26th Annual Janmashtami Celebrated by HGH

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Photos: Bijay Dixit

HOUSTON: Hindus of Greater Houston celebrated the grand annual Janmashtami for the 26th time with great pomp and fervor on September 12.

People poured into the George R Brown convention center despite the many conflicting events on the same day and the road closures due to construction around the center.

More than 45 organizations who vowed their support to this event, a big support from ISKCON, great personalities like Ambarish Ford and Ajit Wadekar, the first Indian cricket captain to win a test series outside India, and several specials planned, all free of charge to the community, it kindled people’s interest and  nearly 5,500 people turned out.

Coinciding with 50 years since Swami Prabhupada arrived in United States, a large contingent of Hare Krishna devotees from other parts of USA, also attended the event. An unusually large number of youngsters helped with the celebrations this year, an accomplishment of Vivek Sharda and Ronak Maheshwari who attended Janmashtami for the first time last year, were so inspired that they took a lead role in bringing over 50 volunteers from the University of Houston.

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From left: Anish Pillai, Mark Burson, Consul General of India P. Harish, Ambarish Ford with his wife Svaha Ford, Jugal Malani and Durga Agrawa

Welcomed by youngsters at the entrance, one would walk straight into a 20 feet in diameter Rangoli with a peacock theme that was designed and created single handedly in 6 hours by Sangita Bhutada, a Limca Book record holder.
After a traditional procession,  around 110 children including a toddler came dressed as Krishna or Radha for a costume contest setting a new record of participation. This was followed by a very interesting cultural program with the theme “Krishna Jawan Ho Gaya.” It showcased Krishna and his friends touring India and witnessing the way people celebrated Lord Krishna. Apt with the felicitations of Iskcon50, a Kirtan by members of ISKCON lifted the devotional mood and got the gathering involved with many singing and swaying rhythmically to the chanting.

Amongst the many decorated temples and booths was a very informative and eye-catching exhibition by ISKCON about the important milestones of Swami Prabhupada with an audio visual presentation.

“One who had used his fame and wealth to spread the glories of Krishna” was the introduction given for the Chief Guest of the evening – Ambarish Das or Alfred Ford, the great grandson of Henry Ford.

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Rangoli by Sangita Bhutada

In his address, Ambarish reflected on his search for the meaning of life and experimenting with the intoxicating ideas of freedom in the 60’s.  In a life defining moment, he stumbled on a Radhe Krishna album by George Harrison at his campus record store which had “two little beautiful people on it.” It was a purchase that changed his life and according to Ambarish, he “started crying when he heard the record.”

He embraced the Hare Krishna lifestyle fervently and helped devotees in Hawaii purchase a temple. After his initiation in Hawaii, he travelled all over the world with his wife, also a devotee, to spread Krishna consciousness because “it is a spiritual science not just for Indians but for everybody around the world.”

Ambarish Das, now 65, also spoke about the Mayapur temple in West Bengal which he helped build by donating $25 million – admitting that he was “nervous as that was the time when the Ford company was about to go bankrupt due to the economic downturn of 2006-07” but was glad that the “transcendental project worked out beautifully and would help Westerners, Europeans and Americans come to Mayapur and chant Hare Krishna.”

Consul General of India P. Harish also addressed the gathering stating that India’s greatness and diversity lies in the fact that every state celebrates Janmashtami in their own unique way. He commended the Hindus of Greater Houston for enabling all the city’s temples to come together under one roof and herald the birth of Lord Krishna together.

A special flavor and a pleasant surprise to the evening was the appearance of Ajit Wadekar, who led the Indian cricket team to fame by winning the first ever win outside India. He continues to contribute to humanity by coaching cricket to physically challenged people.

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The Lifetime Achievement Service Award was presented to Dr. Durga Agrawal, an industrialist and philanthropist, for his sustained community service. The Janmashtami celebrations owes its beginnings to Dr. Agrawals’s efforts.
The Akhil Chopra “Unsung Heroes” Awards given in memory of Akhil Chopra, a 28 year old active member of the community who was shot dead while meditating in a park about 10 years ago were presented to Mark Burson for spreading the message of the Brahma Kumaris and Anish Pillai for his work with ISKCON.

Hindus of Greater Houston also recognized their own Padmakant Khambati, a founding member of Hindus of Greater Houston who passed away in 2015, with a memorial award.

Immediately following the Arati, youngsters took to the floor for the dandiya with live music by Kashmira Nayak and Darshak on the drums. The outstanding feature in the evening’s celebrations was clearly the Phoolon ki Holi – Holi with Flowers, where baskets of rose petals were placed at several locations for revelers to pelt each other with handfuls of petals and play this version of Holi.

It appears as if this year’s Janmashtami was divine run as several pleasant surprises came our way to make this event a memorable one – commencing with ISKCON50 agreeing to jointly celebrate, Ambarish Ford specially flying in to be a Guest of Honor for the event, Ajit Wadekar making a surprise visit. All these instilled confidence in the team says Partha Krishnaswamy, the event chairman from Hindus of Greater Houston.

“The students and their gurus where happy to be a part of Janmashtami. They were very excited to be a part of this huge celebration,” said Indrani Parthasarathy

I am fortunate to volunteer for 25 years. I have learned a lot from various temples and organizations. My children  used to participate in costume contests and now they volunteer and contribute financially, said Vijay Pallod.

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Phoolon ki Holi

This Janmashtami  gathering reminds me of how we used to stay until 1 a.m and clean up the hall when we started celebrating Janmashtami 25 years ago. I am honored to be recognized for this award by Hindus of Greater Houston.  I am very happy to see the progress our Hindus of Greater Houston have made, and how we continue to expand in the Houston area. This is because of the efforts of the leaders like Mr.  Raj Syal,  Sen Pathak , Sharad Amin, Vijay Pallod,  and many others, said Durga Agrawal

Shital Rathi , Costume contest coordinator, said “It gives me a lot of satisfaction that this year we were able to get record participation of 110 + kids in total participation in the costume contest.. I would like to encourage more and more kids to participate in upcoming years.”

We have been collaborating with Hindus of Greater Houston at their annual Janmastami celebration since its inception and, as with any relationship, it has taken work, patience and understanding to build trust and respect between the two organizations said  Hansa Medley M.D., Director of Outreach, ISKCON of Houston.

“Since ISKCON  members are not merely traditional Indians born into the Hindu religion, but members of the non Indian local community, initially some Hindus were shocked and derisive. Then came anger – how dare we claim to be Hindus when we’re not born into this tradition and don’t have all the cultural nuances and finally, what we see now : acceptance and integration, which is what we saw at this Janmastami event, which made it so awesome,” Medley said.

“We congratulate the HGH leadership on their maturity and foresight in accepting ISKCON for its role in promoting Hinduism and for recognizing Swami Prabhupada and his followers as genuine proponents of sanatana dharma. I’m also grateful to our team for their wonderful service and Vaisnava qualities through which we could bring value to HGH, thus making this Janmastami a memorable event. It was a great pleasure and privilege collaborating with them and we hope to continue to grow the relationship,” she said.