The chariot festival of Lord Jagannātha (Ratha-yātrā), the Lord of the Universe, has been performed at the spiritual seaside resort of Puri, India for more than two thousand years. This festival involves taking the Deities of Lord Jagannātha, Lord Balabhadra, Goddess Subhadra on chariots. On this day the deities come out of the temple to offer blessings to all living entities. This festival is performed in a mood of love and devotion and invokes auspiciousness for universal peace, harmony, and good will for all. The Founder Acharya of ISKCON, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, organized the first Jagannātha Ratha-yātrā festival in 1967 in San Francisco.
Following is an excerpt from Srila Prabhupāda Lilamrta, Chapter 26
Srila Prabhupāda first got the idea for performing the festival in San Francisco, while looking out the window of his room above Frederick Street. Noticing flatbed trucks passing below, he thought of putting the Jagannātha deities on the back of such a truck and conducting an American-style Ratha-yātrā festival. He had even sketched a truck with a four-pillared canopy on the back and decorated it with flags, bells, and flower garlands. And he had called in his disciple Śyāmasundara : Make me this cart for Ratha-yātrā, Now, ready and sitting outside the temple on Frederick Street, was the cart – a yellow Hertz rental truck, compliments of the Diggers and complete with five-foot columns and a pyramidal cloth canopy.
Mukunda and Śyāmasundara glorified Jayānanda: he drove all around San Francisco getting donations of fruits and flowers, found people to help decorate the cart, installed the sound system on the truck, and distributed posters in the stores. He was tireless, and his enthusiasm was inspiring everyone else to take part. The women had been cooking capātīs all day, so there should be thousands to give away to the crowd. The devotees had prepared hundreds of Hare Kṛṣṇa Ratha-yātrā festival balloons to release on the streets as the parade began. When the devotees asked what else they should do, Prabhupāda said that this was all – a procession, prasādam distribution, kīrtana. The people should get a chance to see Lord Jagannātha and chant Hare Kṛṣṇa. There should be chanting and dancing in front of the cart throughout the procession. “But do everything nicely,” Prabhupāda said. “Do it as well as you can, and Lord Jagannātha will be satisfied.”
It was great! It was wonderful! It was a beautiful day, they said. And Prabhupāda listened, moved by his disciples’ description of the celebration. Many hippies had joined the large procession. Mukunda, Haridāsa, Hayagrīva, and some of the women had been on the cart, and the instruments, including Yamunā’s playing on the harmonium, had all been amplified. Everyone in the streets had liked it. The police motor escorts had tried to hurry the devotees, but so many people had crowded in front that the parade had been obliged to go slowly, just as Swamiji had asked. Subala had danced wildly the whole time, and Jayānanda had been jumping up and down, playing karatālas. From the truck some of the women had handed out cut oranges, apples, and bananas, and others had thrown flowers. The crowds had loved it.
From there in San Francisco, the Festival of the Chariots has been performed every year since, and now there are festivals celebrating Lord Jagannātha Ratha-yātrā in every country in the world. Come and join us this year for a full day of bliss, prasādam (spiritual foodstuffs) and chanting of the names of the Lord.
During His 24 years of stay in Jagannātha Puri, every year Lord Chaitanya danced and chanted in ecstasy before the Lord’s chariot. He would set up multiple kirtan parties with mridangas and kartals to sing and dance in front and behind Lord Jagannātha’s chariot. Once He was seen simultaneously present, dancing and chanting, in seven kirtan parties during the ratha-yātrā. It is further mentioned in Chaitanya Caritamrta that Lord Jagannātha was very much pleased by the sankirtana, and He brought His car to a standstill just to see the performance. Such are the mystic pastimes of the Lord Jagannātha and Lord Chaitanya.
Once sage Nārada was in Vaikuntha and after pleading to Laxmi Devi had the unlimited fortune of receiving Lord Nārāyana’s mahāprasād (food remnants). After taking the mahāprasād, Nārada ji went into ecstacy and started dancing and chanting the Lord’s holy names. When sage Nārada met Lord Shiva, upon his request, Nārada ji gave him a fragment of mahaprasād that happened to be stuck in his finger nail. Upon eating it Lord Shiva also went into ecstacy and started doing Tandava Dance that he does at the time of devastation. Pārvati Devi learnt about it and became angry for being deprived of Lord Nārāyana prasād. All demigods headed by Lord Brahma approached Lord Vishnu to inform Him of the situation. Lord Nārāyana blessed Pārvati Devi by saying, “I will appear in Nila-chala (Puri) and give you and all living entitites my mahāprasād. Whoever takes My prasād will be liberated.” Please join us in the San Francisco Ratha-yātrā to receive Lord Jagannātha’s Mahāprasād.