On Sunday 17th, I went along to see and photograph the event ‘Festival of Chariots’ which was organised by The London Ratha Yatra. Ratha Yatra is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the society holds these events throughout the world. It features three huge, wooden chariots pulled by hand in a grand procession. It started from Hyde Park Corner and ended its progression in Trafalgar Square. Once in the Square, the amazing festival and celebrations began.
I felt a little uncomfortable attending this event as I knew very little about the whole Krishna movement, and what I did know was very stereotypical. It consisted of funny individuals chanting, dancing, and trying to coerce people into joining their religion, all the while wearing strange orange clothing. How wrong and small-minded was I?
When I stepped out of Charing Cross Station into Trafalgar Square, I was hit by the masses of people, colours and delicious smells. I was also struck by the different races of people there. Maybe it is true, that we all have a little racism inside of us, but given the fact that it was an Indian Festival, I was only expecting to see indian people there. I had almost resigned myself into thinking that I would probably be (except for a handful of others) the only caucasian person there. How wrong I was, and how refreshing it was to see many different races and cultures there, enjoying the day.
The colours and decorations on the Square were amazing, I had never seen so much beauty all in one place. I headed straight to the main stage, and was lucky enough to catch the beginning of a dance performance by two amazing women. The dance was Indian in culture, and I was blown away by the beauty and art of it. There was so much to see and do at the event, and I really didn’t know where to begin. I photographed some amazing people, each one dressed more splendidly then the next. Children dressed and painted their faces like Indian deities, men dressed in traditional Indian attire and women dressed in the most beautiful sarees I had ever seen. I really did feel underdressed, choosing that morning just to wear loose trousers and a t-shirt, the choice of colourful dress and costume there was simply overwhelming.
The biggest thing to hit me as I stood in the square were the three huge chariots that had been placed stationary directly outside the main entrance to The National Gallery. Each chariot had a handful of people sitting upon them, handing down flowers and free fruit offerings to the people below. I didn’t quite understand the significance of the whole thing, but the people receiving these items did, each one bowing in gratitude and thanks. I took photos of those receiving the offerings, and was also strangely drawn into the beauty of the whole sequence. The colours and decor of these three huge chariots were unlike anything I had ever seen. The sheer beauty of this religion and culture fascinated me.
I decided to brave the crowds and wander through the middle of the square to where the information and activity tents were based. I found a tent where a few people were sat cross-legged on colour cushions and singing. A gentlemen waved me over to join them and obediently did so. However, I didn’t sing and chant with them, as I found myself too uncomfortable with the whole scenario, but I happily smiled and snapped away with my camera at them. I politely waited until they had finished to make my escape. I spoke to a kind gentlemen who was working by the information stall, and he gave me a brief history about the event, he also kindly gave me some small beads, which I accepted with gratitude.
While walking around the festival I noticed various different women wearing beautifully painted flowers across their faces and foreheads, and I quickly made my way to the painting tent to get some painted on myself. The lady doing the painting was extremely friendly, and for £3 only, she did an amazing job. I was really pleased with my painted flowers, and was very conscious not to smudge them while taking my photographs.
As I continued to wander around, I found myself wondering where this huge queue (that had recently formed) was heading to. After asking I found out that it led to a tent, where they were handing out free food for all visitors to the event. It had been a long afternoon, and being a little peckish, I decided to taste the wares. While I was in the queue I saw some people walking away from the food tent with their paper plates piled high with rice and something else that looked like some form of curry. Now I was really hungry and looking forward to getting to the front. When almost at the front a gentlemen dressed in a catering hat and gloves handed me a paper plate and a fork. I was really hungry by then and eager to eat. I walked through the food tent and up to the food tables where huge silver pots were waiting. People stood behind them piling the food on as you walked by and in-a-line, like a conveyor belt. After my paper plate was filled with food I left wondering what I had been given. I saw some other people sitting and eating on the stairs outside The National Gallery, so I sat near them. Yes there was rice on my plate, alongside some white thick liquid substance which tasted sour and what I thought was a meaty curry turned out to be an aniseed tasting thick stodgy substance. Admittedly, and on closer inspection the food did not look appealing, and it tasted even worse. I didn’t want to offend anyone by not eating the whole thing, so I nibbled on some rice and when no one was looking I placed the whole thing discreetly into a waste bin proved. I later learned that the Krishna movement are very strict vegetarians.
It was getting quite late, and so I made my way to the front stage, where the dances had taken place earlier. The whole place was jumping by now, and masses of colourfully dressed bodies were jumping and dancing, not only on the stage, but on the area below and surrounding. The whole atmosphere had changed, the whole place was charged with some kind of invisible energy. I took some great pictures, and found myself dancing along with them. It couldn’t be helped. It was truly a magnificent sight. I had never witnessed anything like it before. The dance, singing, graciousness and beauty of the day had overcome me, and I stayed till the very end, enjoying the singing, dancing and events that unfolded. I had never seen children enjoying themselves as much, or the women and men coming together and dancing. All material, cultural and social restraints were out-the-window.
I left the festival feeling happy and charged, and although I didn’t like the food, the whole ambiance and welcome of the people and its organisers had won me over. It made the journey back home a lot more pleasant and I found myself humming the Krishna chant. It was well and truly stuck in my head. I had also captured some great footage, had a brilliant day and got my face painted with flowers. The only bad thing about the day was the thought of having to wash the beautiful painted flowers off of my face when I got home.