By Hari Narayana Das
"Ratha Yatra on the eve of Ramadan"
How would you describe the moment where devotees from all the different locations in a country come in a spirit so enthusiastic just to celebrate Ratha Yatra of Lord Jagannatha, a moment where people from different faiths join the devotees and chant and dance so blissfully, a moment where you begin to admire the wonderful mercy of Srila Prabhupada and feel so indebted to him for giving us Jagannatha, Baladeva, Subhadra, Their Chariots and the Ratha Yatra festivals? Such a moment was the Ratha Yatra at Malang, a mountainous city in East Java, Indonesia.
Malang is the second largest city in East Java province, Indonesia. It has a history dating back to the ancient Mataram Kingdom. The city population is mostly Muslim. During the period of Dutch colonization, it was a popular destination for European residents. The city is famous for apples, its cool temperature and the surrounding country regions of Tumpang, Batu, Singosari, and Turen. People in East Java sometimes call it "Paris of East Java."
This year the government authorities of Malang organized 'the Malang Street Percussion Festival (MSPF) 2015', in the area of Ijen Boulevard on the on 14 June 2015 to welcome the Ramadan 1436 H. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu used to have a percussion team in His kirtans who would play the mridangas. When the devotees heard of the Percussion Festival, it was clear to all that time had come to carry Mahaprabhu's sankirtan party to the streets of Malang. There are only two initiated devotees in Malang assisted by a few well-wishers but here we needed a team of expert kirtaniyas. To take part in the parade we require a chariot...and here we had none. And to arrange a festival, at least a few hundred devotees must be there...and who would come so far to the mountains in East Java just because a few devotees desired to have a ratha yatra festival? Somehow these devotees, although small in number, were not just willing to give up without giving it a try. Lord Jagannatha is glorified as '...bhava grahi janardana', or 'the Supreme well-wisher of all Who accepts only the mood of sincere service of His devotees', and who knew He had already decided to join the parade in Malang.
The devotees in Malang have been doing book distribution, food for life, chanting in parks and arranging for lectures and classes for locals. When they got news about the Malang Street Percussion Festival from their acquaintances in the Cultural Department of Malang, they wrote a proposal to participate in the festival and somehow it got approved within a short time. Preparations started, invitations went out to all temples and preaching centres in Indonesia....then what about the deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva, Subhadra and Their chariot?
Srila Prabhupa mentioned in his letter that "To implement this transcendental bliss to the people of your country there is immense work to be done ahead and this Ratha-yatra festival is only a bit of sample. If we get opportunity we shall be able to overflood your country with the waves of transcendental bliss, by the grace of Krsna (SPL to Aniruddha, 7th July, 1968).
After the remarkable ratha yatra festivals this year at Medan, Surabaya, Palangka Raya and Jakarta, all devotees were bubbling with enthusiasm and vigor to once again chant and dance in ecstasy in the first ratha yatra of Malang. Devotees began to send in their assurances of participation to the committee of devotees for the ratha yatra and very soon it was found that devotees from almost all parts of Indonesia had pledged to come to Malang to assist in whatever way they can. Besides the different groups of devotees, the team of devotees from Jember agreed to come with their deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra, the largest in Indonesia, along with the wonderfully carved chariot.
Devotees started to arrive at Malang a day before the festival and it was amazing to see devotees from almost all the provinces of Indonesia, both far and near, arriving one after the other, by flights, by buses, by cars and some by crossing the sea. The altar for the deities was arranged in the auditorium of the Academy of Midwifery near Universitas Negara Malang (UM). HH Subhag Swami had already arrived in Malang few days before the festival. One day ahead of the parade devotees started the festivities and Maharaj gave a lecture in the evening covering Jagannatha's pastimes, Prabhupada's instructions and personal sadhana to remain fixed up in Krsna Consciousness. It was as if a transcendentally sweet competition was going on among the devotees, and even if some problems arose, they would still try to tolerate and cooperate. Most importantly everyone was very happy and jubilant. Some devotees were arranging garlands, some serving prasad to the devotees, arranging the place for fire sacrifice, some distributing books and a team of devotees were reassembling the parts of the chariot. When the chariot was half assembled it was found that two important parts were left behind at Probolinggo, a distance of 2 hours from Malang, where they had stopped on their way from Jember. Without those parts they could not continue. Lokanath acarya Prabhu and Tapana Mishra Prabhu immediately volunteered and drove to Probolinggo. Although it was tiring drive, they came back safe and sound with the parts and the reassembly resumed immediately. The preparations went on the whole night. Some devotee remained awake till morning just to finish the arrangements on time.
Next day, 14th June 2015, at 10 am local time, a fire sacrifice was performed for purification as well as to invoke auspiciousness for the festival. Kirtan went on throughout the day. For distribution to the general public 2 tons of oranges arrived, sponsored by Dina Dharini mataji, which was offered and loaded onto a carry truck to go along with the chariot. At 4 pm Sri Jagannatha, Sri Balaramaji and Subadra devi came to grace the chariot beautifully decorated with flowers. After bhoga offering Subhag Maharaj offered arati to Their Lordships. Accompanied by police escort on special duty to bring Lord Jagannatha and the devotees to the parade, devotees pulled the chariot to the start point in front of Brawijaya museum. On the way the Lord captivated many people to come out and join the chanting and dancing. Devotees were distributing cookies along with the oranges and everyone who got one would also give us something back in return: they would say 'Hare Krsna' and give us a big smile.
