By Narayana Dasa
A new ISKCON temple has arisen in Trivandrum, an ancient holy city and the capital of the state of Kerala.
ISKCON devotees have built a new temple in this South Indian city well known for its ancient temple visited by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Trivandrum, the capital of the state of Kerala, is a city of about a million inhabitants located on the southwest coast of India. Overshadowing its political importance is the city’s spiritual heritage, represented by its places of worship – temples, mosques, and churches that have existed over the centuries in remarkable harmony. By far the most famous of these is the Sri Ananta Padmanabha Svami temple, which is at least a millennium old. This temple caught international attention in 2011 when an inventory of its treasures revealed their present-day value to be about $22 billion. The collection is made up of gold ornaments and numerous jewelry items set with precious stones, representing offerings over several centuries to the presiding Vishnu deity Ananta Padmanabha, the Lord reclining on the divine serpent Ananta Sesha. According to Wikipedia, the treasures would make the temple the wealthiest institution among places of worship in the world. The temple was already prominent in India’s spiritual circuit and figured on the world tourist circuit as well. The 2011 discovery has enhanced this importance.
The city’s original name, Thiruvanthapuram (Trivandrum is the Anglicized version), translates as the “Abode of Sri Ananta Padmanabha.” There is a history behind the special importance of this Vishnu deity for this city and the accumulation of the temple wealth. Trivandrum was long the capital of the former principality of Travancore, which, after India gained independence, became part of Kerala. In A.D. 1750 the ruler (Maharaja) surrendered his whole domain to Sri Ananta Padmanabha and took on the title Sri Padmanabha Dasa – “servant of Lord Padmanabha.” According to records of that event, the ruler placed his crown at the feet of the deity to signify his subservience. His successor rulers of Travancore retained the title and ruled as trustees on behalf of the Lord.
Within an hour’s driving distance to the south of Trivandrum, at a placed called Thiruvattar – accessible from the highway connecting the city with India’s land’s end at Kanyakumari – is the ?di Keshava temple, also of great antiquity. This Vishnu temple is of special significance for ISKCON devotees as it was here that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu during His South India travels five centuries ago retrieved the only surviving fragment manuscript of the Brahma-samhita, containing Brahma’s glorification of Lord Govinda. A recording of the singing of verses from this ancient text is played daily in all ISKCON temples.
A rendering of Mahaprabhu’s lotus feet, installed within the Ananta Padmanabha Swami temple compound fifteen years ago, commemorates His visit to the temple during His tour of South India. The thread was picked up in the last century by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, who visited Trivandrum twice, first in January 1931 and again in June 1932, as part of his successive South India tours. On both occasions he was honored as a state guest. On the second visit, the Maharaja personally guided Srila Siddhanta Sarasvati around the temple and heard from him about the teachings of Mahaprabhu in relation to those of the Vaishnava acharyas of South India.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati is known to have observed after his South India travels – with particular reference to the difficulties faced by the Gaudiya Math he had set up in Madras (now Chennai) – that in the south people knew archana (deity worship) but not kirtana. They were familiar with the Vishnu form of the Lord but not Radha-Krishna, and it was Srila Siddhanta Sarasvati’s desire to preach extensively in these parts to revive the teachings of Lord Chaitanya.
ISKCON’s Beginnings in Trivandrum
This wish of Srila Prabhupada’s Guru Maharaja took tangible shape in Trivandrum three decades ago, initially on a very small scale as an ashram for a few brahmacharis doing preaching and book distribution, and later as a properly consecrated small temple with Gaura-Nitai deities, housed in rented premises close to the city’s main railway station. The temple’s initiated devotees now number 120; the regular congregation is about twice that number and growing steadily. Satellite centers have come up in the city’s suburbs and nearby towns. It is a measure of public recognition of the Hare Krishna movement’s presence and activities that three years ago a centuries-old Krishna temple located 120 kilometers to the north was handed over to ISKCON.
