Occasionally London surprises you and you discover a fairly long running and sizeable custom such is the remarkable Hare Krisna Rathayatra custom which fills the streets of London with incredible sounds and sights in what could be described as London’s most vibrant religious customs.
The custom begun when eight devotees and their congregation organised the first procession from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in 1969. Devotee Shyamasundar Dasa constructed the first chariot for Lord Jagannath making the deities of Jagannath Beladeva and Subhadra ‘so beautiful that everyone will be attracted to them’ as Indian Guru Srila Prabhupada instructed, and these are the deities which still process today. 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”
In those first headlines in national papers read “Krishna Chant Startles London”. In those early years the congregation was small around 30 but their presence was increasing particularly when in 1970 a new 50 foot chariot was built and Hare Krishna devotees overtook Leicester square with huge flashing billboards announcing “Holy Jagannath Car Procession”. The Godhead magazine, the magazine of the Hare Krisna movement, stated
“The second annual London Rathayatra festival happened just like that. Two years before, when six disciples of the Hare Krsna Movement first invaded British soil, the newspapers declared: “KRSNA CHANT STARTLES LONDON.” Londoners still haven’t recovered from that initial shock of transcendental sound vibration. The Radha-Krsna Temple (London) hasn’t let them. The devotees there (now numbering near thirty) have continued to bombard England with Hare Krsna on records on television and radio, in the movies, in newspapers and magazines, and daily the sankirtana party of saffron-clad chanters dance their way down Oxford Street.”
In 1973 the Rathayatra was attended by His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada Founder Acharya of ISKCON. It was reported that:
“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.”
A future leader of the Hare Krishna movement Maha Vishnu Swami organised the event and donated £10,000 pounds to publicise it. The next day Guardian newspaper read “ISKCON Rathayatha is rival to Nelson’s column” and the Srila Prabhupada stated that:
“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.”
By 1985 the Rathayatra now proceeded from Marble Arch to Battersea Park, allowing for a larger festival at the end of the procession and here for a number of years a big festival was established in the park. In 1996 the procession had swelled to around 8000 members and by 1999 it had returned to its original route combined with the fact that Trafalgar square was traffic free and it was attended by 10 Sannyasis, the movement’s senior leaders and was filmed for an international TV series Abhay Charan.
By 2004, two more chariots were built and thus the procession consisted of three chariots and in 2008 the oldest chariot was rebuilt utilising the skills of the Queen’s wheelwright to construct the huge wooden wheels in the traditional style with the rest of the work such as the painting done by volunteers. In 2018, the custom celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Hare along to see
I stopped outside the Ritz as a wave of Hare Krishna devotees flowed down from Marble Arch. First one noticed the sound of chanting ‘Hare Krisna’ and a blur of distinctive orange as large numbers of people danced in and out of the crowd. As they got closer one could see that the procession was not only made up of joyous dancers but consisted of portable shrines, individuals dressed as deities and of course the enormous chariot which soon loomed into view and filled the sky.
The chariot is a remarkable construction, although initially disappointed that there was only one as I was under the impression there would be three. A huge wooden construction covered in maroon, yellow and blue proclaiming Hare Krishna, covered in garlands upon which sat a smiling figure of the late spiritual leader Srila Prabhupada; there in spirit if not sadly in body. The canvas top of the
Soon the massed procession passed by Eros and the intrusive neon commerciality of Piccadilly Circus which in a way was a curious juxtaposition; but that is London after all. After around an hour the whole procession and the cart arrived in Trafalgar Square where the celebration continued. There was more dancing, weaving in and out and chanting. However, the most remarkable site became the queue for the free food; a common feature of the Hare Krishna movement.
All in all, the procession was a remarkable visual and auditory experience. One of the great customs of the capital and one which clearly drew many people from different backgrounds together to celebrate life and devotion. Long may it continue.