Srila Prabhupada wrote in his letter, "If there is chanting of Hare Krsna, even the soul is there for a short time, Oh! he will hear and become advanced. This sound vibration is not material, it is spiritual and powerful beyond our conception. So it cannot be hindered in any way by something material; it surpasses all these material barriers". (SPL to Mukunda and Janaki, 28th February, 1968). Many visitors were attracted to join the kirtan and danced with the devotees. Al-Iklas, a group of traditional Javanese musicians who also took part in the parade, began to play their instruments to our tune of maha mantra and all of them danced in ecstasy. One of the musicians who were smoking suddenly threw away his cigarette and started singing Hare Krishna when maharaj greeted him. Since our chariot was the last among all the floats, all the other chariots were lined up before us as if they were all giving escort to the Lord of the Universe. The other chariots were also very intricately and wonderfully decorated. The difference was that they were made to last one night only and our's was made to last many more ratha yatras on the different islands in the Nusantara. The other floats were accompanied by at most 20 to 30 persons but Lord Jagannatha's chariot was accompanied by more than 300 devotees chanting and dancing with the Lord. It was certainly a spectacle. Our effulgent chariot was in itself quite an attraction that anybody passing by could not go ahead without taking a picture. As the devotees waited for the parade to start, a bharata natyam dance were offered to the Lord in front of the chariot, performed by two devotee matajis from Singapore. The sankirtan book team lead by Yuyudhana das and Gauranga das distributed more than 150 books. We had to wait for around two hours before the parade commenced but later we realized it was a wonderful opportunity to use the main street in the city as our performance stage. There was a fired up kirtan going on, devotees were dancing, some distributed books and many others were giving out the 2 ton Prasad oranges to the visitors.
After the long wait, at 21.00 hrs, the parade began and the devotees started to pull the Lord's Chariot. The street was crowded on both sides and everybody there was enjoying the different beats of the percussion parade. Then they saw that the last participant was a little different from the rest for they saw a car decorated with a big Jagannatha mask carrying sound system and along with the sound of the drums there were cymbals and singing too. This was something beyond their expectations. The fired up Kirtan led by Sesa das and his team, Ananta pandit das, Dina vatsala das, and Maharathi das made all the devotees and the visitors dance. Taking the opportunity, H.H. Subhag Swami Maharaj presented a mahaprasad flower garland and Bhagavad Gita to Mr. Moch Anton, the mayor of Malang. Behind the kirtan team followed a group of dancing gopis all dressed in beautiful Vedic attire attracting the attention of many. The MC was announcing 'this appears to have come directly from the Mahabharata.' After that there came the group of around 300 devotees chanting and dancing. Then arrived the chariot of Jagannatha beautifully decorated with an abundance of flowers, with its effulgent golden yellow dome shining brightly in the night. Then the MC went on repeating just one word, "Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful...." The visitors were ecstatic and some of them even joined to dance when they saw the devotees pass in front of them. Even though most of them belonged to other faiths they also joined in to sing the Hare Krishna maha mantra. The commentator said this was proof of Malang's diversity because the Hindu community was also participating in the festival that was meant to welcome the Ramadan. The next opportunity was that the devotees were allowed to pull the chariot through the city street while going back to the base camp. Although the devotees were exhausted, their bliss continued. Some devotees seeing Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra on the chariot were saying a silent prayer in their hearts, "Thank you Srila Prabhupada for loving us so much that you have brought Lord Jagannatha even to the most unexpected places on earth...just to help us remain engaged in Krsna Consciousness."
All these wonderful activities have become possible by the constant support of HH Kavicandra Swami and HH Ramai Swami, the GBCs of Indonesia, whose enthusiasm for spreading Mahaprabhu's sankirtan is an inspiration for all. HH Bhakti Raghava Swami has been a major encouragement for the devotees because Maharaj would say, "You may not go to Jagannatha Puri but your feelings when you pull the chariot should be such that Jagannatha Puri should become manifest here." HH Subhag Swami is an inspiration we cannot miss. He repeats Prabhupada's call, "Come out of the mouse holes and join the sankirtan," and reminds us to keep in mind how sincerely Jayananda Prabhu served Srila Prabhupada as his life and soul. And we realise ratha yatras take place outside the mouse holes.
We cannot sufficiently thank all the devotees who came to make the festival complete: Dina Dharini Mataji for supporting us with tons of oranges, Upavitra Mataji who came all the way from Bali with her team of dancers, our kirtan team for so nicely blending kirtan mela into ratha yatra, the ratha yatra committee of Malang who took all troubles to take care of the devotees so well. Especially we would like to convey our heartfelt gratitude to all the unnamed devotees who filled up all the gaps in the event to make the festival a suitable offering to Srila Prabhupada.