On Sunday, 11 August, John and I attended the 13th anniversary of a joyful and colourful Birmingham Ratha Yatra Festival, also known as Festival of the Chariots. It was organised by ISKCON Birmingham and featured a giant wooden Jagannath Chariot pulled by hand by the Hindu devotees from Chamberlain Square via New Street to the Bullring and back to Victoria Square.
It’s my first experience of this kind although I knew how strong and vibrant the Hindu community is in Birmingham. Everything was new and exciting me – rich flower and fabric decorations of the deities, a sight of people spontaneously breaking into dancing and chanting, the sound of drums accompanying the procession, the concentrated faces of young Indian children pulling their own mini chariot, just as the grown ups did.
As in the years before the importance of the Ratha Yatra to the Birmingham community, and not just Hindu, was recognised by the attendance of Lord Mayor, various dignitaries and spiritual leaders. Lots and lots of exotic (to me!!!) rituals and immense attention to detail shown by the organisers and participants. I liked the sound of a conch shell blown as a ceremonial trumpet, witnessed the coconut atari and the subsequent age old Hindu ritual of breaking the coconut to celebrate the opening of the Festival of the Chariots, and admired quirky outfits of some the attendees.
Lord Mayor sweeping the road in front of the Chariot was a surprise. I later found out that this is a adaptation of the ancient Indian ritual when the king of Puri used to do it witnessed by a huge crowd of worshipers.
The grand Chariot was drawn by the ropes along the city streets by people – yes, by hand! Judging from their faces pulling the Chariot was not an easy job, but it is considered an declaration of devotion and has to be earned. Even touching the rope is auspicious. I saw an old woman in a wheelchair straining to reach for the rope with her hands. Indeed during the procession the entire structure of the Chariot is an embodiment of God and some religious passers by kneeled at a mere sight of the procession. Web pictures from India show the believers kissing the wheels – not in the UK though. Health and safety comes first – we don’t want anyone trampled. In fact a big shout to the ever vigilant safety officers at the festival who did a brilliant job managing such a huge crowd.
How to convey the feeling of being in the midst of a chanting and dancing crowd? Joyful faces everywhere, the deafening sound of drums, trumpets and tambourines, groups of people breaking into dance right in the middle of the street – it’s amazing.
After the Ratha Yatra there was an after party organised in Victoria Square. An altar was built for those who wanted to offer puja to the gods. There was a hand henna painting booth, various market stalls, a vegetarian Indian feast and a traditional music and drama stage performance.