By Tarini Radha Devi Dasi
Srila Prabhupada’s vision becomes reality in South India’s largest and most developed city.
“The Taj Mahal of the ECR,” exclaimed a German gentleman on beholding the splendor of ISKCON’s Chennai temple, even as the magnificent white shrine, still receiving finishing touches, was partially hidden behind scaffolding. ECR, the popular name for the East Coast Road, is every Chennaite’s cherished pleasure drive, especially on weekends. The ECR connects Chennai with the ancient heritage spot of Mahabalipuram, and the beaches, resorts, and restaurants along the ECR are favorites of the affluent.
Walk a few meters off the ECR to Hare Krishna Land on Bhaktivedanta Swami Road and you come face to face with the stunning temple. Its architecture combines the South Indian Pallava style of Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram (the domes) with the style of Kalinga, or Odisha (the spires). The temple architecture represents principles of the Sthapatya Veda. [See the sidebar “A Representation of the Vedic Concept of the Universe.”] Roughly fifty feet high, the building features a banquet hall in the basement, an auditorium on the ground floor, a balcony on the mezzanine, and above that the main temple hall.
Disciples of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada have been active in Chennai since 1971. Srila Prabhupada said that the city was a “good field” for sowing the seeds of Krishna consciousness. Indeed, in a 1972 tent program conducted by Srila Prabhupada and his disciples, many prominent men of the city, including the chief justice, took an active part. A center was formally established in 1975.
Noting the people’s positive response to Krishna consciousness, Srila Prabhupada wrote in a letter to disciples, “In Madras [Chennai] we have to construct a very gorgeous temple. Now immediately find out some land and begin the construction. Never mind what the cost will be. We are not concerned with the amount of money, but we want a very attractive temple. The money should come from the gentlemen of Madras.”
For many years ISKCON’s leaders in Chennai have been working hard, with this vision of Srila Prabhupada’s firmly in mind. The temple shifted from Adyar to Kilpauk in 1982, and then to T. Nagar in 1988. In 1992 His Holiness Bhanu Swami took over as the temple president and began a dedicated hunt for suitable land. Almost every week he would drive forty-five minutes to the ECR, then a narrow, lonely stretch of road, in the quest for ISKCON Chennai’s permanent home. Although the devotees could not understand his interest in the ECR, he held on to his belief that it would soon develop into something special. At that time devotees were encouraged by the knowledge that other ISKCON centers, such as those in Mumbai, Bhubaneshwar, Vrindavan, and Mayapur, had also begun in remote areas that eventually became the buzz of their respective cities. Finally, in 2002, six acres of land were purchased. The spot seemed ideal—just a few meters from sparkling Buckingham Canal and a few kilometers from the Bay of Bengal. It is also minutes away from VGP Golden Beach, Chennai’s first theme park and a popular holiday spot.
Working hard to collect donations in a city dominated by Saivites (most people in Chennai are devotees of Lord Shiva or believers in impersonalism), the handful of devotees under Bhanu Swami and, from 2004, temple president Sumitra Krishna Dasa steadily worked on constructing the temple, holding grand festivals, and simultaneously expanding the congregation. And they watched with delight as the ECR developed into a scenic beachway. The once narrow road now stretches forty feet across, and the parallel old Mahabalipuram Road has been transformed into an IT corridor, where numerous major corporations have their offices.
The Opening Festival
Billboards, posters, TV spots, newspaper articles, and advertisements on trucks and buses invited the people of Chennai to join in the inaugural events on April 26 last year. Thanks to the publicity, an estimated 35,000 people visited on that day alone. Several TV channels covered the event. Sankara TV presented a live three-hour telecast. Various media outlets interviewed Bhanu Swami and several other devotees.
At 8:00 A.M., the utsava, or “festival,” deities moved in a grand procession from the old temple to the new temple. In front of them were musicians playing the nadasvaram (a regional instrument similar to the shenai), devotees chanting the Lord’s names in nama-sankirtana, and priests reciting Vedic mantras. At 9:00 A.M., the utsava deities and the new deities were ceremoniously presented in simple attire. The deities are Radha-Krishna, with Lalita and Vishakha; Nitai-Gauranga (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Nityananda Prabhu); Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra; and Lakshmi-Nrisimha. The abhisheka, or consecration bath, soon started, accompanied by a kirtana of the holy names that stretched to nearly four hours.
As the abhisheka came to an end and the altar doors closed for the dressing of the deities, devotees moved to the temple rooftop for the installation of the Sudarshana chakra (the disc weapon of Lord Vishnu, which sits atop all Vishnu temples) and the abhisheka of the kalashas (literally, “pitchers” or “pots”) on the spires of the temple. As the devotees poured sacred water on the kalashas, suddenly a low drone was heard, and soon petals of roses, jasmines, and marigolds dropped from a helicopter, property of Indra Air.
All became still when the conch blew to herald the first darshana (viewing) of the deities on Their teakwood altars. Everyone in the temple hall, as well as in the auditorium, the three banquet halls, and the other areas where screens simulcast the events, stood up, their eyes fixed on the altar doors. As the doors opened, devotees fell flat to offer obeisance, expressing gratitude to Their Lordships. The deities smiled benevolently in Their brilliantly sparkling red and yellow outfits and white and red stone jewelry. Bollywood actress Hema Malini, who had flown from Mumbai to her hometown Chennai for the event, joined other charitable donors in offering the first arati.
The rest of the day remained busy. People dropped in nonstop and stood in queues to get a glimpse of the deities. Comments from the guestbook reflect their appreciation: “At last a magnificent Krishna temple in the city.” “An excellent place to bring relatives and friends.” “Magnificent.” “Wonderful.” “Serene.” “Clean and peaceful.” “I can feel the Lord’s presence.” “An unforgettable day. I never thought I would meet God so soon.”
As the sun withdrew its powerful brilliance, the temple’s special lighting effects, designed by international lighting expert Babu Shankar, a native of Chennai, illuminated the inside of the temple, transforming it into a giant rainbow. On both sides of the temple hall, whose border of yellow onyx was lit from below, each pillar was flooded with colors. Shining in the center of the floor was the onyx sahasrara-chakra. Above, reflecting all the lights, was the seven-layer, 500-piece, Himalayan-crystal chandelier.
The construction took ten years, and some people eager for the temple to be completed said it was late. But, referring to the lighting, sound, and ventilation inside the temple, a member of the congregation, Ramachandradev, remarked that although it was late, it had the latest features.
Another devotee, who worked closely on the project, said, “This is too amazing. I cannot believe I had anything to do with the construction of this temple. Like children playing, all we did was put some bricks and sand together. But what has manifested here is the dhama [God’s abode]. The Lord has brought Vaikuntha!”
Devotees at ISKCON Chennai continue to be amazed by the sudden appearance of the spiritual world. Whereas before only a few hundred guests turned up on Sundays, now thousands of devotees throng to the temple daily, and on holidays and weekends the temple hall is constantly full. People have to stand in queues for sadari, in which one symbolically accepts the Lord’s lotus feet on one’s head. The car park, though spread over five acres, is insufficient, and vehicles often spill into the adjoining roads. Vanloads of people from nearby towns and cities also pour in regularly. They can now appreciate the truth in Srila Prabhupada’s words when he said, speaking to his disciples in Mayapur, “Unless we have got a temple like this, nobody would come.”
ISKCON Chennai temple president Sumitra Krishna Dasa remarks, “The temple stands as a magnificent result of the cooperation between the temple residents and the congregation. People are in complete awe and admiration. The Supreme Lord has captivated them by His beauty.”