Niles, Michigan Ratha-yatra 2003
Posted October 27, 2003
Four years ago, Prema Bhakti das and his wife Tapati dasi entered the Annual Niles Apple Festival Parade as a two-person Ratha Yatra, chanting the Lord's Holy Names. Last year, four others joined them.
On Saturday, September 27, 2003, the devotee count had grown to 32, preceding a Jaladuta float built over a 1977 Ford LTD station wagon. Murari Caitanya das brought Chicago's murti of Srila Prabhupada to sit in the place of honor of the float. Behind him were both Murari Caitanya's and Prema Bhakti's Jagannath Deities.
The devotee float was #89 of over 100. The parade ran about two miles through downtown Niles and a residential street, all lined with spectators. "I would say that there were at least a thousand spectators along the route," said Prema Bhakti..
In the parade I saw emergency vehicles, high school marching bands, a formation of antique John Deere tractors, an eight foot ghoul walking next to a hearse, and a modern tractor loaded with the area's prize crop and title of the festival: Apples. Some clownishly dressed ladies pushed shopping carts filled with junk and called themselves, "the bag ladies," and of course there were the obligatory various kings and queens of the festival.
This year's parade theme was "Celebrate Our Heroes." "Our hero is Srila Prabhupada, of course," says Prema Bhakti. "Srila Prabhupada arrived in Boston on September 17th, 1965, which is also the anniversary of his taking sannyasa. I was reading about those events in Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta Volume 1, A Lifetime in Preparation, and the date I was reading was, somewhat amazingly, September 17th. Since the parade date was just ten days later, I thought that was somewhat auspicious. So to commemorate these grand events, this year we built our float as the Jaladuta."
When I finally arrived at the Jaladuta cum Ratha Yatra Cart, one half-hour after the parade's scheduled start time, but still, thankfully, a half hour before we started to march Ð floats near the end of a parade must wait a while Ð the first devotee I recognized was Bhakta Andy Bowman, whom I'd met way back in Spring 1988 when Rohininandana Prabhu and Romapada Swami had given home programs at the homes of some Grand Rapids, MI congregational devotees. Andy once lived in New Vrindaban, and now he's one of the most enthusiastic and steady members of Prema Bhakti's growing Hare Krishna Center of Michiana. (http://home.cyberlink.com/childshelter)
I'd seen Andy maybe once since 1988, talked to him by phone sometime in the late 1990's, so it was great to see him at this event.
Bhakta George drove the Jaladuta's Ford while wearing a Baladev t-shirt, something I'd never seen before. Jagannath seems to be the t-shirt mode. But I'd like to get a Baladev shirt. George told me his brother Navadwip das, from Hawaii's Big Island, brought it from the Hilo Rathayatra. Also from that South Bend, IN, family was the third devotee brother, Michael, dubbed Mukti by his brothers. Mukti built the floats for the Hawaiian devotees for the Aloha Parade until 2001 when the 9/11 attacks cancelled the event.
When I first arrived, late because of the pre-parade street closings, two seemingly well-intentioned and dressed lady spectators misdirected me. "Number 89? That's already passed. Go that way," she pointed to the stream walking by. "I can catch them by walking this way?" I pointed. "You may have to run."
Oh well, at least it wasn't raining, despite predictions of rain all weekend for southwest Michigan, and it was cool, so I wouldn't overheat. After a few blocks, I came to the reviewing stand and thought I'd better ask for confirmation. The busy announcer told me that float #89 had definitely not yet passed this point. "Great!" I thought, I guess I haven't missed the devotees after all. Then I thought to check with two the ladies sitting next to the MC.
"Can you please tell me the name of float #89?"
"What is the name of your group?" she asks.
Not knowing how high a profile the devotees carry, I timidly reply, "Yoga Society? Krishna Yoga?"
She fingers down the list, and then turns a page. I was absolutely ecstatic to hear her mispronounce "Jaladuta" as "Yaladuta," and "Prabhupada" and "PraBOOpada."
"Thank you! They're this way? Back towards the start?"
Now that I definitely knew where I was going, it was faster walking. Why did those first ladies point me the wrong way? Did they think I said "Eight or Nine," instead of "Eighty-nine?" Oh well, these things happen.
I'm sure the spectators enjoyed the variety of the parade, but I bet no one sang and danced like us thirty-two brainwashed Hare Krishnas. Yes, brainwashed, as our brains Ð well, at least my brain Ð used to be filled with so much rubbish, that it needed a good cleansing, as Srila Prabhupada so wittingly observed. I saw so many people smile, wave, and even dance as we passed. Prema Bhakti: "I work for Amtrak and a few of my coworkers were happy to tell me that they saw us in the parade. Some other acquaintances and clients recognized me and called out to get my attention during the parade. I was happy to see them waiving at us."
A large part of our success was due to Kulashekar's presence. He'd arrived at noon from Detroit. He sang out strongly while playing mrdunga. Srivas from Ghana takes over, leading while playing cartels. They carry a tune and lead us to it! How is it that Srivas and wife Rucira Devi Dasi visit from West Africa to join a Rathayatra in a small town in rural southwestern Michigan? Because of Srila Prabhupada's merciful and visionary creation: The INTERNATIONAL Society for Krishna Consciousness.
