As the procession of chariots began on Saturday one of the many observers looked at the parade and announced that they were ready to go.
Within a few minutes the crowd that had been waiting cleared the area and began to lead the float down Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa. It was clear that the Indian festival, Rath Yatra, had begun.Around 11 a.m. on Saturday the festival did not look like much. Various tents had been set up around the perimeter of Curtis Hixon Park. Their roofs attempted to brighten the gray sky with vibrant red, blue and yellow stripes, but there was no one around to run them.
Aside from a few curious onlookers, most of the attention was focused on the floats. In the prep area – a narrow road between the park and the parking garage next door – organizers were busy nailing the decorations onto the floats. It wasn’t clear if the organizers were ready for the event when it was supposed to start.A crowd did eventually gather and soon the Inaugural Ceremony began. The event consisted of chanting the names of Lord Jagannath and Krishna while followers climbed a ladder to the image of the deity on top of the main float and made an offering of food. There was such enthusiasm from the crowd that offerings had to be stopped before they were halfway through in order to begin the procession.
Hundreds of people followed along with the chant. Even after the floats could no longer be seen, they could be heard. By this time the floats had also grown far more impressive. The float which replicated the “tomb towns” in Puri was majestic, standing two stories tall, decorated in bright red and green and sitting on huge wooden wheels.
In front of the tomb sat the deity Jagannath and his two siblings. Despite their unfinished appearance, which is based on an ancient tale in East India, they were still beautiful, with embellished turbans and distinctive coloring.
Following the main float was a truck carrying in its bed a swan, a symbol of goodness that housed a replica carving of one of the forms of Krishna. Further back was a float covered in paper reflecting the image of Krishna.
The procession went from the park to the University of Tampa. The trip was just over a mile and a half and took around two hours to complete. When the procession came back the crowd was just as excited as when it left.
Upon its return, the crowd headed straight for the vegetarian feast. There was a variety of dishes to warm up the cold crowd, and the scent of the food spread throughout the park.
The previously empty but colorful tents had now begun to draw interest. Some construction workers from across the street came by to see the booths, which housed a sort of crash course in Indian culture. One booth explained reincarnation and karma, another highlighted the benefits of a vegetarian diet, yet another showcased the history of the event in India and another espoused the Rath Yatra view of current science such as the theory of relativity.While there was plenty going on, one thing seemed more important than anything else: the motto of the day, which, according to one observer was “chant and be happy.”