took the vows eschewing eating meat, gambling and alcohol. Twenty-seven years ago, he became president of the West L.A. temple, based at 3764 Watseka Ave.
“We’ve been here since 1969,” Das said of his 2,000-plus congregation, adding how on Sundays, the center welcomes all people to its weekly open house from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. for food and inspiration.
Das called Festival of the Chariots “one of the larger religious activities in that area, if not West L.A. This is our biggest (annual) event.” He estimates “more than 30,000 people that come” to celebrate the parade and festival each year.
In fact, there are 50 such celebrations nationwide in the U.S., including in North Carolina, where the American Hare Krishna movement is based. There are also celebrations in every major Canadian city. Worldwide, millions celebrate Lord Krishna’s ancient journey.
“It also gives us an opportunity to bring the Lord Krishna for the public to see,” Das said. “We turn it into a big festival.” Fun for the entire family, Das continued, “it’s very cultural, a snapshot of Indian culture and an idea behind the science of Krishna consciousness and to taste it in the form of our (vegan) food.”
Das promised that those who keep an open mind will be culturally, even spiritually, rewarded. He is highly aware that the Hare Krishnas have been the butt of bad airport jokes from the 1980 spoof “Airplane!” to myriad comedians dotting the late-night TV talk show terminals.
“People just see guys with shaved heads and some robes on, handing out pamphlets,” Das said. “There’s more to us than that. The misconception is that we’re just out there distributing books.” For instance, the temple’s Food for Life program assists those in need.
Visitors can expect music and dance on three different stages (including performances of the Bharat-natyam dance in costume), as well as food kiosks, informational booths promoting meditation and art, a children’s activities tent, and complimentary vittles for visitors.
In addition to the annual festival, the temple will celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna on Aug. 28, from 6 p.m. to midnight with a program including food, dance, chanting and cultural presentations.
The Festival of the Chariots takes place Aug. 4 beginning at 10 a.m. at the Santa Monica Civic Center, with activities at Windward Plaza in Venice running from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Information, festivalofchariots.com, lalive.us.