From a rented bungalow to a grand palace
Throughout history, Pune has been one of western India's most important political centers. It's the cultural and spiritual capital of the State of Maharashtra. Thirty years ago ISKCON had no presence in Pune, but on February 24, 2013, the honorable President of India inaugurated a gorgeous new ISKCON temple, the New Vedic Cultural Center (NVCC). It is one of the biggest ISKCON temples in the world – the temple property sprawls over six acres, and the maximum capacity of the temple hall is 3,000 people. ISKCON is a prominent feature of Pune's spiritual landscape, and the NVCC could soon become Pune's most prominent icon. The journey has been long and sometimes hard, but this is not the end. The inauguration of the NVCC marks a new beginning in ISKCON Pune's history. Perhaps it is a historic moment even for ISKCON at large.
Thirty years ago, a few devotees from ISKCON's Juhu temple started visiting Pune. At that time, someone helped them to rentan army colonel's bungalow at the heart of the city. Thus the Sri Sri Radha-Kunjabihari temple was established in 1982. The temple activities really took off in 1993, when His Holiness Gopala Krishna Goswami requested His Holiness Radhanath Swami to send a team of devotees from Mumbai to Pune. One of these devotees was Radhesyama Dasa, who started serving as the Pune temple president from 1997. He compiled teachings from Srila Prabhupada's books into introductory courses on the Bhagavad-Gita and gradually started presenting those courses at colleges. A lot of young men were impressed by his presentations and many joined the temple full time. This youth outreach program has expanded manifold and to this day continues to attract intelligent youth. Meanwhile, Jahnava Devi Dasi, and later on Jayadeva Dasa and his wife Satyavati Devi Dasi, started weekly programs at their home. Many of the current leaders in Pune are products of these two home programs. Today, the temple boasts a staggering 150 fulltime resident monks. There are also over 4,000 congregation members closely associated with the temple.
Eventually, a time came when the space in the temple could no longer satisfy the needs of the increasing number of devotees and well-wishers. Space was short for the resident devotees; 150 people stayed in three rooms, many sleeping under the sky at night. Space was short to serve the large crowds on festivals; the congregation was growing in size. Space was short to hold grand satsanga programs when senior devotees, sannyasis, or disciples of Srila Prabhupada came. The temple management hired outside facilities. Most importantly, space was short for holding cultural and educational outreach programs for newcomers; the temple was steadily gaining popularity. To serve as the headquarters of the dynamic and expanding activities of ISKCON Pune, a bigger temple was obviously a dire necessity.
Dr. Baman Das Banerjee, an eye surgeon, had been worshipping a gorgeous deity of Lord Balaji at his home for 25 years. When he grew old, he wanted to offer this Deity to someone who would worship Him properly. Impressed by its Deity worship standards, he offered the Deity to ISKCON Pune on the condition that a beautiful temple be built for Him. He also donated property worth Rs. 1.25 crores. Devotees bought the first piece of land – 75,000 square feet – with this money; thus the first funds for the NVCC came from Lord Balaji Himself.
At one time Gopala Krishna Goswami noted that only a large temple attracts a large number of people. With this in mind, he set the fund raising goal at Rs.15 crore. The fundraising committee mobilized the whole congregation to take part in a massive fundraising drive. In 2007, even before the bhumi-puja (which traditionally marks the start of construction), devotees had raised a whopping Rs. 4 crores. This had never ever happened before in the history of ISKCON. As time progressed, the vision for the new temple expanded; more land was acquired, and the final estimate for the NVCC reached Rs. 40 crore.
"We had no previous experience of fundraising. We are primarily into training and preaching. However, after a lot of brainstorming we launched the Mark Your Square Feet scheme," explains Sri Guru Carana Dasa, who led the fundraising efforts. With the initial 75,000 square foot property and an initial budget of about 15 crore, the scheme encouraged donors to sponsor the construction of a few square feet of the temple at the rate of Rs. 2,000 per square foot. Due to years of successful outreach programs, the Pune temple had a huge number of devotees and well-wishers. With this support, the Mark Your Square Feet scheme was a triumph.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great spiritual master in the Gaudiya Vaishnava disciplic succession, had once gone door to door to collect funds for constructing the beautiful Yogapitha temple at the birth place Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. He wanted as many people as possible to get a chance to serve the Lord. Following in his footsteps, about a thousand devotees actively participated in the fund raising activities for the NVCC. It took them six years to raise the Rs. 40 crore. Along the way, about 40,000 Pune citizens got connected to the temple. Touched by the devotees' sincerity of purpose, many people opened their hearts and donated profusely – both in kindness and in cash. As a result, many of them have also brought some of the principles of Krishna consciousness into their lives. The fundraising drive added new stories of heroism to the ISKCON Pune folklore – stories of selflessness, toil, and accomplishment to inspire devotees for generations to come.
Inauguration by the President of India
The NVCC construction progressed at a steady pace. In one special instance, even animals did their part, undoubtedly inspired by the Lord. Without the devotees' knowledge, one of the contractors had used substandard material for the false ceiling inside the temple hall. Monkeys came and played on the temple roof. Their running and jumping on the rooftop broke the false ceiling, exposing the contractor's error. No one had ever seen the monkeys before, and no has ever seen them since. Perhaps they were sent by the Lord. Thus, by the combined efforts of the fund raisers, the donors, the construction crew, the residents of Pune (both human and animal), and the mercy of the Lord, the temple was ready for inauguration on February 23-24, 2013, on the auspicious day of Nityananda Trayodasi.
