While the months-long official opening of the TOVP is scheduled to begin in December 2024, one of its two large wings will open this year.
By Sunanda Dasa
The year 2023 will witness a momentous milestone for Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana movement.
The Temple of the Vedic Planetarium (TOVP), located at ISKCON’s world headquarters in Sridham Mayapur, West Bengal, is among the movement’s most ambitious and far-reaching projects yet. Under construction since 2009 and slated for opening as a three-month-long celebration – starting December 2024 and ending with a grand finale on Gaura Purnima 2025 – the unique temple will be India’s largest modern Vedic temple. This article is specifically about the temple’s East Wing, which includes a 37-foot-long chamber for the deities of Sri Prahlada-Nrisimhadeva.
In 1976 His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada planted the seed for the TOVP in the mind of Ambarisha Dasa (Alfred Ford), his loyal young disciple and the great-grandson of the famous American auto magnate Henry Ford. Following the practice prescribed in the Vedic scriptures, Srila Prabhupada had placed a murti (deity) of Ananta Sesha, the divine serpent bed of Vishnu, at the foundation of the future temple in 1972. But a long history of setbacks and obstacles ensued until the opportunity to begin work on the temple presented itself in 2009. Inspired by the Lord, Ambarisha, now chairman of the TOVP, launched the construction in earnest, using his own seed money to finance the initial stages of the project. He has continued his funding into the present.
The TOVP has had several important milestones since 2009, including the completion of the superstructure, the installation on its three domes of three chakras (auspicious discs) and kalashas (the chakras’ metal hemispherical bases), the opening of the 69-room pujari floor (for worship paraphernalia), and most recently the welcoming of the specially designed Prabhupada murti in October 2021. But the October 2023 opening of the Nrisimhadeva Hall, which includes a magnificent granite and marble deity chamber, will be the most important event thus far. It is the precursor to the three-month-long Grand Opening of the TOVP in 2024/2025, when the deities of Radha-Madhava and their eight female confidantes (gopis), Pañca Tattva, and Nrisimhadeva Himself will be relocated to the TOVP along with fifteen new parampara acharya deities. This will undoubtedly be a major milestone in Gaudiya Vaishnava history and the fulfillment of the vision and desire of ISKCON’s predecessor acharyas.
The Nrisimha Mayapur Deity
The current Ugra-Nrisimha deity (ugra means “ferocious”) of ISKCON Mayapur is Himself a part of the fabric of the project’s history and is revered by all ISKCON devotees with great affection and reverence. Srila Prabhupada’s disciple Atmatattva Dasa, one of the designers of the deity and the main person behind the making of the deity, relates:
As a result of this and other attacks on the ISKCON community, the temple management decided to install a deity of Lord Nrisimhadeva. After all, He is known as the protector of His devotees, just as He protected little Prahlada from Hiranyakashipu. Thus, following in the footsteps of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, who had installed Lakshmi-Nrisimhadeva at the Sri Chaitanya Math Yoga-pitha – the birthplace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, near the TOVP site – the early managers of the project, confident of Prabhupada’s blessings, decided to install a similar deity. Atmatattva continues:
When Atmatattva traveled to South India to oversee the production of the Ugra-Nrisimha murti, he met with much resistance from local sthapatis (murti-makers). Fearing spiritual reprisal, none of them dared make such a murti. Indeed, would it even be appropriate for ordinary humans to worship such a form?
Six months later, Atmatattva, exhausted from several trips to South India, decided to once again visit the first and most qualified sthapati he had met on his first South India trip. This time the sthapati was more congenial. Atmatattva continues:
The story of how he came to this decision is interesting. Although the sthapati’s guru, the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, advised him not to make the Sthanu-Nrisimha murti (stepping out of the pillar), warning him that in doing so his family and the ISKCON Mayapur project would be cursed, a few days later the sthapati had a dream.
“In the dream,” says Atmatattva, “his guru came to him and said, ‘For them you can carve Sthanu-Nrisimha.’ The next morning, he received a hand-delivered letter from Kanchipuram. The letter was from the Shankaracharya, giving some instructions regarding temple renovations. There was a footnote at the bottom. It read, ‘For ISKCON you can carve Sthanu-Nrisimha.’ The sthapati showed me the letter and said, ‘I have my guru’s blessings. I will carve your deity.’”
The sthapati said the deity would be ready in six months. Returning six months later, however, Atmatattva found that he had not even started. Atmatattva relates:
After some further disagreements regarding an additional murti, of Prahlada Maharaja, the sthapati finally agreed to make a one-foot-high Prahlada deity to accompany Nrisimhadeva. Atmatattva traveled back and forth between South India and Mayapur several times, and finally the proper stone slab was found. Twelve anxious months later, Lord Nrisimha was completed. Then something remarkable happened.
“When he completed the work,” says Atmatattva, “the sthapati didn’t immediately inform me, but he decided to visit some friends for a few days. It was the monsoon season, there were few visitors, and he felt it safe to lock up Lord Nrisimhadeva securely in his thatched shed. Two days later, his neighbors ran to inform him that the thatched shed was on fire.
“There was heavy rain and everything was wet, but still the coconut-tree roof had caught fire. He ran to the scene to find Nrisimhadeva untouched, but the shed burned to ashes. Immediately he phoned me. ‘Please come and take your deity. He’s burning everything. He’s made it clear – He wants to go NOW!’”
