By Mfundo Nkosi
Nicknamed “The Cake” by local residents, the Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama Temple opens in Gaborone, Botswana.
As we venture over the northwestern border of South Africa by car into Botswana, we sense an almost instant change in landscape. The mercury seems to have crept up a notch or two as we drive along a narrow road away from the border post, headed towards the county’s capital, Gaborone. The dry Kalahari terrain is meagerly populated with plant life. The beige sand extends as far as the horizon and is decorated with greenish-brown hues of what little vegetation there is. The semi-arid, sandy savannah is under the full brunt of the sun that shines through a cloudless sky on this day.
As we near the outskirts of the city, this sparsely populated tract of land slowly transforms into a residential area. We are quick to notice how the residents have embraced the modern way of life. Despite the well-built roads and impressive infrastructure, among all the urbanization you still find small informal houses.
Botswana is on the rise economically. It boasts an impressive array of natural resources, the most famous of which are its diamonds. Botswana also ranks as one of the most stable democracies in Africa, with a currency, the pula, to match this stability, which has attracted international interest in the form of foreign investment.
Situated in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, the land is particularly difficult to inhabit. Thus there is no surprise that Botswana is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with a population of just over two million. Nonetheless it has made significant strides in education and economic development.
Contemplating the material prospects of Botswana, you detect that the future bodes well for this land. However, in conjunction with these thoughts I begin to envisage what the spiritual prospects of this nation may be. What wealth can we find beyond the monetary value that attracts foreign traders? What beauty can we marvel at other than the natural landscape? What treasure could be uncovered of greater value than diamonds and coal? Upon ending my enquiry I open my eyes and look ahead. There stands the answer to my questions: ISKCON’s Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama Temple.
Atop a mighty dome the Lord’s Sudarshana chakra graces the sky. The white and saffron tones of the temple structure make the scene all the more dramatic, breaking the monotony of the surroundings. The temple is a buzz of activity. Cars line the roadside, some squeezed into tiny corners. People flow in and out of the main temple entrance. Balloons, festoons, banners, and festival planners are everywhere. We have entered an oasis where the scorching heat is dispelled by the shower of devotees’ love, the cooling breeze carrying the scent of prasada, and a delightful kirtana permeating the ether in all directions.
The intricate detail of the temple can only be appreciated up close. Meticulously carved into and painted on the building are images of peacocks, tilaka, cows, elephants, and many elaborate patterns. A staircase, towered over by three magnificent barrel arches, leads up to the temple room, the epicenter of this spiritual environment. The high ceiling of the temple room immediately invokes an aura of majesty. The main altar stands to the right as you enter, with a grand stage directly opposite the altar at the other end of the hall. Flanking the left side of the main altar is Srila Prabhupada, sitting peacefully on his vyasasana. Rising from the marble tiled floor after offering obeisances, I notice the dioramas depicting the ten principal incarnations of the Lord lining the walls.
The temple architecture—the workmanship, painting, and thought behind every detail—easily captures anyone’s imagination. The beauty of the structure, however, isn’t confined to the daytime. The temple is also the first fully LED-lit building in Botswana. Not only does this save on energy, but it makes for a spectacular night visual.
The story behind every brick laid, every nail hammered, and every color brush-stroked is an account of how much dedication and commitment was given by all persons involved with the construction. Eager to learn more, I read a summary of the construction history that reveals the sheer scale of this project. More than half a million bricks were used (570,000), as well as 6,250 bags of cement, 37 tons of steel, 10,000 square meters of tiling, 4,500 liters of paint, and countless man hours spent building and planning. These awe-inspiring figures create a curiosity in me to meet the team involved with the construction and find out their stories.
The People Behind the Project
Sitting in the temple gardens, I get a chance to speak with Seva Manjari Devi Dasi and her daughter, Srini. Seva Manjari is eager to tell me of her involvement.
“When we started painting the dioramas, I was still working fulltime and my daughter was a fulltime student in university. She was doing a double major in administration and environmental science. I was working half a day, and I realized how much time and raw material were being wasted. Many of the dioramas were carved in my absence, but we weren’t entirely happy with the work, and they had to be broken again and again. So I decided to leave my job and dedicate all my time on the dioramas. I left my job as a floor manager and joined Devakinandana Prabhu [the construction project manager].
“To leave my job was a big thing because so many things were dependent on it. My husband at the time was paralyzed, and we lived with my mother. My mother is eighty-three, so she was dependent on me too. So I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. To leave a job was a very big decision in my life because that means there was no income. So Devakinandana Prabhu said, ‘You left your job for my sake and for Krishna’s temple, so we will give you something to run your family.’ So he made arrangements so I could get support for my family.”
While the temple management helped support her family, her husband and her daughter, Srini, supported her efforts in helping build the temple. For example, when she would sometimes work late into the night, her family offered support by staying up late to chant the holy names. Her husband passed away in February of 2012, while the construction was going on. After only three days, she returned to her work on the project.
Next I speak with Atmatattva Dasa. He straightaway narrates his experience with Krishna and Balarama.
“Only a year ago you could take darshana of Krishna and Balarama and you would be only a meter or two away from Them. It was very personal and very intimate being so close to Them back then. Today we’re celebrating the grand opening of Their temple. So it’s been a journey. Everyone who passes by this temple slows down and looks in wonder. The temple does all the preaching. It’s a beautiful building. It looks like a cake.
