Srila Prabhupada's vision turns into reality in South India's metropolitan city.
Taj Mahal of the ECR,” exclaimed a German gentleman on beholding the splendor of ISKCON’s Chennai temple, even as the magnificent white shrine was still receiving finishing touches and partially hidden behind scaffolding. “ECR,” the popular name for the East Coast Road, is every Chennaite’s cherished enjoyment drive-way, especially on weekends. Connecting the city itself with the ancient heritage spot of Mahabalipuram, the ECR’s beaches, resorts, and restaurants 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 in the domes the South Indian Pallava style of Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram and in the Shikharas, the temple’s spires the Kalinga (Odisha) style. The principles of the sthapatya-veda, which relates to temple architecture, are represented visually. (see box) Roughly 50 feet high, it features a hall with auditorium on the ground floor, a balcony on the mezzanine, and the main temple hall on the first floor.
The disciples of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada have been active in Chennai since 1971. Srila Prabhupada personally felt that Madras was a “good field” for sowing the seeds of Krishna consciousness. Indeed, in a 1972 pandal program given by Srila Prabhupada and his disciples, many prominent men of Madras, including the then Chief Justice, took an active part. A center was formally established in 1975.
Noting the people’s positive response to Krishna consciousness, Srila Prabhupada once wrote, in a letter to his disciples, “In Madras 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 45 minutes to the ECR then a very narrow, very lonely stretch 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 Mumbai, Bhubaneshwar, Vrindavana, 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.
ISKCON Temple of Chennai
Representation of the Vedic Concept of the Universe
In Sthapatya-veda the temple is said to mirror the universe. The structure of the temple thus embodies the surface of the earth (bhu-mandala) with its directions and central axis (Mount Meru), the various higher dimensions within the universe (upper planetary systems up to Brahmaloka), and the movement of planets as viewed in astronomy.
Temple Entrance Bhu-mandala
In the Puranas, and in Jain and Buddhist cosmology, the universe is described as a series of circular islands surrounding a central pillar called Mount Meru. The theo-centeric universe, called bhu-mandala, with Meru and Jambu dvipa in the center, surrounded by a salt-water ocean and other islands, is represented on the floor of the main entrance.
Portico Cow and Calf
Bhu, or earth, provides a place for the human being to develop his consciousness. She provides sustenance for the body. The cow feeding her calf near the entrance represents earth nourishing the living beings. But the cow only provides nourishment if dharma and bhakti are maintained; thus to continue to exist in this world we must worship the Lord.
Chakras the Energy Centers
The temple also represents the vishva-rupa, the universe in the form of a man. The feet are the main gate and the head is the garbha-grha, which houses the Deities. The Deity is the soul of that universal form. On the body of the vishva-rupa are the six chakras, or energy centers, which are represented on the stairs leading to the temple room. The seventh chakra, sahasra, represents spiritual realization. This chakra is in the center of the temple room, where one can have darshana of the Deities. It is made of translucent onyx marble. Lighting from underneath provides special effect. This seventh chakra, stimulating spiritual realization, is modeled on the Mrtyunjaya Yantra (the “Conquest-Over-Death” Yantra).
Brahma-sthanam Top center of Temple Hall
In vastu-Sastra the elements are represented in the directions. In the center is ether (akasha or “sky”). In a building, the central area is thus left open. It is called brahma-sthanam, or the place of the creator. It is ideal for meditation and kirtana since akasha is the medium of sound. This area is located in the center of the temple room, marked by a transparent dome. Beneath this dome is the seventh lotus chakra, which yields spiritual vision. Here light converges upon the worshipper from below and above.
Windows Presided Over by Different Incarnations
Any space whether a house, a temple, or the universe itself is defined by the eight directions, which govern the five elements. These directions are ruled by planets. The planets and directions are ruled by eight avataras of the Lord. For instance, east is ruled by the sun and Lord Rama. These are represented in the large windows of the temple room, which display the yantra for each avatara.
Crystals, occurring naturally in the world, express the inherent geometrical symmetry of the basic elements, which is reflected in the symmetry of the universal structure. Crystals also absorb and amplify energy. Thus they serve to intensify spiritual energy in the temple as well as radiate beauty and light. The main chandelier in the temple is composed of about 500 Himalayan quartz crystals.
