Georgetown, Guyana – Nearly a decade has passed since the last Padayatra travelled through the villages of Guyana. For many in this small, tropical South American country, that was likely the last time they had come in contact with the devotees of Krishna – until now. Through the revival efforts of His Grace Ram-Lila Dasa, a Guyanese-born accountant from Canada and disciple of Bhaktimarga Swami, and a host of other members from the ISKCON community in Guyana, Padayatra once again graced the village streets of Guyana from January 26 – February 1. During this week long festival, devotees, well wishers, and enthusiastic onlookers covered approximately 40 kilometers through some of the most populated villages en route to Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana.
Padayatra, which means “festival on foot”, was first launched in Guyana by Agrani Swami in 1989. The inaugural walk commenced in the easternmost village of Crabwood Creek, near the Suriname border, and covered approximately 200 kilometers along the Atlantic coastline. Due to Guyana’s geography, the vast majority of the country’s inhabitants live along the coastline. Following a hiatus of several years, the Padayatra festival was revived in the mid 1990s, this time covering a 50 kilometer stretch along the West Coast of the Demerara. This second campaign was special because it was graced by the World Padayatra Minister, Lokanath Swami.
Now, after nearly a ten year absence, Padayatra has finally returned to Guyana. To many in this ISKCON community, the day prior to the start of the festival proved equally momentous. It was on that hot and humid Sunday morning that Sri Sri Nitai Gaurasundara appeared at the Nimai Pandit Study Center, an ISKCON preaching center located a few blocks from the University of Guyana. Thanks to the generosity of Ram-Lila Dasa, the deities of Nitai Gaurasundara were brought from Mayapur especially for the revival of the Padayatra festival. With the installation now complete, the festival was ready to begin.
An overcast sky provided a respite from the scorching sun for the padayatris (attendees) on the first day of Padayatra 2009. One couldn’t help but wonder if the dark, gray skies were a precursor of bad things to come. It was exactly one year to the day that racial tensions erupted in the village of Buxton, the locale for the first day’s procession. The victims of this tragedy were young children, shot mercilessly while lying in their beds. The army was dispatched to quash the violent outbreak, but the damage had already been done. For the ISKCON community, it seemed only fitting that the first day of Padayatra take place in these same streets as the slogan for this year’s Padayatra spoke of “peace and unity”.
Padayatra 2009 was ready to begin. Sri Sri Nitai Gaurasundara were carefully mounted to Their beautifully painted cart, adorned with colorful flowers. Honored guests included Bhaktimarga Swami, Ajamil Prabhu, a charismatic Bengali kirtan leader from Canada, and Bhutadi Dasa, a senior devotee from Guyana and disciple of Srila Prabhupada. Devotees assumed their respective positions as chanters, dancers, and distributors. Shortly thereafter, the procession commenced.
The parade brought the enthusiastic crowd of devotees through the unpaved streets of this predominantly black village. The sounds of harmonious singing and drumming filled the air as local kirtan leaders, Ajamil Prabhu, and Bhaktimarga Swami took turns leading the chanting. Intrigued onlookers came out onto their balconies and soon thereafter, the streets became filled with villagers trying to catch a glimpse of the festivities. Devotees greeted onlookers with waves and distributed prasadam (sanctified food) and pamphlets to the crowd on the street. Several young children ran out of their homes and approached the Padayatra, looking for a small piece of Krishna prasadam. Many who were sitting on their balconies two stories above the procession came down to the street level to accept prasadam. Others who remained on their balconies but still wanted this small offering received it through the air, as undaunted devotees launched little pieces of prasadam as if they were baseball pitchers. Smiles could be seen everywhere, on the faces of the devotees and the villagers alike.
His Grace Radha Gopinath Dasa, a business owner from Canada and first time visitor to Guyana, experienced the villagers’ receptiveness first hand. While distributing prasadam, he came across a local pub. Not one to discriminate, he entered the pub and started to hand out prasadam. As he approached one man, the man hid the bottle of beer as a sign of respect and offered him a donation. It was clear that the money he donated was the money he was going to use to buy his next drink and quite possibly, the only dollars he had left. This is one of many instances in which people gave whatever little they had to Krishna.
