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FAMILY

The Tall Chariots

The festival, based on a 2,000-year-old Hindu ceremony, is a celebration of life.

July 29, 1999|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't expect to see gladiators and stamping hooves at Sunday's Festival of Chariots. The "chariots" are actually 10-story-high floats pulled by people--not racing ponies--in a festive procession down Ocean Front Walk from Santa Monica to Venice.

The 23rd annual event is an Americanized version of a celebration held for 2,000 years in a temple in the city of Orissa, India. There, Hindus gather from around the countryside to mark the end of the summer and the growing season, according to Debbie Ward, event coordinator. Three chariots--actually the floats--represent the effigies of Krishna, his brother Balarama and his sister Subhadra.

For the Venice event, volunteers will cover the three colorfully painted floats in fresh flowers. The parade kicks off at 11 a.m. from Bay Avenue, traveling south to the festival site at the Venice Beach Pavilion.

Art and exhibit booths will fill the grounds surrounding the pavilion, along with a children's area and three stages for entertainment. A vegetarian feast, which includes pasta salad and burfi (Indian fudge), will be served free to the first 20,000 festival-goers.

"The festival is a celebration of life," said Ward, a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. "It's a spiritually uplifting celebration . . . and a chance to spread a spiritual message through the community."

For those whose only brush with Krishnas has been in an airport or university plaza, the Festival of Chariots could dispel some long-held beliefs. Not all members wear traditional saris or yogi pants. These days, members rely more on regular jobs than on donations, and many of their children go to public schools.

"We're older now," said Ward, 40, mother of three. "More people are having children; things have changed."

Group Is Now Seemingly Mainstream

In the 1970s, the group was even considered a cult by some. Now, mainstream California culture and the philosophy of the Hare Krishnas don't seem so far apart. Vegetarianism, for instance, is no longer the anomaly it was when Ward joined the group at age 16, she said.

Swasti Bhattacharyya, an instructor in Religions of India at UC Riverside, described the religion as an offshoot of Hinduism. "It has Hindu roots, but with more of a Western bent to it," she said. "Unlike Hindis, they believe in one god, Krishna."

As for the Krishnas' affinity for airports, Bhattacharyya said: "You can look at them as people who've found something that has given them meaning and they want to share that . . . or that they're a pain in the butt. Nothing is monolithic."

Although Venice Beach is a hub of diversity, stretching from the traditional to the cultural fringe, it isn't the only place in the country that celebrates the Festival of Chariots. Some exhibitors set to join Sunday's event are making the rounds of festivals from Seattle to New York.

Among the entertainers slated for Sunday are a sitar player, a spiritual rock band, two dance groups from Los Angeles and a theatrical troupe from Florida. Exhibits include clothing and jewelry booths, vegetarian cooking demonstrations and a photo display of chariot festivals held around the world.

In the children's area, hands-on workshops include making (then eating) Indian fry bread, dancing, face-painting and constructing flower garlands. There also will be music and a theatrical show for children.

Besides the vegetarian meal, pizza and other vegetarian foods will be for sale at various booths.

Said Ward of the festival: "It would be good for the vibration of Los Angeles to be uplifting and spiritual for the day."

BE THERE

Festival of Chariots, Venice Beach Pavilion Park, 1530 Ocean Front Walk, Venice. Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free. (310) 837-8147.

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