Sikhara the Temple Spires
Mount Meru, representing the Lord, is symbolized in the temple by the main Sikhara over the Deities. The Sikhara also indicates the upward flow of energy from material to spiritual. The golden kalasha on top of the Shikharas channels the spiritual energy.
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 Maharaja and, from 2004, temple president Sumithra 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 40 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
Hoardings, posters, TV spots, newspaper articles and ads, sun packers trucks, bus pane all invited the people of Chennai to join in the inaugural events on April 26. And thanks to the publicity, a good part of the city showed up for the temple’s grand opening; it is estimated that 35,000 people visited on that day alone. In addition, honored guests such as Jayapataka Swami Maharaja, the CO-GBC for the city of Chennai, along with Bhanu Swami Maharaja, Lokanatha Swami Maharaja, Gopala Krishna Goswami Maharaja, Bhakti Vikasa Swami Maharaja, Sukadeva Swami Maharaja, Bhaktivinoda Swami Maharaja, and Basu Ghosa Dasa among many others were all in attendance. Several TV channels covered the event. Sankara TV in particular presented a live three-hour telecast. Bhanu Swami and several other devotees were interviewed by various media outlets.
At 8 am, the utsava, or “festival,” Deities moved in a grand procession from the old temple to the new temple. They were preceded by musicians playing the regional nadasvaram, devotees chanting the Lord’s names in nama-sankirtana, and priests reciting Vedic mantras. At 9 am, the utsava-murtis and the new Deities ceremoniously named Sri Sri Radha-Krishna (with Lalita and Visakha), Sri Sri Nitai-Gauranga, Sri Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra, and Sri Sri Laksmi-Narsimha gave darshana in simple attire. Abhisheka soon started, during which Lokanatha Swami had the devotees absorb in kirtana of the holy names. Outlasting the bathing ceremony for the Deities, Lokanatha Swami’s kirtana stretched to nearly four hours.
As the abhisheka came to an end and the altars closed for dressing of the Deities, devotees moved to the rooftop of the temple for the installation of the Sudarshana chakra and the kalasha-abhisheka on the Shikharas of the temple. As the devotees poured sacred water on the kalashas, suddenly, those looking up from below exclaimed with joy as they thought they spotted Garuda circling the temple. As the divine carrier of the Lord circled up above, a low drone was heard, and soon flowers started falling from the sky, thanks to Indra rose, jasmine, and marigold petals dropped from a helicopter, property of Indra Air. All became still, however, when the conch blew to herald the first darshana of the Lord. Everyone in the temple hall, as well as in the auditorium, the three banquet halls, and the other areas where screens simulcast the events, all stood up, their eyes fixed on the altar doors. And as the doors opened, devotees fell flat to offer obeisance, expressing gratitude to Their Lordships. The Deities, meanwhile, smiled benevolently in Their brilliantly sparkling red and yellow outfits and white and red stone jewelry. The deities meanwhile, stationed on their intricately carved teak wood altars, smiled. Bollywood actress Hema Malini flew from Mumbai to her hometown Chennai just for this event, joining many charitable donors in offering the first arati.
The rest of the day remained busy. People dropped in non-stop and stood in queues to get a glimpse of the Lord. 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.” The most fulfilling comment was, “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. Each pillar flooded with colors of the rainbow on both sides of the temple hall, and the yellow onyx lit from underneath marked the boundary. Shining in the center was the onyx sahasra-chakra, and from above, reflecting all the lights was the seven-layer, 500-piece, Himalayan crystal chandelier.
A member of ISKCON Chennai’s congregation, Ramachandradev, said, “People were saying that Chennai temple was taking so long to complete. But now look: Chennai temple, late aanaalum, latest. (“Even though the temple is late, it has the latest features” in reference to the lighting, sound, and ventillation arrangements inside the temple.)
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. 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 with people having to stand in queues for sadari (in which one symbolically accepts the Lord’s lotus feet on his or her head). The car park, though spread over five acres, is insufficient, and vehicles often spill into the adjoining roads. Van-loads 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 temple like this, nobody would come. If I sit down here, ’Bhaktivedanta Swami is sitting here,’ nobody will come.”
Chennai temple president, Sumithra Krishna Dasa, remarks, “ISKCON Chennai 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.”
The pure white splendor of the temple is only a hint of the colorful spectacle within.
Report written by Tarini Radha Devi Dasi, disciple of His Holiness Jayapataka Swami and the wife of ISKCON Chennai temple president, Sumithra Krishna Dasa.