Here's an interview that BTG did with Jayananda Prabhu, about 30 years ago. This is a wonderful article that gives some of the history, and the origin of TRYP (Traveling Ratha-yatra Party), that became Festival Of India.
BTG: Jayänanda; how did you first get involved in Krishna consciousness?
Jayänanda däsa: I heard Srila Prabhupäda speaking in' San Francisco, and somehow I knew he didn't want to cheat me. So I just' wanted to work for him.
BTG: And now for ten years you've worked on the Ratha-yäträ carts.
Jayänanda däsa: Yes.
BTG: What were the first Ratha-yatras like?
Jayänanda däsa: The first year, 1967, we just rented a flatbed truck and started out in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. We decorated the truck with flowers and put the Deities on the back, and the girls passed out fruit. A good crowd walked along with us at the beginning, and when we turned off Haight Street a smaller group of maybe fifty people came with us and we went all the way to the beach.
The second year we made our own cart, with saffron silk canopies, small ones. And we had the parade through Golden Gate Park to the beach. By that time the San Francisco temple had grown a little—we had maybe thirty devotees—and about one hundred people came with us through the park. The chanting was very nice that year.
Then in 1969 we built a much bigger cart, with a tall silk canopy, like the ones they build in Jagannätha Puri in India. But in 1970 we worked for two months straight and built the three big carts, basically the same ones we use now. Also we had all kinds of publicity—TV, billboards, posters. And Srila Prabhupäda came to that Ratha-yäträ. So a lot of people came, maybe twelve thousand people. It was big—a tremendous success. We had a few mishaps, though. One cart broke down in the middle of the parade. And it was a bitter cold day. But even though it was so cold at the beach, thousands of people stayed there with us and ate a lot of Krishna prasädam [spiritual food offered to Krishna]. We brought twenty fifty-gallon barrels of prasädam, and they ate it all.
Later that year the auditorium we used at the beach was torn down. So in 1971 we decided to end the parade in the park, at Lindley Meadow. That year, and in 1972 and 1973, the parade was a little smaller than in 1970.
In 1974 Bhakta däsa came to San Francisco to be temple president, and he decided to expand the Ratha-yatra. He spent more money on it than before, and maybe twenty thousand people attended that year. The police remarked that we were the only group that could get such a large gathering together without creating a problem for them. Srila Prabhupäda came that year and gave a speech at the Meadow. He was sitting beneath the Jagannätha Deities on Their opulent three-tiered stage. Even without much understanding everyone could appreciate that here was a majestic, awe-inspiring celebration. Another wonderful thing we started that year was the fairground-type booths at the Meadow. You could see the unlimited scope of the Vedic culture. We had a Deity workshop booth, a transcendental art booth, a literature booth, and of course many booths selling food. Now that's become a regular feature of the festival.
In 1975 I tried out making steel wheels, but the chariots were so heavy they flattened the steel and made the ride very bumpy for the Deities. So now we're back to the standard wooden wheels.
BTG: What instructions has Srilla Prabhupäda given you about Ratha-yäträ?
Jayänanda däsa: I never got much personal instruction. He just told me to make everything strong. I'm not a real visionary about it—I just built the carts.
BTG: Which Ratha-yäträ do you think has been the best so far?
Jayänanda däsa: In New York last year-that was the most festive. Not until then had I experienced so many of the transcendental qualities of Ratha-yäträ. You know—for a parade there's nothing like Fifth Avenue; it's the most important street in the world. And when we went to Washington Square Park to pull the carts home, hours after the parade had finished, thousands of people were still there chanting. They were everywhere. People were coming out of their apartments and coming out of bars shouting "Hare Krishna!" Only in New York could you get such a response.
BTG: Tell us, from your own experience, what the public gets out of Ratha-yäträ.
Jayänanda däsa: The impact is so powerful that everyone's affected. In New York there were thousands of people out on the streets, and they were astounded. It's not that I'm claiming it; the people were interviewed on TV and that's what they said. Also I remember one man with his girl friend (she didn't like us at all) who told me some time after the festival that when he saw the carts coming down the street he felt a parade had just come down from heaven, and that he often remembers the carts and the chanting with pleasure. So people are hit by it. It's so far beyond their usual experience. You can't measure the impact. All year long they do more or less the same things. Maybe they catch a few parades, like the Thanksgiving Day parade. They stand and watch some big balloons go by. But it's all the same. Then, when you have a whole troupe of devotees singing and dancing around these lofty, transcendental chariots—then the people are transformed. They used to be mundane creatures, but when they see the Ratha-yäträ, they're angels. It brings out the best in people to see Lord Jagannätha smiling at them. I tell you, at first their faces looked like they hadn't changed in twenty-five years, and then all of a sudden it was like glass cracking, and you'd see the whole face transformed just by a few moments’ association.
And what to speak of those who take part? Ratha-yäträ encourages everybody to take part. "Come on, walk with us, dance, grab a rope and pull." We don't say, "Don't touch." No—"Join in, have fun." By our nature we all want to participate. Nobody wants to be a bystander. And those who take part are purified of all their sinful karmic reactions just by chanting Hare Krishna and seeing Lord Jagannätha.
BTG: Are there people who regard it as idol worship?
Jayänanda däsa: Yes—they may feel that before, but the impact of the festival is so strong that after it they feel otherwise. They see Lord Jagannätha, and they see how merciful He is, and they can feel that it's not idol worship. And if they read Srila Prabhupäda's books, then they'll understand logically how Lord Jagannätha is not an idol. Of course, at the festival there are always a few faultfinders. Last year in New York one of them had a bullhorn and was shouting.
BTG: What is your understanding of the purpose of Ratha-yäträ?
Jayänanda däsa: To celebrate the pastimes of Krishna. Krishna's so kind; He comes to earth and displays so many wonderful pastimes. Ratha-yäträ celebrates His going to Kurukshetra with Balaräma and Subhadrä, and His meeting there with the residents of Vrindavana, where He was born. The expressions of love shared between the Lord and His devotees make that one of the sweetest pastimes. Ratha-yäträ offers a chance for so many people to be engaged in Krishna consciousness. People don't come to our temples much, but millions are out on the streets. Now here's a chance for them to advance in spiritual life—here comes Lord Jagannätha's festival! They're touched—they become part of the transcendental vibration, and they're purified.
Also, for the devotees it's very beneficial—maybe more for me; Ratha-yäträ is the service that's given me so many of my realizations, the flowering of whatever Krishna consciousness I have. It's not a long-term occupation. It happens all at once, like a big explosion, in the summer. It brings together so many devotees all working together under the spiritual master with one plan. And all the transcendental paraphernalia is there-the Deities, the prasädam, the chanting, the booths, the theater—it's such a surcharged atmosphere. You never forget it. For a devotee to be able to participate in Ratha-yäträ is very good for his Krishna consciousness. When you have these festivals, it gives you a big, powerful event to look forward to, and to work towards. It helps your devotion.
BTG: How about the future growth of Ratha-yäträ?
Jayänanda däsa: One thing that's important is that all the temples should celebrate this wonderful festival. But it isn't practical for each center to construct three carts. So now in Los Angeles we're putting together a traveling party that can go from city to city, with displays and carts that you can assemble and take apart. Then the great expense will be eliminated. Also, we'll have year-round Ratha-yäträs—the South in the winter, the North in the summer. It can be expanded so people will be hearing about Ratha-yäträ all year round-and that will be the perfection of their lives!
BTG: It sounds wonderful. Thank you very much, Jayänanda.
Jayänanda däsa: Thank you. Hare Krishna.
From BTG #12-6, 1977