This August, 350 “Kulis,” or members of ISKCON’s second generation, from France, England, Italy, Spain, Germany and Belgium will converge on the rural community of New Mayapur two hours south of Paris, France.
In a way, their journey will be a spiritual trek; one that will end at Europe’s second Kuli Mela in as many years. Kuli Mela—meaning a gathering of community—arose from an effort to mature annual Kuli reunions from mere social events into productive sharing of attendees’ lives and talents.
After its inaugurative festival in New Vrindaban, West Virginia in 2006, Kuli Mela became something of a phenomenon, kicking off a spate of regional events around the world—each with its own theme and mission.
And France’s Kuli Mela promises one of the most interesting themes yet: Ecology. “With high pollution levels around the world, global warming, environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill, and general mistreatment of Mother Earth, it’s an extremely important subject,” says Chandra Bellamy, one of Kuli Mela France’s ten-strong organizational team.
It’s no accident that the team has chosen New Mayapur, an 85-hectare rural community set around a historic castle, as the location for the event. “Srila Prabhupada’s dream for New Mayapur when it was established in the 1970s was to have it become a self-sufficient community,” Chandra says. “And our goal at this Mela is to inspire a return to the simple life of gardening, working the land, and taking care of cows that he taught.”
Many of the workshops offered over the five days of the Mela, from August 5th to 8th, will pursue this goal. Dhanesvara Dasa, author of Lessons in Spiritual Economics from the Bhagavad-gita and inspiration behind village communities in Lithuania and Ukraine, will speak on spiritual economics and how to understand and apply Vedic Dharma in managing a rural community.
Yamuna Dasi from the UK, meanwhile, will speak about climate change, and about how to resist a globalized and capitalized world.
And French native Prema Rasa Dasa, herbalist and author of The Art of Cooking With Wild Plants, will conduct an experiential workshop were attendees will learn how to recognize, choose and pick wild herbs in the forest land around New Mayapur, before cooking up and eating them.
Several films with ecological themes will also be shown at the event. There’s “The Lost Village,” a documentary produced by Bhakti Vaibhava Swami and starring Lokanath Swami, which examines the destruction of traditional village life in India by urbanization. There’s Food, Inc., an Oscar-nominated documentary that explores the food industry’s detrimental effects on our health and environment. And there’s Solutions Locales pour un Désordre Global—or “Local Solutions for a Global Disorder”—a French film by director Coline Serreau, who traveled around the world for three years with her camera, seeking community village initiatives across India, Brazil, and Russia.
The environmental consciousness of Kuli Mela France even extends as far as dinnerware. “We will give each attendee their own plate and cup bearing the Kuli Mela logo, which they will use for the entire event,” Chandra says. “At the end of the Mela, they will either keep them as souvenirs, or we will return them to the company they came from for recycling.”
The meals themselves—breakfast, lunch, and a light dinner every day—will be organic, with half of the vegetables used to be grown by Kulis themselves or donated by devotee farmer Kutastha Dasa, and the other half to be purchased locally. Chef duties will be performed by Rupanuga Dasa, an expert with five years of experience cooking for organic fair crowds.
“Even the snacks we serve will be organic and healthy,” says Chandra, ticking off a list of delicacies including French crêpes and Indian chaat snacks such as pani puris, dahi puris, and aloo tikkis. “You won’t find any pizza, Coca-Cola, or fries at this event!”
As well as emphasizing the importance of self-sufficiency, the Kuli Mela France organizers hope to create a consciousness of valuing ISKCON’s rural farm communities, and to inspire Kulis to get involved so that they don’t disappear.
This is not merely theoretical—after fifteen years in decline, the New Mayapur property narrowly missed getting sold off several years ago. And the community—which many French Kulis grew up in—is still struggling, with only a handful of devotees living in the temple and maintaining the Deities.
“We see this Kuli Mela as an opportunity to get the community back on track,” Chandra says. “A group of youth are already interested in settling in New Mayapur and building up the project. And we feel that the Mela may attract more young people to start something there, or at least contribute six months of their time.
And little by little, something can happen.”
That vision will start with hundreds of Kulis arriving at New Mayapur for the Mela’s opening ceremony on August 4th. The next day, meanwhile, will begin bright and early.
“Our Deities at New Mayapur—Sri-Sri Radha Govinda, Krishna-Balarama, and Gaura-Nitai— are so beautiful, adorned with locally grown flowers and beautifully decorated by the head pujari (priest) Visesa Dasi,” says Chandra. “But They don’t see many devotees throughout the year. So we’re really encouraging all the Kulis to attend the temple program every morning and give Them as much devotion and attention as possible.”
Breakfast on each day of the Mela will be served at 9am, followed by workshops from 10:00am to 1pm. After lunch, another session will follow, from 3pm until 6pm. As well as those with an ecological theme, a total of fifteen workshops will cover a wide variety of topics such as yoga, massage, dance therapy, pottery, transformative communication, and self defense using martial arts.
Bhajan singing will be held throughout the day in the temple room, while evenings from 7pm till midnight will see a wide variety of musical entertainment.
Singer Prana Ji and guitarist Mathura Dasa of the Bindoo Babas, an alternative reggae/jazz band based in the UK, will have Kulis jiving to their ‘70s inspired easy-going grooves. Michi, former frontman of the Spanish hip-hop group Dhira, will appear solo with his energetic and catchy melodies and rhymes. Hardcore metal band Bhimal from Poland are sure to inspire a head-banging mosh pit. And acoustic folk artists Jaya and Govinda from France and Chakrini from the UK will bring a more chilled-out vibe with their soulful sets.
Meanwhile, kirtan singer Madhava Naidoo will have everyone chanting and dancing their hearts out, sending the Holy Name of Krishna soaring into the sky.
“There will also be a lot of electronic music and DJs,” Chandra says, “Including Ashirvad, who will play a set based on their epic musical journey across sacred India; Silly Pundit and Haridas from the UK, DJ Veda from France, and DJ Sanj with his Bollywood beats.”
The festival will be rounded out with an evening of Indian music and dance featuring dancers from France and Belgium, including bhajans, classical Odissi dance and Bollywood Dance.
“As well as Kulis, the Mela will be attended by friends of ours from neighbouring cities whom we’ve invited to experience our culture,” says Chandra, “So we hope the event will bring everyone together.”
Senior devotees from around the world will also be a strong presence at the event—ISKCON had a large, thriving community in France in the 1980s, and Kuli Mela will be an opportunity for all those who have since moved to the US, Australia, and other countries to reunite at New Mayapur and spend some time together.
“We would like this Mela to leave people with an enthusiastic feeling of happiness and creativity, and to inspire them to become active in the New Mayapura community,” says Chandra.
The New Mayapur guesthouse has already sold out for Kuli Mela, although space remains in two large tents to be used as men’s and women’s dormitories. Attendees also have the option to camp using their own tents or to stay at one of several hotels in the area. Shower and toilet facilities will be provided on site. For more information, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.