The Festival of the Holy Name, an annual community staple in Alachua, Florida is celebrating its tenth anniversary starting this week with an incredible ten days of kirtan.
The festival began in 2010, when second generation devotees Govinda Syer, Gaura Shakti Allin and Govinda Cordua decided to create an immersive experience for Alachua community members who couldn’t make it to kirtan events around the country.
The team, under the banner of the Kuli Mela Association (KMA) had already helped organize Kuli Mela events as well as Village of Vrindavan, a recreation of Lord Krishna’s birthplace during Alachua’s Janmastami festival. So they were excited for another chance to inspire their community.
Ten years later, their core team has grown to about twenty people and multiple generations, and the Festival of the Holy Name has become an integral part of the fabric of New Raman Reti. A 2017 Alachua community survey saw devotees rank it as both the event they attended most consistently, and the one that inspired them the most.
This year, for the tenth anniversary, seven evening kirtans in the New Raman Reti temple room from November 22nd to 28th will lead up to the main Festival of the Holy Name from Friday November 29th to Sunday December 1st.
Srila Prabhupada disciple and traveling kirtaniya Badahari Das will facilitate a full immersion into the Holy Name across the first seven evenings. Each evening will begin with a song by one of the Vaishnava Acharyas and then a short presentation by Badahari on the song’s subject matter.
Topics will include how devotee association makes Krishna Katha more potent; how to develop faith in the Holy Name; how to increase humility by chanting attentively; building your relationship with Krishna through chanting; and when Krishna Himself comes to the kirtan.
After sharing his insights and realizations on these topics from a life of chanting, Badahari and other devotees will lead about an hour and a half of kirtan.
“We hope this will help us focus our intention, and make the actual weekend more powerful individually and collectively,” Badahari says.
Adding to the experience, the temple room will be specially decorated, The Higher Taste Café will serve prasadam every evening, and a family-friendly outdoor dining area will be created around the fountain next to the temple with picnic tables and decorative lighting. Each evening, a different family or community team will help cook prasadam.
During the main Festival of the Holy Name over the weekend, meanwhile, festival t-shirts designed by kirtaniya Nadiya Mani will be available with the slogan, “The Holy Name has risen like the shining sun.”
The phrase is taken from verse seven of the song Udilo Aruna Puraba Bhage by Bhaktivinoda Thakur, which reads: “To penetrate the darkness of ignorance and bless everyone’s heart, the Holy Name has risen like the shining sun.”
This theme will be reflected in the large, colorful Festival of India style main tent, where a sun rays effect will be created using gold and silver streamers with special lighting.
To ensure the focus is on the Lord and the Holy Name, kirtan leaders will be announced not more than a day or two prior, and all devotees including lead chanters will sit in a semi-circle facing the festival’s presiding Deities of Sri Sri Nitai Gaurachandra.
Kirtan will run from 10am to 9pm on Friday and Saturday, with most slots lasting 30 to 45 minutes, although towards the evening, as the tent becomes packed and the fervor builds, some will stretch to an hour-and-a-half.
Lead chanters will range from teenagers to local devotees to well-known kirtaniyas from around the world, with a good balance of men and women. Along with traditional instruments and styles, some chanters, especially during the more relaxed lunchtime hours, will incorporate their own instruments and tunes, such as bass guitar, flutes, violins, banjos and cajon drums. To keep the mind engaged, kirtans will vary between high energy, with devotees up on their feet and dancing, and a more meditative mood.
On Sunday, the chanting will continue from 10am until 2pm, ending with a special closing ceremony before everyone takes down the tents and honors prasadam together.
“That’s a very sweet part of the festival,” says co-organizer Govinda Syer.
Throughout, as much effort as possible will be made to create an environment where devotees want to spend the whole day at the festival, and to improve on previous years. Prasadam will be served nonstop all day; the kids’ camp led by educator Mother Mandie will be expanded to a larger space; and a new floor system and additional outside lighting will make everyone more comfortable.
“Another part of giving the devotees a better experience is providing more engagement for them – because a lot of people actually enjoy being part of this service,” Govinda says. “Even the kids help in the kitchen. This year, my daughter said she wants to do fifteen hours with her friends.”
For the team behind Festival of the Holy Name, it’s such service that has transformed their lives.
“A lot of us already had friendships, but doing this service together made them even stronger,” says Govinda. “And it says a lot that although it’s exhausting work, everyone on the team keeps wanting to do it, even after ten years.”
Festival participants of all backgrounds also feel inspired by the festival. “Every year, we get feedback that it’s a lot of people’s highlight of the entire year,” Govinda says. “Many gurukulis and other devotees, old and young, have found their bliss in coming together with their family, their community, their tribe, and chanting together. Even the kids talk about it constantly – it’s a big deal for them. So the festival has been spiritually transformational for many.”
Govinda hopes Festival of the Holy Name’s success will inspire others around the world to make similar efforts.
“Find a team, and find something you can do together that serves your community,” he says.
Audio recordings of the past ten years of FOHN kirtans are also available at https://alachuakirtan.com/