Written by Rukmini dd
It was dull, with almost a drizzle on Ratha Yatra morning (20 September), as the devotees who worked though most of the night put the finishing touches onto Lord Jagannatha’s cart. The neigbourhood kids gathered and spontaneously chipped in – diminishing lifetimes of karma with each untangled paper flower. Devotees live from festival to festival. As familiar faces were greeted with warm smiles, the energy intensified and within moments, the fire of kirtan was stoked. The very first sparks brought sunshine streaming out of the clouds in a burst of festive expectation. Kadamba Kanana Swami took the lead in straight fifth gear. Ropes in hand, Soweto was ready for a party.
The South African calendar is ablaze with Ratha Yatra festivals; from the famous Durban four-day celebration over Easter to the sweet Cape parade during the Christmas season, and host of others in Gauteng and in-between. Yet this Soweto Heritage Festival is especially significant. Just as the world knows Nelson Mandela, the world also knows Soweto. It is a global stage and the Ratha Yatra turns all eyes on us. Heritage day (24 September, a public holiday just a few days later in South Africa) is a celebration of culture and the Ratha Yatra sets the tone perfectly.
Soweto Ratha Yatra is also Maharaj’s brainchild. He had heard of how the Sowetan devotees had played a video of a Durban Ratha Yatra kirtan and danced all night in front of the television screen. “I don’t cry tears when hearing about the rasalila,” Maharaj once mentioned at a Sunday love feast, “but when I hear about those devotees in Soweto…” Touched by that, Maharaj made every sacrifice to give them a Ratha Yatra. He personally nursed the maiden festival in 2007 through its infancy and dealt with all the teething problems. Now he inspires devotees to take on the service and give it their best. Eight years later, the festival gains strength and momentum and the Sowetan devotees are making it their own.
And the people of Soweto pour out onto the street, taking in the colourful celebrations with awe and joy (and sometimes confusion!). It is visually noticeable that there are more locals in full devotee garb that ever before. Maharaj keeps the pace of the kirtan lively so that no feet stays grounded for long. Very soon he calls out for Mahaprabhu Das, a Sowetan pioneer, to lead the kirtan. Mahaprabhu’s steady but powerful, all-time favourite melody rings out across his hometown. Brahmachari’s leap in the air and gopi skirts swirl in full colour, all to the beat of the djembe. Sweets rain down from the chariot and local children pile over each other in attempt to capture the maha-prasad.
We reached the festival grounds. It was an impressive improvement – colourful stretch tents for the kids, a dining area, a small Govinda’s take away and a main stage with cultural acts. In the Q&A, Maharaj spoke about the concept of karma, breaking it down to the basics. After a short energy packed kirtan in front of Lord Jagannatha, Maharaj headed-off to the main stage for the final kirtan. The heavens poured, forcing everyone to take shelter of the tent and of the holy name. Once inside, it was kirtan crazy! More than a dozen devotees were on stage with Maharaj, sharing the microphone. A spontaneous symphony with funk and style in true Soweto fashion ensued with jaw hanging bystanders on the sidelines.
The Krsna conscious pulse of Soweto beats fast and hard, with good omens for the future.
Visit Flickr to see all the full slide-show.
Photo credits: Ragalekha, Naimisaranya, Radha Jivan, Bhakta Nimai (Germany) and Jnana-samudra.