Rath Yatra



After a long dim sum lunch with an old college friend in London recently, he and I wandered into a Hindu festival in Trafalgar Square. Three huge, elaborately painted wood-and-canvas carriages were parked in front of the National Gallery. Each was surmounted by a tall fabric canopy. They were an amazing sight, not least for being totally unexpected and, at first blush, incongruous before the classical portico. Lots of people had gathered and were exchanging Indian sweetmeats, receiving fruit from those high up on the carriage platforms, and taking photographs of a gorgeously robed young woman holding a flute whose visible skin was entirely painted blue.

We had come upon the London manifestation of Rath Yatra, the Chariot Festival, celebrating the journey by the Lord Jagannath, a form of Krishna (one of the avatars of Vishnu), and his two siblings from the temple at Puri in Orissa on the Bay of Bengal to their summer temple. The blue-skinned girl was presumably personating the Lord Krishna.

Hare Krishna devotees were there in abundance, and indeed would seem to have organized the festival. We watched a dancer who performed on a stage directly beneath Nelson’s Column. To one side sat a holy man on a divan, cross legged and wholly immobile. I suppose that William Railton and his colleagues who were responsible for the construction of the monument to Britain’s great naval hero in the early 1840s would have been surprised to find a Hindu rite occurring in its shadow. The dancer was a young woman who, we were told, had been born in London and now lives in India studying her art. She was highly adept and graceful, but it was my turn to be surprised, for she was clearly of African ancestry.

Yet this is how it was, and I loved it. I loved this wonderful cultural mixture. The many devotees of European and African ethnicity, and the dancer in particular, reminded me that we are not necessarily bound by the immediate circumstances of our birth. If we are fortunate, we can make choices. We can affiliate culturally in ways that our origins might not seem to suggest. We can choose to follow paths different from those that our births might appear to dictate to us. We can acknowledge the extraordinary mixture that many of us are, drawing on resources within ourselves and on the support of others who are prepared to accept us for what we sincerely wish to be. Both my old college friend and I found this realization immensely cheering.