Ratha Yatra's Appearance in the West

BY: SUN STAFF - 3.6 2019

By the mercy of the Lord's pure devotee, the West was first benedicted by the appearance of Ratha Yatra in San Francisco, in 1967. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada organized his followers to arrange for a chariot that would deliver Their Lordships Jagannath, Baladev and Subhadra out onto the streets of San Francisco. Westerners got their first glimpse of these divine personalities by Srila Prabhupada's direct mercy. Since that time, Ratha Yatras have manifested in cities, towns and villages around the world, continuing what is perhaps the oldest continuously celebrated festival on the planet.

In 1967, Srila Prabhupada took great pleasure in a story that ran in the local San Francisco newspaper, "S.F. Paraders Hail Hindu God Krishna". After reading the article he praised the devotees, especially Syamasundara and Jayananda prabhus, for constructing the beautiful 2 1/2-ton cart for this first festival procession. Afterwards, Srila Prabhupada named the ISKCON San Francisco Temple "New Jagannatha Puri" in honor of the great event.

On July 11, 1967, Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter to Brahmananda dasa from his accommodations at 'Bodes Paradisio', Alameda Patio, Stinson Beach, California:

"Anyway, the devotees are coming here, and the Rathayatra Festival was performed with great pomp. More than 500 people followed the procession to the beach, and there were about two dozen cars. They distributed thousands of chapaties, and at last Shri Jagannatha, Subhadra, and Baladev kindly came here in our house and will stay here for one week and then return."

1st San Francisco Ratha Yatra Poster, 1967

The first Ratha Yatra festival poster was designed by Haridas prabhu. It pictured an enormous wooden chariot from India with a brilliant, red-haloed Lord Jagannath in the center above a red "Hare Krishna" icon. Announcing the festival in charming child-like letters and drawings, the poster read as follows:

"The Rathayatra Festival of India, a sacred celebration in worship of the Supreme Lord, Krishna, will be enacted Sunday, July 9, for the first time in the western world. People and cars meet at 1 p.m. at corner of Haight and Lyon to form a processional to the sea. There will be 8 days of festivities, chanting, dancing and feasting on ocean beach. All are welcome to this joyous event!"

Each year after this first Ratha festival in 1967, the residents of San Francisco and others from many miles around were blessed by the appearance of the Ratha Yatra procession. Srila Prabhupada explains how great this benediction is in chapter 9 of Nectar of Devotion:

"In the Brahmanda Purana it is said: "A person who sees the Lord's Ratha-yatra car festival and then stands up to receive the Lord can purge all kinds of sinful results from his body. 'A similar statement is there in the Bhavisya Purana, in which it is said: 'A person who follows the Ratha-yatra car when the Rathas (Deities) pass in front or from behind, even if born of a lowly family, will surely be elevated to the position of achieving equal opulence with Visnu."

2nd San Francisco Ratha Yatra Poster, 1968

In 1968, a similar festival poster was created for the San Francisco Ratha Yatra. Measuring 22.5" x 17.5, the poster was framed with bold stylized letters, but maintained the child-like sketches of bird and cloud. It offered the following message:

Second Annual Parade of the Holy Rathayatra Festival at Noon, Sunday, June 30, 1968 - This sacred celebration of Jagannath Puri will convene for the second time in this country on the corner of Haight and Lyon, 12 o'clock noon, Sunday, June 30, and proceed down the John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, to the sea. On this day, the Jagannath deities are placed on a sacred car and pulled in a gigantic processional to the sea. Festivities include feasting, chanting, dancing and fireworks. COME one and all for a day of joy and ecstasy.

1968 Festival Procession, Haight Ashbury

By 1969, the poster design for San Fran's Ratha Yatra had changed dramatically. Moving to a brilliant day-glo look, the '69 poster measured 28" by 11", and read:

San Francisco's Parade of Joyous ecstasy through Golden Gate Park to the Sea
Starts Noon At Haight And Ashbury

3rd San Francisco Ratha Yatra Poster, 1969

Today, nearly forty years after the Ratha Yatra's first appearance in the West, the festival is woven into the fabric of society. The Lord's chariot even appeared in the National Independence Day Parade down Washington D.C.'s Constitution Avenue. Surrounded by marching bands and patriotic floats, Their Lordships gave darshan to throngs of Americans. By the mercy of our Sampradaya Acarya, Srila Prabhupada, millions and millions of people each year have an opportunity to get Lord Jagannath's direct blessings at Ratha Yatra festivals around the world.