Lord JagannathFestival of Chariots


Prior to 1980, outside of India, little was known of Ratha-yatra (Festival of Chariots).  Then with the introduction of the Krishna consciousness movement in the West by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came the practices, traditions and festivals that are so intrinsically associated with devotional service and worship of Lord Krishna.  The supremacy and various forms of Krishna were made known for the whole world to behold and the centuries old festival of chariots became a familiar sight throughout major cities all over the world.

Likewise when Srila Prabhupada visited Durban, South Africa in 1975 he expressed two desires for this city viz. that the ancient Festival of Chariots take place on Durban’s Beachfront and that a beautiful temple be built in the heart of Chatsworth.

Thirty years on, both these desires have been realized local.  On Sunday, 9th December 1980 the fast expanding nama hatta circle of congregation devotees were filled with excitement as the Ratha-yatra festival was to make its debut in Tongaat on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.  Busses ferried devotees from over 30 nama hattas to the starting point at Outspan gounds in Tongaat.   Two chariots draped with thousands of marigold garlands (one carrying Lord Jagannath and the other Their Lordships Baladeva and Subhadra) were tugged along by the jubilant devotees down the main road through the centre of Tongaat leading to the Buffelsdale stadium.  Despite the heavy downpour of rain, drenched and dried, devotees enthusiastically chanted, danced and drew the two chariots.  At the stadium, a crowd of over 10 000 onlookers had gathered to participate in the festivities which included a spiritual discourse, baratha natyam dances and a drama mimed to a pre-recorded script in Los Angeles, USA.  After a tumultuous kirtan, the festival concluded with the distribution of prasadam which had been prepared by the Tongaat nama hatta devotees.

Inspired by the success of the Tongaat Ratha-yatra and given the fact that the temple site for Chatsworth was already secured, devotees then embarked on a Ratha-yatra festival in Chatsworth with three chariots that towered above the tallest buildings in Chatsworth.  The parade which was led by ISKCON’s international leaders departed from the temple site and flowed through the streets of Unit 3 until it reached the Unit 3B Soccer Stadium where the festivities continued.  Banners and flags boasting the participation of the dozens of nama hattas were the order of the day.

For a few years thereafter the Ratha-yatra festival faded into the shadows of ISKCON’s list of priorities, topmost of which, was the construction of the magnificent Sri Sri Radha Radhanath Temple of Understanding, which was completed in 1985.

In 1988 with an American born Swami (Indradyumna Swami) at the helm of ISKCON’s management in Chatsworth, Ratha-yatra made a resounding comeback.  This time the festival committee carefully chartered out a plan to ensure that the festival drew both local and tourist attention as well as that it would entrench itself as a major city event that would draw the support of local government, business sector and community so that it would be embraced as an annual event. 
The festival drew much media attention and accordingly the public attendance at the two day festival that was staged at the amphitheatre on Durban’s North Beach over the peak Christmas period was overwhelming.  Visitors were in awe at the sight of the 10 metre long, 5metre wide flower bedecked chariot with a 15 metre high multicoloured canopy dome(which was hydraulically propelled), and artistically painted peacocks that graced the four gigantic wheels which were attached to a chassis that

The festival committee’s attention to detail coupled with the commissioning of the best in local and international cultural performers to provide top class entertainment at the festival as well as the free breyani meals that were distributed became the magic success formula for the ensuing years’ festivals.   

Over the years the festival has expanded from a two day festival to a four day festival.  Also, due to the large support that the festival has gained (almost 200 000 people attend) it has been compelled over the years to move from the Amphitheatre site to the lawns of the Bay of Plenty and then to much larger grounds (the former Military Museum site).  Now, alongside the 3000 seater marquee which is the venue for cultural performers, are dozens of other tents housing gift shops, restaurants, make-shift temple, book stalls, multi-media exhibitions, cow-protection arena, meditation demonstrations, and a host of other activities.

Various heads of State, government ministers, consular and city mayors and officials, including Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, State President Thabo Mbeki, Dr Mongosothu Buthulezi and Amichand Rajbansi have graced the festival with their presence and support. 

The initial cost of hosting the festival has likewise grown from the original R20 000,00 to an astronomical R1,5 million.  Each year the committee which comprises of stalwart devotees (Balaram dasa, Champakalata dasi, Umesh Prakash and Upendra Ramlakan) supported by hundreds of devotees from the congregation endeavour to take the festival to greater heights by inviting international spiritual leaders of the Society, commissioning internationally renowned musicians, rolling out more exciting activities and booths… In the past 20 years the festival has played hosts to international artistes such as the Bhaktivedanta Players from London, Gauranga Powered Band from Scotland, musicians from Poland, the Silk Road Bhajan Band from Kazakhstan, Little Go-Kool from Nairobi, Deva Deva performers from Estonia, martial arts and Hatha yoga experts from Eastern Europe, Dr Vinod Hasal from India and locally famous artistes such as Kumari Ambigay, the Nateshwar dancers, Mercy Pakela, Yogan Khandoo, Jay Pather, Suryalanga dancers and Amajika Youth. 

By the vision and mercy of Srila Prabhupada and the dedication of his disciples and grand-disciples, Ratha-yatra has become a reality in South Africa and has drawn thousands of  people, wellwishers and the curious alike, to have darshan of the beautiful beaming smiles of the Lord of the Universe and start their journey back to the spiritual world, where every word is a song, every step is a dance and there is a festival every day – just like our Ratha-yatra festival!

Durban, North Beach: April 10-13
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What is the Festival
of Chariots


History of Ratha Yatra in KwaZulu Natal




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