What is the Festival of the Chariots?

The Festival of the Chariots, also known as Ratha-yatra, or “cart-festival”, originates from an ancient tradition in India. It commemorates a joyous celebration of life and glorification of God.  The ancient annual Ratha-yatra parade in Jagannatha Puri, India, attracts one million people every year.

   The tradition was brought to the West in 1967 by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.  Today it is celebrated in most major cities of the world, including London, Moscow, Toronto, Johannesburg, Delhi and New York.

     The local Los Angeles version attracts approximately 40,000 parade and festival participants. Every year on the first Sunday morning of August onlookers are surprised by the procession of three glittering red, blue and gold, ancient style, east-Indian chariots traveling slowly through Santa Monica and Venice. The chariots do not move by motor. They are hand pulled by the spectators.

The parade has its basis in a famous story from the scriptures of India: God, playing the role of a rich, powerful king, ventures on His chariot with a secret notion to return to the place of His sweet memories, where He lived as a child growing up in a rural cowherd village. On the way He pauses to rest his horses and some old former village friends discover Him. They pick up the ropes that yoke the horses to His grand chariot and affectionately force Him to return with them to His old home.   

  The Los Angeles chariot festival is a reenactment of this affectionate relocation of a king. Participants sing and dance and lovingly pull Jagannatha from the status of the reverential God into the intimate confines of their hearts. This is bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to Krishna. Rendering any service in the parade, even just the act of pulling the chariot ropes, is beyond even good karma. According to the ancient scriptures of India, it is the very means of transcendence and awards one liberation from samsara, the cycle of repeated birth and death.

*Jagannatha is one of Krishna’s many names in the monotheistic Krishna sect.