With each passing day, the procession brought the devotees closer to the nation’s capital as they passed through the towns of Annandale, Lusignan, Mon Repos, LBI, Montrose, and Ogle, eventually concluding at Cummings Lodge. Many aspects of the festival remained the same day after day: the blazing sun, the unpaved roads with gigantic potholes, the singing and dancing, the distribution of books and prasadam, and the smiling faces. The one thing that seemed noticeably different as each day passed was the crowd; it had grown in number each day. People of all ages, races, and religions seemed to be pleased with the Padayatra.
Following the daily processions, devotees and guests gathered at the festival sites for evenings of bhajans, presentations, arati, kirtan, and a highly anticipated drama. Prior to each evening program, devotees assembled during the day and braved the sweltering heat to set up the tent areas, construct the stage, and set up the electronics. Throughout the course of the week, many distinguished guests, including several local religious leaders, attended the evening programs. Some received the chance to address the crowd while others were given the opportunity to lead bhajans. By encouraging others to be involved, ISKCON stayed true to this year’s Padayatra slogan which called for “peace, unity, and national well being.”
The second evening program, at Lusignan, was a momentous occasion as the Prime Minister and Acting President of Guyana, the Honorable Sam Hinds, attended the program. Honorable Hinds addressed the crowd, openly recognized the work of the organizers and praised them for their efforts to thrust the notion of peace into a world of social disturbance. The Acting President also stayed for the nightly arati of Sri Sri Nitai Gaurasundara and was stationed in the front row, right before the deities. Television crews and other media outlets swarmed the festival site, covering this news worthy event from all angles. This national coverage served as great advertisement for the Padaytra festival.
Beginning on the fourth night, the highly anticipated drama, “The Gita”, debuted. Written and directed by Bhaktimarga Swami, the drama tells the story of Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield of Kuruksetra and highlights different aspects of the philosophy found in the Bhagavad-Gita. To deliver this wonderful presentation, Bhaktimarga Swami enlisted the services of twelve young men, many of whom had never acted or been onstage before. Through his dedication and perseverance, he molded this group of novice actors into great showman. The drama was huge success as both devotees and guests complimented the performances.
Each evening program concluded with arati and kirtan, lead by Ajamil Prabhu. Devotees and guests sang and danced to their hearts’ desire. By the middle part of the week, the evening programs had swelled to between 1,000 – 2,000 people. To see that people of all races, religions, and social classes could come together and enjoy themselves was truly inspirational.
In conjunction with the Padayatra festival, Bhaktimarga Swami set out to walk across Guyana. To this point, he has walked across Canada three times and most recently, he completed a walk across Ireland in 2007. The objective of his walk: to meet people along the way and serve as a source of inspiration. During his short two week stay in Guyana he covered approximately 230 kilometers along the Atlantic coastline, traveling as far east as Corriverton and as far west as Parika.
Along the way, Bhaktimarga Swami encountered many people and noticed a feeling of friendliness and receptiveness unmatched by any other country either had visited. People of this land almost always waved back when waved to and almost always exchanged cordial greetings when spoken to. Bhaktimarga Swami became somewhat of a celebrity as a news article was published in the Kaieteur News about his walk. The headline read, “Walking Monk on Guyana Journey”. Many people recognized him as he covered the majority of the country on this trip. Everyone who came in contact with him seemed pleased that he was there and respected the mission he had sought out to complete. The people of this country are truly wonderful.
The overwhelming success of Padayatra 2009 is not about to lose momentum. Organizers have already started preliminary discussions for the next Padayatra in Guyana. By holding festivals such as these, we come one step closer to realizing Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s prediction that “the holy name will be heard in every town and village of the world.”
[ guyana ] [ padayatra ] [ south-america ]