Driving the three-plus hours from my home to Niles, I became disgusted with the tedium and wondered if this was the best use of my time and car. Listening to 1992 and 1994 Festival of India Rathayatra tapes on the way mostly dispelled my boredom. I was encouraged by Nirunjana Swami's potent Boston address, where he describes the hankering we can have to again see Lord Jagannath's chariot coming down the street. I remembered other Rathayatras I'd traveled to attend: Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, Gita Nagari, Washington, D.C. Of course my annual hometown Detroit parade, which I'd been privileged to attend twelve straight times, from 1987 through 2003, gave me hope that this trip would be worthwhile.
When we started walking and chanting, I knew that I'd done the right thing by coming. Every minute of that boring drive was worth it.
While taking photos, a girl watching from the edge of the street demands that I take her picture. "If you join us, I will!" I tell her. She and a younger friend immediately run amongst the chanters and I dutifully snap a photo.
Prema Bhakti: "It is by the natural compassion of our congregation of devotees that the nectar of the Holy Name and the glance of Lord Jagannatha get bestowed upon the fallen souls of the western countries. I myself have no power. If it were not for the devotees' encouragement, support and assistance, I would not be able to pull it off. I feel very inspired during these festivals, because at every event Lord Caitanya sends new souls to take part in our growing congregation. I know that Saturday's Rathayatra in Niles was a huge success because so many people got to see the devotees dancing in ecstasy in the streets. No one else is dancing in the street in complete happiness like the devotees of Lord Jagannatha! This is very inspiring. With the blessings of the assembled devotees we will have a Rathayatra in Niles every year!"
Prema Bhakti's 17-year-old son Nathan tells me, "The reaction is definitely more favorable this year, probably because there are so many of us. Last year I heard some criticism. But with this many of us . . ."
"Yes, there is strength in numbers," I agree, while inwardly acknowledging their vision, persistence, and bhakti in starting out despite small numbers.
I fondly remember that in 1990, 1991, and 1992 Apurva das and Kamalini devi dasi entered a medium sized-Rathayatra cart in Lansing's Independence Day Parade, held annually on July 4th. About 20 devotees, both from the Lansing congregation and Detroit temple, participated each year.
Bhaktin Ginene from Detroit points to the smoke rising from the Ford's engine. I walk closer to see and it smells like popcorn cooking. But the car leaks coolant so it is overheating, and we have to pull the ropes for a while. Bhakta Steve from Chicago, enjoying his first Ratha Yatra eagerly pushes on the rear bumper. PBd: "I've had the LTD for a few years and I think it was on its last voyage as the Jaladuta. It's doubtful that the engine will run another year, and the body is rusting out real bad. Michael and I may strip it down and just use the frame, suspension and tires for a non-motorized float in the next Rathayatra, whatever theme that may be."
I notice that the two rear doors are missing. "Yeah, we removed them for weight reduction," he smiles.
Despite the partly sunny skies, a few raindrops fall near the end. I look for a rainbow, and Rajeev from South Bend points it out, towards the airport. Small from our position, but pretty nevertheless.
Prema Bhakti engages me to help carry the Deities off the cart to the newer van carrying them back to his house. "They're heavy," he cautions. Navadwip adds, "If it seems like you're carrying the Lord of the Universe, it's because you really are."
We all manage to find a ride back to the riverfront park for prasadam. I expect one prep, maybe two, with water or pop, but know it will be good and satisfying. I am stunned to see two eight-foot tables filled with stainless steel trays of preps. I see rice; spaghetti with curd in tomato sauce; chickpeas in thick sauce; mung bean dhal, wet subji; pakoras; and puris. PBd: "Vishvakarma das, Chicago Temple's head cook, has prepared most of it. He cooked for one-hundred."
The feast is, of course, from the kitchen religion, and thus fantastic, literally not of this world. Bhakta Jesse made the mung dhal and an absolutely beyond first-class thick sweet rice. I tell him how good it is, but he looks at me dubiously as if he doesn't believe me. It was even better than I could ever describe.
An elderly local man somehow joins us and accepts a plate. "Is this offered to Jesus?" he asks a devotee. "It's definitely offered to The Supreme Lord," he is told. He seems to enjoy it. Later we ask him to take more. "You can give it your family, your dog, your cat, whoever," says a devotee. "I don't want to be a hog," he says, hesitant to overeat. "You know a hog will eat anything, don't you?" I ask. He agrees. "But this is very special food."
The devotees gather around the Jaladuta for a group photo. The elderly guest declines my invitation to join in. "I don't want to break the camera," he teases. I tell him that's too old a joke.
One of the reasons I love photography is that I see myself as a visual person. I like to look. That may be related to my pitta ayurvedic constitution. But there's something missing in the photos I took this day. Obviously it's sound, which Srila Prabhupada often stressed is a more important sense for God realization than is sight. He gives the example of sound being used to awaken a sleeping man instead of sight. So a sound motion picture may capture more of the bliss of a Rathayatra parade.
Prema Bhakti and Tapati came to Michigan in 1997. He says, "My ambition is to have many little Rathayatra's in the local parades in Michigan and Indiana. We need to have a reliable float that can be easily set up and pulled by a small number of devotees. There must be a thousand parades across the US every year. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were a Rathayatra cart in each one? By the grace of Srila Prabhupada, Lord Jagannatha and the assembled devotees, our event will keep growing and get better and better year by year."
-- Bob Roberts
20 Oct 2003
(Photos by Murari Caitanya dasa)