I could barely believe that three-and-a-half million people could converge at the Art Of Living’s (AOL) World Culture Festival (WCF) in one day. So, I made a beeline to New Dehli in India to be part of the historic event, held on the Yamuna Bank plains from March 11–13.
I made the trip with much trepidation and anxiety, unsure of what it would be like to be among such a mass of people. But seeing is believing – spectators started entering the festival grounds from noon when the gates opened on the first day. By 5pm, there was already a crowd of one million participants.
The 405ha site adjacent to the Yamuna River flood plains saw double the crowd of the million who turn up at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur annually for Thaipusam. However, having covered the religious festival for more than 20 years, the crowd at WCF, instead, came from every corner of the world.
In the end, a record crowd of 3.75 million people converged over the three days. More than 37,000 artists from 155 countries descended upon New Delhi to showcase their unique sights, sounds and tastes.
They were mostly AOL followers and supporters reverberating with hope that the world can come together and work towards peace, despite differences in faiths and beliefs.
The rain and hailstorm on the opening day failed to dampen the spirits of those who flocked to the flood plains of Yamuna river.
In the name of peace
Together with more than a million on the first day, I braved the storm and waded through slushy mud tracks for more than 2km to reach the stage. It was worth the trip after being trapped in a two-hour traffic jam heading to the festival.
I was fortunate to witness dance and music on the world’s largest stage, spread over seven acres. The main attraction of the festival was on March 13, when a “Peace Meditation” session was held under the open skies and serene banks of the Yamuna.
The Indian media may have carried negative reports of WCF endangering the biodiversity of the river’s environment prior to the event, but this festival, instead, symbolised the harmonious coexistence of various races and religions from all over the world. It celebrated diversity by bringing together the power of the people on a common platform – through dance and music.
The festival was such a success, the Indian media reported that the leaders of Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Australia and Paraguay have also invited AOL to organise a festival of this nature in their countries.
AOL’s founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, marked the momentous occasion during its opening, saying: “I belong to you all. The people gathered here from all religions, all nationalities to give this message, we are a one-world family. From regional consciousness to national and then to universal consciousness, this is the growth that the human race is looking for. It is so heartening to see people from Pakistan here, and our neighbours from Nepal and Bhutan.
“We also have a chief guest from Syria, the Grand Mufti of Syria. We have people from Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan here. We all need to wake up to the human values that all religions have been talking about all through the ages. Since time immemorial, all religions have taught one thing – and that is to uplift humanity.”
AOL has been offering stress elimination programmes, which include breathing techniques, meditation and yoga. These programmes have helped millions globally to overcome stress, depression and violent tendencies.
AOL followers and supporters have spread peace and assistance in humanitarian projects, conflict resolution, disaster relief, sustainable rural development, empowerment of women, prisoner rehabilitation, education for all and environment sustainability.
As one family
WCF’s hallmark of peace and unity was on full display, and this was reflected in the presence of various dignitaries and state leaders from India and abroad. The festival was a celebration of 35 years of Art of Living’s service to humanity, spirituality and human values.
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, inaugurated the grand celebrations with a rousing address: “I compliment Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for completing 35 years of service involving over 150 countries. India is so diverse and it has so much to contribute to the world. Through AOL, the world has got to know about India. The WCF is like the Kumbh Mela of Art and Cultures.”
To that, Ravi Shankar responded: “We have always dreamt of the world as one family. Today, that dream seems to be taking shape in reality. We are all one. People have come from far and wide. I welcome you all here, and I would say that you have all come to your home. This is a spiritual home for all.
“Today we are sending a strong message of oneness to the whole world when it is much needed, when there is such a big gap between communities, nations, and between ideologies.”
The magnificent event lived up to its promise of the world’s largest celebration of diversity as it was inaugurated by 1,000 students who recited Vedic chants from ancient scriptures that resonated with peace, which is at the core of the festival.
The highlight of the opening evening showcased AOL’s Grand Symphony, where 8,500 international musicians mesmerised the audience with their musical potpourri.
And among the thronging crowd, Malaysians figured highly – over 1,000 participated in the festival. A Malaysian AOL leader and coordinator, Ee Mei Lee, observed that WCF was the largest congregation of various cultures. “It was hailed as an immense effort for world peace by heads of states of many countries. It was enthralling to watch the thousands of performers on the largest stage ever made. The undying enthusiasm of the performers even in the pouring rain was amazing.”
Another Malaysian, Nirmala Perumal, said that despite the rain, hailstones, chilly winds and muddy tracks, the participants’ disposition was one of calmness and cheerfulness. “I did not hear complaints of discomfort or regret.
“The epitome of this calm and happiness was Farada, an 85-year-old Iranian who was pushed around in a wheelchair and had a gentle smile imprinted on her face throughout. The meditation session was simply mind-blowing – pin drop silence of a multitude of people, yielding a surge of positive energy and happiness that was totally infectious.