An ambitious plan to set up a new temple was conceived in 2007. A year later the devotees bought a plot of land, drawing on funds built up mainly through book distribution and supplemented by donations and loans.
Kerala, promoted by the tourist industry as “God’s Own Country,” is famous for its backwaters and greenery. The new temple plot is set in the midst of verdant coconut plantations. This picturesque location in a designated green belt raised some initial legal problems that delayed civic-authority approvals to build the temple, in turn delaying the start of construction. After overcoming these hurdles and raising the initial corpus of funds, devotees held the bhumi-puja (ground-consecration ceremony) in April 2012. The concrete temple foundation was built by the end of that year, and by March 2015 the construction of the deity room was taken up.
The temple design borrows from the well-recognized temple-tower architecture of the famous Kashi Vishvanatha temple in Varanasi, in north India. Work on the tower above the deity altar of the new temple began in March 2016. The main Krishna-Balarama deities, crafted by expert artisans in Jaipur, had arrived in the meantime.
The completion of the temple within ten months of starting work on the temple tower involved tremendous effort on the part of the temple management and the congregation. The logistics of getting delivery of construction material like cement and steel was a challenging task in itself. Consignments of marble for the flooring, as well as red stone slabs that were engraved and used to frame the windows of the deity hall, came all the way from Rajasthan.
About three thousand ISKCON devotees and a large number of local well-wishers gathered for three days at the end of January 2017 to mark the grand inauguration of the new Krishna-Balarama temple. The inauguration formed part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the founding of ISKCON.
Two weeks before the date set for the function, some major work was pending, slowed by a shortage of funds. But the organizers and devotees believe that Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama took over the reins, and things started falling into place. Their belief is supported by seeming minor miracles that helped clear problems as they arose. These included unexpected acts of goodwill on the part of officials that smoothed the movement of material like red stone urgently needed to meet the announced deadline.
In another instance, occupants of several houses in the temple’s vicinity moved out for a week to help accommodate visitors and personnel engaged in completing the project. About 150 hired laborers cooperated by working round the clock over the last fortnight.
Virtually the entire congregation took one week off from their regular work to complete the abode for Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama. Devotee contributions accounted for about seventy percent of the total amount spent on the temple structure and land.
The inauguration, held at the end of January 2017, was graced by the presence of senior ISKCON sannyasis and disciples of Srila Prabhupada. Public dignitaries, including a minister of the Indian government, participated. A major attraction leading up to the event was a sankirtana party of Indian and foreign devotees who chanted in various parts of the city in the week before the inauguration.
A Fitting Place to Serve the Lord
The temple building has three floors, which include the deity hall at the top; offices, deity and general kitchens, a small conference room, a prasadam hall, and a well-equipped suite for visiting sannyasis on the floor below, at ground level; and a basement with storerooms and living quarters for brahmacharis. Each floor is about five hundred square meters. In an innovation unique for these parts, a glass sheet at the entrance to the marble-floored deity hall lets in sunlight to the floor below.
Along with the temple, a housing complex comprising fourteen apartments near the temple was built and handed over to devotee owners. To meet demand, ten more apartments are planned.
The Gaura-Nitai temple that existed for two decades was initially popularized locally as a temple of Krishna-Balarama, forms of the Lord better known locally. This accounts for the choice of Krishna-Balarama deities for the new temple, a choice approved by ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission as an exception to the normal pattern. The state of Kerala has innumerable Krishna temples, but the new ISKCON temple is the first with Krishna-Balarama deities.
Temple authorities are conscious that for a city of a million people, the present congregation strength is very small. The fact is that Mayavada philosophy (impersonalism) and demigod worship are strong in these parts, added to which is a prominent atheist presence. (Kerala is currently ruled by a government led by India’s main communist party.) ISKCON has undoubtedly made an impact, however, and the annual Janmashtami celebrations held in recent years have been a big draw. Devotees believe that the arrival of Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama will further boost the growth of the congregation and the sankirtana movement and help realize Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s vision.