India Festival: Greater Houston Rath Yatra 2015

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Photos: Carlos Pena, Paulina Sjoberg,Vinay Goel, Thejas Prabhu.

By Preanka Desai

HOUSTON: “Jai Jagannath” and “Hare Krishna” were the chants you could hear above the excited conversations. Where, you ask? Well, July 11, saw Masala Entertainment in association with SKAI Foundation bring several cultures together to celebrate one big Festival – India Festival – the Greater Houston Rath Yatra. This is the annual tradition commemorating Lord Jagannath’s summer vacation with elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra from the main Jagannath Temple in Puri, India, to nearby Gundicha Mandir.

SKAI Foundation founder, Dr. Surya Sahoo, had a vision to bring this festival to Houston several years ago when he and his wife, Kabita, experienced a miracle. Kabita suffered from right-sided paralysis, but was determined to visit Puri in India and participate in the Rath Yatra there. Reluctantly, Dr. Sahoo agreed to take her. As they approached the chariots in the procession, magically Kabita was able to climb one of the chariots – by herself – and felt the feeling return to her right side. Almost immediately her paralysis was cured and she was able to walk and function normally again! Dr. Sahoo and Kabita wanted to share their experience with others and planned to recreate the festival here in Houston.

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Hindus of Greater Houston, ISKCON, Gujarati Samaj of Houston and India Cultural Center joined hands with Masala Entertainment and SKAI Foundation to recreate this festival. The venue, Discovery Green, is known for bringing various events to its beautiful setting, was perfect.

As people took their seats in the front lawn or crowding around the stage, Hush Puppy Entertainment by DJ Tamim & DJ Geo got the mood set with devotional music. Soon, in his inimitable style, Sunil T, lead RJ at Masala Radio, got the audience revved up in unrehearsed dance routines. The crowd cheered along as enthusiastic participants matched steps to the music. The audience chose winners; Zee TV rewarded $50 AMEX and gift baskets from Britannia.

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It was time for the procession, which started with Sanga Initiative leading the parade under ISKCON’s Guru Bhakti Ma’s direction. Devotees began pulling the three chariots from Discovery Green’s main stage, dancing and chanting “Jai Jagannath” or singing devotional songs (bhajans) along the way. Legend has it that if you pull the chariots during this festival, all your sins are washed away! Proceeding down Lamar Street, the procession circled Discovery Green’s complex and returned to the main stage, where the chariots were positioned next to the stage. An “aarti” sung in praise of Lord Jagannath was performed.

The cultural program included a dance by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Troupe, Tablatronics, a fusion of traditional, electronic beats and music with Tabla prodigy, Rishabh Nayak, and one of Houston’s finest, DJ Geo on the turntables, a dance by the Irish Folk Dance Troupe, the Houston International Folk Dancers, Kalangan School of Odissi, with energetic and well-coordinated dances by the world-renown Mayapuris, and University of Houston’s Roarin’ Raas troupe’s finale, followed by open-air Dandia Raas dancing.

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Tara Energy gave away bottles of drinking water, Zee TV gave away free Dandias, ISKCON distributed “Prasad” and Britannia gave away their new Choco-nut cookies. Event sponsors included Tara, Zee TV, Mercedes Benz of Sugarland, Anand and Dr. Ashima Chauhan, Britannia and Deep Foods.

The event was attended by over 5000 people – double that of last year’s event. The myriad of ethnic cultures coming together was a sight to see, everyone feeling a sense of blessing just being in the presence of the Raths.