Once again making his way to South India, Atmatattva prepared the deity for moving to Mayapur, managing to get all the necessary government papers signed within twenty-four hours – a miracle given the usual quagmire of bureaucracy found in most of India’s government establishments. The trip back to Mayapur was also trouble-free and peaceful, and the installation followed soon thereafter. Atmatattva concludes:
The Nrisimha Wing
The interiors and deity chamber of the 12,000-square-foot Nrisimhadeva Hall were designed by two extremely talented and devoted Vaishnavis, Svaha Devi Dasi, wife of TOVP chairman Ambarisha Dasa, and Rangavati Devi Dasi, an experienced professional designer from Russia. With the dedicated services of the TOVP 3D team of Srisha Dasa and Pavana Gopa Dasa, whose images shown in this article have made their designs come to life, they have conceived the detailed elements of some of the most important interior sections of the TOVP. Herein I present a glimpse into the future residence of Mayapur’s beloved Sri Prahlada-Nrisimhadeva deities.
The Nrisimhadeva Hall has five floors, with walls gracefully displaying colorful paintings and bas-reliefs of Prahlada Maharaja’s and Lord Nrisimhadeva’s lilas. Visitors will be able to walk along each level to view the artwork and other stunning elements of the hall, while also observing the exquisite altar.
The ceiling of the 82-foot-high dome that covers the hall consists of 1,700 steel brackets and 432 custom-made gold-leafed coffered tiles of various sizes, covered with a special acoustic material that absorbs sound to provide the best acoustics for the hall.
Matching the lamps in the two niches at the front of the deity chamber, within the dome will hang a grand chandelier constructed according to a traditional style of South Indian temple design. Due to the enormous size of the chandelier – 46 feet tall and 28 feet wide – it is being custom made by the company building the cosmology model of the Vedic universe, which will hang under the dome of the main temple hall. On the fifth floor of the Nrisimha Hall, sixteen colorful bas-relief art panels will grace the perimeter walls at the dome’s base.
Surrounding the altar are sixteen coral-colored (roso alicante) and eight green (verde brazil) immense round columns made of the best marble that Spain and Brazil, respectively, have to offer. Set within specially designed glass frames with decorative marble borders are sixteen Burma teakwood doors, each 9 feet tall and 11 feet wide, leading to the walkway circling the interior of the TOVP.
Perched atop the eight green columns that hold up the two levels above the main floor will be eight murtis – Lakshmi Devi, Brahma, Shiva, Indra, and other demigods – offering prayers to Lord Nrisimhadeva. All the deva murtis were made in-house by local artisans and beautifully painted by ISKCON Mayapur artist Ambhoda Devi Dasi.
Lord Nrisimhadeva’s chamber, 37 feet long and just as tall, will be made of pure black granite from Kaddapa, Andhra Pradesh, India. The 19-foot chakra on the back wall will be a bas-relief carved out of the same black granite, highlighted with subtle accents so as to not detract from or overpower the beautiful prabhali (ornamental frame) around Sri Prahlada-Nrisimhadeva. The chakra’s flamelike tips will be highlighted in gold leaf to simulate a blazing fire.
To provide a regal simhasana (throne) for Prahlada-Nrisimha, also designed for them is a black Brazilian-marble arch supported by columns. A chatri (canopy) will gracefully hang from the arch, which will be ornamented by hand-carved, gold-leafed traditional lotus flowers, bells, and small lamps.
An impressive gold-leafed dome in the opulent mood of Vaikuntha crowns the central part of the chamber’s roof, with a decorative pedestal called an acroterium on either side.
The exquisite doors of the chamber, inspired by an antique French cabinet design, will be 7 feet wide and 9 feet high. Their tall carved teak panels will be painted black and bedecked with brass ornaments and miniature lion-face bas-reliefs, each panel further embellished with flowers studded with semi-precious stones. The left and right sides of the entranceway will be gorgeously adorned with gold-leafed floral designs.
The entire deity chamber will have design elements covered in 24-carat gold leaf, including a highly ornate plaque on top – the words “Sri Sri Prahlada-Narasimha” in gold-leafed calligraphy. Gold-leafed images of the Lord’s chakra and gada (club) will be incorporated into the decorative band running along the front of the chamber. Two niches on the front of the chamber were created for two large custom-designed electric brass lamps with decorative elements in the form of peacocks, lotuses, and other floral designs to match the chandelier in the Nrisimhadeva Hall’s dome.
The marble floor in front of the chamber, made from the choicest Vietnamese marble and beautifully designed with intricate floral inlays, will be vibrant and colorful to welcome devotees for darshana, kirtana, and dancing. It spans the entire Nrisimhadeva Hall, extending to the walls clad in white Vietnamese marble.
On the wall behind the simhasana will be a carved and painted teakwood bas-relief panel colorfully depicting the signature, most defining lila of Lord Nrisimhadeva – His tearing open the abdomen of the demon Hiranyakashipu. The artwork has been commissioned to the same people who supplied all the art pieces for the ISKCON Devasadan temple in Detroit, Michigan, over forty years ago.
Two Tanjore paintings, one depicting Prahlada Maharaja garlanding Lord Narasimhadeva and the other showing the asura boys with Prahlada Maharaja in kirtana, have been commissioned for the left and right walls of the East Wing’s entranceway.
A Monument of the Sankirtana Movement
The public opening (without the deities) of the Nrisimhadeva Hall in October 2023 heralds the next stage in the completion of the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium. The opening of the TOVP – a grand service to Srila Prabhupada by ISKCON members worldwide – will fulfill his deep desire to offer Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and the Gaudiya Vaishnava parampara a monument of the sankirtana movement. The TOVP will be at the heart of a spiritual city in Sridham Mayapur, providing millions of conditioned souls visiting from every corner of the world the rare opportunity to engage in the yuga-dharma and develop their pure love for God.
I conclude with these words from Ambarisha Dasa:
Sunanda Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, currently serves as the communications director and fundraiser for the TOVP project.