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FESTIVAL OF CHARIOTS (article first published : 2008-03-10)

Durban's Ratha-yatra (Festival of Chariots) is reputed as being the biggest festival of its kind outside of India. This year, 2008, it will have much more to offer in celebration of its 20th anniversary on Durban's beachfront.

The event which originally began as a two-day event over a Christmas weekend grew so rapidly and drew such large crowds that over the years it now spans four days and has had to be moved to Easter weekend to accommodate its large number of visitors. The free cultural festival, hosted by the Hare Krishna movement, boasts a variety of activities and fun for the whole family whilst simultaneously serving a deep spiritual purpose.

The festival expects to attract over 250,000 visitors this year and each guest will be treated to a sumptuous free vegetarian meal. On March 21 at 15h00, there will be a special street parade of chanting and dancing devotees celebrating Gaura Purnima, the appearance anniversary of Lord Caitanya (an incarnation of Lord Krishna who led India's first revolution against religious intolerance). This coincides with the Human Rights theme for the day. The street parade will then be followed by a special abhisheka (auspicious bathing ceremony) of a life-size deity of Lord Caitanya and a havan (fire sacrifice). The havan is intended to be an inter-faith gathering, with leaders of various religious organisations participating in it.

The event has an added auspicious nature this year with the Vedic calendar listing Gaura Purnima and Holi as celebrations to be observed on March 21. Therefore, later that evening, there will literally be splashes of colour all over the festival grounds as the famous Holi festival is played out. Revellers are warned not to come in their Sunday best! There will also be the burning of the effigy of Holika, the demoness who was vanquished by fire as she attempted to kill Prahlad Maharaja, a devotee of Lord Krishna. A spectacular aerial fireworks display will end the night's festivities.

On March 22 at 10h00, three 15 metre-high chariots festooned with thousands of flower and fruit garlands, bearing deities of Lord Jagannath, Lady Subhadra and Lord Baladeva will be hauled from the steps of the City Hall on West Street by jubilant devotees as they tug at the ropes. The parade will weave its way to the Marine Parade and come to rest at the festival grounds at the Pavilion site on the North Beach (former Military Museum).

On March 23 at 15h00, for the first time a Go-puja (worship of the cow) and an "Aniyor" festival will be held on the beachfront. Devotees will build a replica of Govardhan Hill (located in Northern India and famous for having been lifted by Lord Krishna like an umbrella to provide shelter to his devotees from torrential rain). The "hill" will be built from tons of semolina pudding with handmade chocolates, biscuits and sweetmeats being shaped to replicate the rocks, trees and other features of the hill.

A Govardhan sila (auspicious rock from Govardhan Hill brought from India and worshipped by devotees) will be placed on top of the hill whilst devotees circle continuously offer prayers and gifts in the form of vegetarian foods, sweetmeats, ghee and milk products to Govardhan. There will also be a unique Vedic wedding ceremony when devotees of the Hare Krishna movement exchange marriage vows.

Due to popular demand, the organisers have decided to hold a second chariot parade which will take place on March 24 at 16h00, starting from the festival grounds and ending at the Bay of Plenty on the Lower Marine Parade.

Non-stop cultural entertainment will be offered on all four days of the festival. Some of the highlights of this year’s starstudded cast are a group of devotees from Estonia who will perform dance dramas based on Vedic scripture. The Silk Road Bhajan band from Kazakhstan will also be in attendance as will various local performers such as Kumari Ambigay, Sanjeet Teeluck and Manesh Maharaj.

His Holiness Bhakti Marg Swami from Canada will once again arrive in South Africa especially to produce and direct dramas for the event. Over the years his special style of presentation, exquisite costumes, sound effects, dialogues, action scenes and movement pieces have gained immense amongst the festival attendees. The cultural entertainment stage promises to be a feast of song, dance and drama.

Visitors will also be spoilt for choice as they browse around more than 30 tents which will be home to clothing bazaars, an art & craft fair, spiritual literature, restaurants, video shows, traditional religious music, Vedic make-up, etc. Of special interest will be the on-site temple where the deities will reside for the festival and the public is welcome to perform worship. The cooking demonstration tent will play host to popular newspaper columnist Asha Maharaj who will demonstrate the finer aspects of sweetmeat making and vegetarian cooking. Alan Worhnitz, a nutritional researcher will also be present presenting talks on very relevant and informative topics such as "Nutrition and the heart", "Ensuring maximum energy levels for optimised attention and studying."

The cow protection arena will enlighten visitors about the value of taking care of the cow which is regarded as a mother and worshipped by devotees of Lord Krishna. International leaders of the Hare Krishna movement are scheduled to present talks and answer questions in the "Question and Answer" booths. There will be spectacular aerial fireworks displays on Friday and Sunday evening.

Further information from Champakalata dasi on 082 824 2203 or email: champakalata@telkomsa.net




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