A Padayatra program toured Lithuania, a country in Europe’s Baltic region, from June 23rd to 30th this summer, spreading the Holy Names via Harinama Sankirtana and Rathayatra parades.
The program began twenty-five years ago as the literal definition of Padayatra (walking pilgrimage), and later evolved into a bus tour.
This year, forty-five devotees from all over Lithuania participated, with many more joining them in major cities. Special guests included GBC Bhakti Chaitanya Swami, and Prabhupada disciple Adikarta Das.
The group traveled a total of 1,000 kilometers by bus, starting in Kedainiai in the middle of the country, and ending in the resort city of Palanga on the West Coast. Along the way, they stopped in eleven cities, putting on two events – either Harinamas or Rathayatras – each day.
While chanting, pulling their Rathayatra chariot, and following a pre-set route with permission from the city government, devotees also distributed 848 of Srila Prabhupada’s books, and some 1,000 prasadam sweets.
“In Trakai, people were looking at us from their balconies or windows, and catching the sweets we were throwing to them,” recalls organizer Ananda Gaurangi Dasi. “Other highlights were Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, where we had a big Harinama with all the local devotees; and Siauliai, where we met with more people than we ever had there before, all smiling and welcoming us so nicely.”
In some cities with active devotee communities, the locals organize events for the Padayatra. In Mazeikiai, for instance, two devotees who are local music stars put on a concert to attract an audience. The crowd then participated in the Rathayatra parade, sari photo sessions, and children’s programs, and purchased prasadam and devotional items at the booths.
The Padayatra concluded with the longest and biggest festival in Palanga, Lithuania’s main resort city, where people from all over the country come for their vacations.
“In bigger cities, people are not surprised to see us,” says Ananda Gaurangi. “But in Palanga, there are many tourists from smaller cities and villages who are seeing us for the first time. They’re mostly happy and open to see something new and exotic. So we met a lot of positive people, and distributed four times as many books as usual.”
Although the Palanga Rathayatra lasted four hours and devotees were exhausted, half the crew were so inspired afterwards that they headed to another nearby resort town for a final late night Harinama.
“We were supposed to just pack up, go to bed and go home the next morning,” Ananda Gaurangi says. “But the devotees didn’t want Padayatra to end. So after everything, at 10 o’clock at night, we went to the nearby town of Sventoji and chanted four two hours until midnight. It was a very warm and cozy family mood.”
Padayatra is one of ISKCON Lithuania’s main outreach programs, taking the Holy Name to places where people might not otherwise hear it.
“Some people are angry and call out insults at us,” says Ananda Gaurangi. “But most people are nice – they smile at us, and take photos and video. Some even join in and sing and dance, or help us pull Lord Jagannath’s chariot. Last year, in Palanga, one drunk, homeless man was pulling the chariot and loundly singing the Hare Krishna maha-mantra – and this year, I saw him again, doing the very same thing!”
The Padayatra plants seeds which may grow sooner or later. “One woman told us she had been looking for devotees, but couldn’t find any in her city, and wanted to know how to communicate with them,” Ananda says. “Another time, after a Rathayatra, I saw a few girls buy saris. The devotees who staffed the tent welcomed them very nicely, and I think in the future they will remember the devotees, and maybe one day come back to them.”
As well as being beneficial for the public, the Padayatra is also a great spiritual bonding experience for devotees.
“We a full morning program every morning, all the way from mangala arati to Srimad-Bhagavatam class,” says Ananda. “And every evening, the devotees have time to associate, serve together, make garlands together… so it’s really nice for them. There’s a group of devotees who go every year, and never miss it – and some new devotees join us every year. And it keeps getting better and better. Most of the devotees told me that this year was the best Padayatra so far!”