Youth Organizers Focus on Outreach at Toronto Ratha Yatra

By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News on 9 Jul 2010
With Ratha Yatra season in full swing and ISKCON devotees all over the world celebrating the ancient Chariot festival in honor of Jagannath, Lord of the Universe, this month will see one of the largest events in North America—Toronto Ratha Yatra.

Krishna YouthWith Ratha Yatra season in full swing and ISKCON devotees all over the world celebrating the ancient Chariot festival in honor of Jagannath, Lord of the Universe, this month will see one of the largest events in North America—Toronto Ratha Yatra.

The Canadian city always delivers, and this year it promises a host of special attractions—not least of which will be a four-day festival for the first time ever.
A two-day kirtan festival on July 15th and 16th, featuring back-to-back 12 hour kirtans sung by such artists as Madhava and Gopal Dasa of Vrindavana’s 24-Hour Kirtan, will build the spiritual energy in preparation for the following two-day Ratha Yatra.

“Unlike the internal focus of most kirtan festivals, this one will culminate in two hundred devotees bursting through the doors of the Toronto ISKCON temple—located right in the heart of the city—and chanting with the public during a grand finale in Yonge-Dundas Square, at the busiest intersection in Toronto,” says Ratha Yatra chairperson and second generation devotee Keshav Sharma.

The Harinam will also act as a final promotion for the Toronto Ratha Yatra Parade, which will start at 11am on Saturday July 17th and roll down Yonge Street.
Ratha Yatra is one of the few festivals that retains permission to be held on this busy thoroughfare, cited by the Guiness Book of World Records as the longest street in the world.

The parade kirtan is expected to be as well-attended as ever, with large groups of devotees visiting from Detroit, Houston, and across Canada. Meanwhile, Chandramauli Swami, Bhakti Marg Swami, Spanish guitarist Atmarama Dasa, and Akinchana Krishna of kirtan group As Kindred Spirits will lead the chanting.
“But the highlight of the parade is the kirtan that takes place when we stop under the famous “Toronto Tunnel,” a downtown highway overpass,” says Ratha Yatra marketing coordinator Mahasundari Madhavi Dasi. “I can only describe it as ‘spiritual chaos.’ The acoustics are phenomenal, and the rocking kirtan that ensues is absolutely blissful. Since we used it as the main thrust of our advertising campaign two years ago, people have been talking about it and preparing for months in advance!”

Kirtan will continue to be a major theme at the post-parade festival on Centre Island, located in Lake Ontario just offshore from the city center. When festival attendees step off the ferry that takes them to the island at 1:30pm, the first thing they’ll see will be a non-stop bhajan tent, featuring Madhava and Gopal, as well as kirtan singers from all over North America. First introduced two years ago, this has been one of the festival’s most successful tents, and is expected to draw not only devotees but also kirtan fans from the yoga community, and many of the 15 to 20,000 people that go to Centre Island every weekend for picnicking or parties.
The festival also features a prasadam tent, a spiritual South-Asian bazaar, a kids’ area with activities for children, a question and answers booth, and a Simple Living, High Thinking tent, which focuses on sharing Krishna consciousness in a digestible, more mainstream way.

The centerpiece of the event, however, will be an Arts and Culture Showcase on the mainstage running from 12:00pm until 9pm. Held in a huge 50’ x 90’ tent, the show will be able to seat 800 people.

“It’s a very polished presentation, featuring prominent Indian dance groups and other professional acts recognizable to the public,” says Keshav Sharma. “This is our ‘dangling carrot’ strategy—people come for the big names and then stay for the Krishna conscious festival.”

Performers include Menaka Thakkar, the first Bharat Natyam Dancer to be recognized on a national level by the Canadian Council for the Arts, and Joanna Das, an acclaimed Canadian-born classical Kathak dancer who will appear with live music by the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.

“The headlining slot, however, will be given to ISKCON Youth Ministry’s Krishna Culture Festival Tour, a group of fifty international youth presenting Vedic India through dance, music and drama,” says Keshav. “Although people don’t recognize the name, when they see that so many big artists are supporting them, they think, ‘They must be amazing.’ And, in fact, they are. People love this troupe of second generation devotees. When they performed two years ago, they received an enthusiastic endorsement from Menaka Thakkar, and a standing ovation from an audience composed entirely of the general public.”

The festivities will continue on Sunday from 1pm, with Yoga Meltdown—now in its third year—taking top billing. This is a sectioned-off area of the festival site wherein devotees reach out to Toronto’s huge yoga community with outdoor yoga classes, mantra meditation sessions, vegan cooking demos, and a stage show with a kirtan and yoga theme.

“The response has been tremendous—last year nearly 700 people registered, and we’re hoping to top that this year,” says Keshav. “We bill it as a chance to do free yoga at Centre Island, knowing that people will come for the yoga but stay for the prasadam, the books, and the kirtan, and get a taste for Krishna consciousness.”
Toronto Ratha Yatra 2010 will end at 5pm with a grand finale kirtan, traditionally led by Bhakti Marg Swami. Beginning in the Arts and Culture Showcase tent, and ending on the ferry back home to the mainland, it has to be experienced to be believed. “Picture a huge kirtan on a ferry carrying about 400 people, almost all of whom are devotees,” says Keshav. “At first, the few members of the public who are on the boat as well don’t know what hit them! But they soon join in and seem to love it.”

With its Yoga Meltdown, top quality stage show, and question and answer booths, Toronto Ratha Yatra is geared not as what Keshav calls a “devotee picnic,” but as a major outreach effort. And the statistics speak for themselves: it’s now one of the largest in North America, drawing 30 to 40,000 people every year.

“Over the past decade, we’ve put a lot of hard work and creative thinking into broadening the appeal of our Ratha Yatra festival and making it newcomer friendly,” says Keshav. “And we’re really starting to see the result of that, with acceptance by both mainstream Torontoans and the alternative and yoga communities.”

A sign of this increased mainstream appeal is sponsorship in recent years by major companies including national TV station Global TV, major cell phone carrier Telus, and I-weekly, a local paper that distributes to 300,000 people per week. “Rather than us going to them, these companies approached us, saying that they had heard about our festival and asking if we were looking for corporate sponsorship,” says Keshav.

Ratha Yatra organizers have also partnered up with major yoga studios such as Jivamukti and Yoga Sanctuary for Yoga Meltdown. While ISKCON controls the event’s programming, these partnerships help create valuable new relationships and give devotees more credibility as yogis.

Possibly the most impressive thing about all of this is that all twenty members of Toronto’s Ratha Yatra Committee, the force behind the festival, are in their mid to late twenties, with some even still in their teens. “When I first became involved in the festival eleven years ago, all the organizers were middle-aged devotees,” says Keshav. “But since then, youth have gradually come on board until they filled the entire committee.”

Keshav says that the youth in Toronto—both second generation and new devotees—have a unique energy and enthusiasm. There, the culture is one of close friendship that breeds a mood of exploring Krishna consciousness more deeply and of having an active hand in organizing temple festivals and programs.
“We’re lucky to have such a great group of youth, as well as immense support from our temple council and senior devotees, who are always there to give us guidance,” says Keshav. “Canadian GBC Bhakti Marg Swami, who is based in Toronto, has given us so much inspiration over the years and is the reason why many of us are still here; and many other senior Prabhupada disciples have really given us the steering wheel and encouraged us to go for it.”

“It’s inspiring to have them put so much trust in us,” adds Mahasundari Madhavi. “And we are determined not to disappoint.”

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