Monday, January 09, 2006

Hindu Festival of Chariots

Hindu Festival of ChariotsWhen the holy Indian city of Puri hosts the annual Rath Yatra, or Festival of Chariots, more than a million people come to celebrate.

The large crowds add to the jubilant atmosphere, but the throngs of devotees mean most don't get to ride the floats or pull the revered chariot, which are the centerpieces of the festival.

On Sunday, the chariot festival came to the Bay area for the first time, giving many local Hindus their first opportunity to participate in the event.

Rath Yatra celebrates the family of Krishna and the journey of Krishna from the forests to the hearts of the people. The highlight of the celebration is the procession of the chariot, which is pulled through the streets by devotees.

Along with a chariot, Tampa's festival included three floats representing the spiritual aspects of Hinduism. The crowd, which organizers put at about 1,500 people, made offerings of fruit, flowers and incense before the procession began, while children danced and sang in front of the chariot.

The procession began at Curtis Hixon Park, along the Hillsborough River, and weaved through downtown and the University of Tampa campus before completing its 2-mile route.

One of the floats carried 15 dancers from Geeta Raaj's Nritya Academy of Dance, who performed traditional Indian dances that emphasized spirituality. Raaj praised the local Hindu community's commitment to hosting a local festival, which gave her students an opportunity to participate in something they had only heard of from their parents and grandparents.

"For us, it's a golden opportunity to have the chance to pull a chariot," Raaj said. "Very few get to pull it. Here, we are very few and very blessed."

After the procession, the crowd gathered back at the park for cultural programs that included music, food and displays on Hindu beliefs such as reincarnation and the value of a vegetarian diet.

Hindus aspire to make the pilgrimage to Puri for Rath Yatra at least once in their life. Similar festivals are held throughout the world, including in many U.S. cities. Bringing the festival to Tampa was important, organizer Bhadra Das said, because it helps keep Hindu traditions alive locally.

"The younger Indian generation can see that this is their tradition and they can continue it," he said.

However, Raaj said it is equally important to recognize that the local Hindu community comprises not only Indians, but also other Asians, Europeans and converts from other religions. Events such as Rath Yatra give the diverse community an opportunity to come together, he said.

"This is for everyone because the Lord is one and the Lord is for everyone."

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