July 19, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Metro Detroit Hindus affirm faith at Festival of Chariots

Novi— They raised the coconuts high above their heads and smashed them into the ground, showering the crowd with milk and shell and blessing a path for the gods on their journey.

So began the 29th annual Rath Yatra, or the Festival of Chariots, where thousands of the Hindu faith join together to pull their deities through the streets on a 40-foot tall cart.

“Other than this holiday, 364 days a year we have to go to the temple to see them, said Ranganath Rayasam, of Novi. “They show up for the public and that’s just an amazing thing.”

On Saturday, the roads near Novi’s civic center and public library became a 2½-mile parade route for the divinities Lord Jagannath (Krishna), his brother Lord Balabhadra and his sister Devi Subhadra.

The celebration in Novi is a scaled-down version of what took place in India at the end of June. Three chariots, each four times as high as the one in Novi, are pulled through the streets with close to a million attendees watching. Each deity gets its own chariot.

The festival in Novi includes one 40-foot tall chariot, a collapsible and easily transportable cart that lowers to fit under power lines and street lights. Two hundred foot long ropes stretch out ahead of the chariot and everyone joins together to pull.

Prior to that, an opening ceremony was held with traditional dance and kirtan, or drumming, as well as words from Novi Mayor Bob Gatt. For the last six years, the festival has been held in the city, after it was moved from Belle Isle in Detroit.

“All over the world people are celebrating the chariots festival,” Gatt told the crowd of hundreds, “and we in Novi are so fortunate you have chosen our city to celebrate this wonderful event.”

An intricate invocation prayer and ceremony are held before the chariot can be pulled. Priest Jagutguru Prabhuji with the ISKCON Temple of Detroit threw handfuls of flower petals over the chariot and the devotees, before blowing into a conch shell and signaling the moment for breaking the coconuts.

For many attendees, the festival was an important reminder of home.

“I feel very proud that a lot of people come to my city,” said Radhesvari Gopika, who moved to the U.S. from India seven years ago.

She explained that even for spectators who don’t fully understand or participate in the faith, the blessings of the gods extend to all on this day.

“All they have to do is come and take part and their lives will be very blessed,” she said.

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Puja Singh, right, 32, celebrates with family friend, three-month-old Mukund Gupta, both of Troy. / Todd McInturf / The Detroit News
The faithful pull the chariot together to pull God back into their hearts. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)