Any guest staying at the Sheraton Grand Park Lane Hotel on London Piccadilly who was not only fortunate enough to be ensconced in a main-road facing room, but just so happened to be casually gazing out of the window this Sunday lunchtime, might well have witnessed the famous thoroughfare being brought to near-standstill – in a rather delightful way.
Nearing Stand-still – London Piccadilly
Anyone not already peering out of their well-positioned glass pane would surely be drawn towards it by the resonant beat of mystical mantra music emanating from somewhere not too far below its elegant casement.
You see, a Five-Star window here is not just a structural opening to let in light and air, but also a (Piccadilly-facing!) Portal to the Divine.
Resident tourists not yet braving the great outdoors, on what really felt like the hottest day of the year so far, to take a short stroll that would soon bring them to nearby attractions like Green Park, Buckingham Palace, Knightsbridge, Bond Street, and West End Theatres, could instead, on a whim, elect to stay put and record the riot of sensuous colour and mélange of sacred and ultimately unifying sound – as duly generated by this Hindu festival of Rathayatra – from the comfort of their own shaded vantage point.
This is, after all, West London, and these hotel-guests have chosen to stay in one of the finest and most distinguished streets in the world.
Expectation here runs (very) high.
Great Expectations – Sheraton Grand
Even if it’s (as yet!) impossible to pick up something as intangible as a ‘good vibe’ with a mere Smartphone, these neat little devices of ours can, if handled carefully enough at opportune moments, capture and retain instances of huge significance and/or themes of great aesthetic appeal, enabling us to hold on to that precious memory indefinitely and, even better, allowing us to show it off to our friends.
But the more discerning of Piccadilly’s temporary residents might just see beyond the ‘tourist attraction’ element of the superb celebration going on right under their noses. Who knows, they may even see fit to pause, reflect, and, maybe even consider taking some time out in the (not-too-distant) future to recharge their own (perhaps depleted?) spiritual batteries (never mind their Smartphones).
‘All year round a person needs to go to the temple to see the Lord but at Rathayatra the Lord comes out for the day.’
Surely, no amount of room-service could ever be as good as this.
Better than Room-service
Either way, these visitors, by fortunate coincidence, get to witness first-hand how this vibrant annual procession, in timeless Indian tradition, follows the initial part of its tried-and-tested pathway from Hyde Park Corner, South Carriage Drive, along Piccadilly, before going on to wend its way down Haymarket with the clear intention of pulling up for a gloriously sunny afternoon replete with spiritually-themed entertainment, drama, dance, philosophy and feasting, (albeit under the beady, watchful eyes of Admiral Horatio Nelson himself on his sturdy and historic column) in good old Trafalgar Square.
Immaculately presented – Sacred Cart
London Rathayatra 2017, while remaining fully spiritually charged throughout, (‘Ratha-yatra’ meaning ‘chariot festival’ and originating in Jagannatha Puri in Orissa on India’s eastern coast), nonetheless never takes itself too seriously to be able to indulge in a bit of spontaneous fun.
The Beauties and the (friendly) Beasts
Three huge hand-pulled chariots, carrying the deity forms of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra, form not just the focal point of the biggest UK parade of its kind, but also lay the template for a staggered relay of sister-events scheduled to take place across UK and Europe throughout the coming summer months, as select cities each take their turn in hosting their own locally-flavoured rendition of this unique celebration.
Hopefully their chosen dates will all be as sun-drenched as London’s, although soaring summertime temperatures can be a little challenging when you’re on the move (even if quite slowly). UK-based devotees were no doubt grateful for the bit of dappled shade afforded by those leafy trees that border the Green Park side of Piccadilly.
Many were sensible enough to be wearing hats, tucking themselves under saris or staying beneath parasols as the sun beat relentlessly down.
Where on the Globe? Rathayatra
But so dense was this wide sea of saris, faces, costumes and colours, that geographic location became secondary in a scene that could be playing itself out anywhere on the globe. It was only intermittent glimpses caught of familiar London landmarks, like that ultimate symbol of high society and luxury, the Ritz hotel, upmarket department store Fortnum and Mason, or London’s oldest bookshop, Hatchards of Piccadilly, that that served to pinpoint with any precision where exactly this inclusive and non-sectarian public spectacle of Eastern culture and spirituality blended, at any given time, so seamlessly with its Western metropolitan backdrop.
Hatchards of Piccadilly (and Fortnum & Mason)
Adverts and Eros – Piccadilly Circus
As the procession swung round Piccadilly Circus’ bright and boldly brandished advertisements, participants could, in passing (and if they so desired), choose to casually greet Eros, god of love, before carrying on to pitch up at their final destination, where extremely long but orderly and fast-enough-moving queues were already quickly forming themselves to patiently wait for generous portions served up from what seemed to be a never-ending source of sanctified food known as Prasadam.
Perfection on a (Paper) Plate – Prasadam
So now that you’re all here and truly in the moment, do come back for seconds (if you want), just don’t waste any of this stuff that’s taken us days to prepare.
Why would you, when food (surely) doesn’t come any better than this?
Further into the afternoon, those who, for the time being, have had their share of kirtan and bhajana, browsed through sufficient transcendental books and CDs, and, for now at least, have watched and listened to enough stage performance while taking in plenty of spiritual talk, can still avail themselves of water freely supplied and, if they wish, partake of tempting sweets and fruit as meticulously doled out by stalwarts still working through the heat in order to make sure that everyone’s equilibrium stays nicely balanced for the duration.
Built for the Sun – a Devotee staying Cool
So any chance-visitors to the National Gallery this Sunday afternoon will find it not just housing choice works of art, but standing serenely as a splendid outdoor stage setting to the now static deities poised high up on their wooden carts, as they grandly preside over the teeming festivities covering the entire (and presently sacred) space of Trafalgar Square.
All The World’s a Stage – The National Gallery
Because now, Horatio himself has the Hare Krishna ‘maha mantra’ firmly affixed to the base of his column and, for a few hours at least, he stands taller than ever in his current incarnation as a towering monument to Krishna Consciousness.
Nothing if not Versatile – Nelson’s Column
And, as late afternoon merges gradually with early evening, this most iconic of public spaces is now the real spiritual heart in the City of Westminster.
It doesn’t get more London than Trafalgar Square and, somehow, Trafalgar Square has never looked more transcendent.
A True Spiritual Heart – Trafalgar Square