“The success of the temple will be based on how it will touch people. The main challenge going forward is going beyond the bodily concept. A large number of the population still think it’s a Hindu thing. Books are the solution. We need to invite people to programs and show this isn’t exclusive to a particular race or religion. This is the biggest challenge, but if conquered it will be the biggest triumph.”
What is the vision of the temple going forward, especially with regard to the African community? I ask Gauri Dasa, who works on the development master plan for Bhaktivedanta Manor in London and is a close friend of Devakinandana Dasa.
“From my experience, taking care of people is the key. We need to be patient, careful, inclusive, and accommodating to all. We need to galvanize the community and make them part of our long-term plan. Krishna consciousness has to be integrated into the African context. What is it that will appeal to the African population without losing the essence of what we’re teaching?”
“I heard they call the temple ‘The Cake,'” he said, laughing. “I did not see it as a cake, but after hearing it from the local people, I understand why they would say so. They have nothing else to relate the architecture of the temple to. The people and community have embraced the temple and have given it a name. Now we need to take the teachings and the spirit of devotion to them.”
Echoing the words of Gauri Dasa, His Holiness Bhakti Caru Swami said, “Srila Prabhupada made elaborate arrangements, such as this temple, to attract people. The grandeur of God allures people. That is why having a temple like this is important—because it attracts people. Once people are attracted they get the opportunity to read Srila Prabhupada’s books. Books are what will make the temple grow.
“African preaching is growing, and it shows that Krishna consciousness is for everyone. My appeal to the all citizens of Botswana is ‘Please come forward and get to know the Lord. Spread His message all around for your benefit and the benefit of all.’”
It is very difficult to move around the ISKCON Botswana temple complex and not hear the name of Devakinandana Dasa. After moving from England in 1990, where he was closely affiliated with Bhaktivedanta Manor, he settled in Botswana. Two years later a regular Nama Hatta congregational program was established, hosted at various homes and at the local Hindu hall.
“In 1994 we began our own house programs in our home in Gaborone,” Devakinandana says. “The home was extended to have a temple and a deity kitchen for Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai, the deities we worshiped at home. I had long wanted Krishna and Balarama deities, though. I am very attracted to the deities of Krishna and Balarama in Vrindavan. I got initiated in 1994, and after some time, in 1996, when we wanted to register ISKCON Botswana and print some calendars, we weren’t sure what to call the temple because not a lot of people had heard of Gaura-Nitai. So, without much consideration, we called the temple Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama Temple.”
Along with his brother, Jamadagni ‰shi Dasa, who cofounded the temple, Devakinandana also took on the role of project manager for the construction.
“It’s important to treat people with warmth and to give prasada and share kirtana,” he explains. “Many schoolchildren have come to the temple on visits. We offer to pay for their transport and prasada. We have also established a really good relationship with Professor Motsupeng, in the theology department at the University of Botswana. The country’s Vice President, Dr. Ponatshego H. K. Kedkilwe, has honored us by visiting a few times, officially opening the temple and receiving our books and pamphlets. The media coverage generated has been very favorable. Recently His Holiness Jayadvaita Swami had an interview on a local radio station, and His Holiness Bhakti Chaitanya Swami was hosted for an interview at the University of Botswana with the country’s former President. This temple is a dream come true for me. I could never think small. I always think big. Now this dream has become divine reality.”
The temple opens up so much for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana movement in this nation. The temple president, Renuka Devi Dasi, unwrapped the vision for the temple in an article written in the temple-opening souvenir magazine:
“I envision this Centre becoming a hub for Botswana in playing a vital role in fulfilling Lord Chaitanya’s mission of spreading the holy names of the Lord in every town and village. His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, has been the main source of inspiration for this project. We would not be in this position without his grace and mercy, and this temple is a mere drop in comparison to what he achieved in his lifetime, starting at a late stage of life, all alone. However, what he accomplished has transformed the whole world. My vision for this temple is that it becomes a platform to further Srila Prabhupada’s mission. This can be done by making Food for Life easier to organize, and by taking preaching to another level.”
Vice President Dr. Kedikilwe said in his official letter to the temple, “The opening of this complex will provide a unique opportunity for Botswana’s diverse cultures and religions to convene and open their doors and hearts to each other, which will serve as an embodiment of a proud and united nation.”
The Blessings of Radha
Krishna and Balarama were installed in Their new temple on the auspicious day of Radhashtami, the appearance day of Srimati Radharani. Her mercy was perceivable as the temple filled with hundreds of people from different corners of Africa and the world chanting along to a kirtana led by His Holiness Lokanath Swami.
His Holiness Bhakti Chaitanya Swami said in his lecture on opening day, “Nobody has dispensed Srimati Radharani’s mercy more than Srila Prabhupada, and this temple is a result of that inconceivable mercy.”
The sun eventually went to rest, bringing a close to what was an awe-inspiring Radhashtami weekend. On the road headed back home, I couldn’t help but relish the delightful association I had with the devotees of the ISKCON Botswana temple. This stunning and majestic temple is crammed full of the sweetness of each devotee’s story, their trials and sincere efforts to please Srila Prabhupada. The devotees of Botswana and their dedication to Srila Prabhupada are the perfect ingredients for spreading the Lord’s mercy. And for me, this is why they call the temple “The Cake.”