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 Shaivites (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 Visakha; Nitai-Gauranga (Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Nityananda Prabhu); Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra; and Laksmi-Narsimha. The abhiseka, 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 teak wood 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, Rama chandradev, 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.”
A Representation of the Vedic Concept of the Universe
In the Sthapatya Veda a 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 and oceans surrounding a central pillar called Mount Meru. In the center of this planetary system, called Bhu-mandala, is the island of Jambu-dvipa, surrounded by a salt-water ocean. This cosmography is depicted on the floor of the main entrance to the Chennai temple.
Portico: Cow and Calf
Bhu, or Earth, provides a place for human beings to develop their consciousness by providing sustenance for the body. The cow feeding her calf near the entrance to the Chennai temple represents Earth nourishing the living beings. Since the cow provides nourishment only if dharma and bhakti are maintained, we must worship the Lord to continue to exist in this world.
Chakras: The Energy Centers
The temple also represents a vishvarupa, the universe in the form of a man. The feet are the main gate, and the head is the garbhagrha, the deities’ private chamber The deities are the soul of that universal form. On the body of this visva-rupa are six chakras, or energy centers, represented on the stairs leading to the temple hall. The seventh chakra, sahasrara, represents spiritual realization. This chakra is in the floor at the center of the temple hall, where one can have darsana of the deities. It is made of translucent onyx. Lighting from underneath provides a special effect. The design of the seventh chakra is modeled on the Mrityunjaya Yantra (the Conquest- Over-Death Symbol).
Brahma-sthanam: Top Center Of the Temple Hall
In Vastu-sastra the elements are represented in the directions. In the center is ether (akasa, or “sky”). Therefore the central area of a building is left open. It is called brahma-sthanam, or the place of the creator. It is ideal for meditation or for kirtana, since akasa is the medium of sound. This area is located in the center of the temple hall, marked by a transparent dome in the ceiling above it. In the floor below this dome is the seventh chakra, mentioned previously, which yields spiritual vision. Here light converges upon the worshiper from below and above.
Windows Presided Over By Incarnations
The eight directions (N, E, S, W, NE, SE, NW, SW) govern the five elements and define any space, whether a house, a temple, or the universe itself. Planets rule these directions, and eight avatars of the Lord rule the planets and the directions. For instance, the sun and Lord Rama rule the east. Large windows in the temple hall display these eight avatars and their respective yantras (see pages 26–27).
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 five hundred Himalayan quartz crystals.
Shikhara: The Temple Spires
The main shikhara over the deities symbolizes Mount Meru, representing the Lord. The shikhara also indicates the upward flow of energy from material to spiritual. The golden kalasa on top of the shikhara channels the spiritual energy.
Tarini Radha Devi Dasi is a disciple of His Holiness Jayapataka Swami and the wife of ISKCON Chennai temple president Sumitra Krishna Dasa