On Gopala Krishna Goswami's request, the President of India, Sri Pranab Mukherjee, agreed to inaugurate the NVCC. This raised the profile of the inauguration event to great heights. It also added tremendous pressure on the NVCC team, since getting the President to any event is full of uncertainties. But, by the Lord's mercy, the inauguration went well. The Governor of Maharashtra, K. Shankarnaraya, a minister of Maharashtra, Harshawardhan Patil, the Mayor of Pune, Vaishali Bankar, and Bollywood film star Hema Malini were also present.
In his speech, the President spoke about ISKCON and Srila Prabhupada in glowing words. His speech was repeatedly broadcast on TV channels and must have increased many people's appreciation for ISKCON. He said "If anyone notes the progress of the ISKCON movement, he will simply be struck by the enormity of the velocity with which the movement has caught up. If time is ripe for an idea, nothing can stop it. This principle can be applied to Srila Prabhupada's movement. He dedicated his life to spreading the eternal message of humanity – the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita, the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the Gaudiya Vaishnava-sampradaya …. We are deeply appreciative of the contributions made by this great movement. This magnificent center in the city of culture will dedicate itself to the cause of humanity not by increasing strife, confrontation, and conflict, but by increasing peace, harmony, love, and compassion."
Gopala Krishna Goswami reflects, "The President's visit was a historic event in all of ISKCON and will attract thousands of visitors to this temple. It will enhance preaching to a great degree. Srila Prabhupada and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura wanted to invite such big prominent leaders in society to draw the attention of the public."
The previous day, the gorgeous Deities of Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha-Vrindavanacandra, Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai, and Sri Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra were installed by a spiritually and emotionally surcharged prana-pratistha ceremony. In this ceremony, senior devotees request Their Lordships to manifest themselves through the Deities. Accompanied by rousing kinenes and elaborate abhiseka ceremony (bathing the Lords by water and other auspicious liquids), devotees welcomed the Lords into Their magnificent new home. Many senior devotees, including the GBCs for ISKCON Pune, were present to provide their invaluable association to all present.
Meanwhile, about 40,000 devotees from all over India, and some even from abroad, had come to enthusiastically participate in the inauguration festivities. Also in attendance were a huge number of Pune citizens, for whom a number of stalls were set up to present various aspects of Krishna consciousness. The visitors also had the option of hearing talks given by various senior devotees; these talks were aired live on local television.
The campus of the NVCC occupies six acres. As soon as one enters the complex, a wide expanse of green lawn meets the eye. Beyond that rises the magnificent Sri Sri Radha Vrindavanacandra temple, extending from right to left. The temple has three tall spires similar to the spires of the Jagannatha temple in Puri. The outside walls of the temple, marble and red sandstone, are white and pink. To the left of the lawn is a building in modern style that holds the brahmachari ashrama for the 150 resident devotees and a prasada hall for 3,000 people. In the future, this building will also contain other facilities like seminar halls, classrooms, and so on. Also planned for the NVCC complex are a guest house and a Govinda's restaurant. To the right of the lawn, on top of a hill behind the main temple, is the temple of Lord Balaji, reminiscent of Lord Balaji's residence on the Tirumala Hills in Tirupati. It is in the traditional South Indian style, using unpolished gray granite.
The main temple hall is on the first floor. Upon entering, you're spellbound by beauty. The eyes dart from one feature to another, anxious to take everything in and yet eager to see every tiny detail. The flooring is pure white marble, the same as used in the Taj Mahal. The flooring has multiple inlays marble patterns using natural sandstone. The biggest inlay is 30 feet in diameter, one of the biggest in all the ISKCON temples in the world. Each flower in those inlays is specially designed. The walls are decorated with gorgeous paintings and murals, one side from Gaura-Lila and the other from Krishna-Lila. Balconies run along both walls. The ceiling has 13 domes. The underside of the biggest dome is painted with Radha, Krishna, and the ashta-sakhis, while the other 12 domes are painted with images of the mahajanas, one each. Several peacock-shaped chandeliers from China are suspended from the ceiling. The huge altar area is made using onyx marble, one of the best in the world. It's known for its delightful translucence and softness. The intricate woodwork near the altar depicts the different incarnations of the Lord. Opposite the altar, at the other end of the hall, is a murti of Srila Prabhupada,
All the lighting for the temple hall, including the chandeliers, is provided by LEDs. This rare setup saves a lot of power. The domes use color-changing LEOs so they can be lit up in different colors to create a variety of moods. The marble keeps the temperature cool inside. A sophisticated system of ventilators and wind turbines installed in the big dome ensures that hot air is sucked out and natural air circulates though the hall. The hall is equipped with the best audio-visual setup, with four projection screens. Aesthetically pleasing sound-diffusing and sound-absorbing material ensures great acoustics. These and many more delightful features make the hall the most welcoming place on earth.
And yet all this beauty cannot match the beauty of the masters of the temple the Deities. Sri Sri Radha-Vrindavanacandra and Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai were carved in Jaipur. The devotees very carefully decided exactly how the Deities should look, researching the prominent features of other ISKCON Deities. For Lord Vrindavanacandra, they wanted His face to resemble the face of Lord Madhava in Mayapur and His hands to resemble the hands of Lord Gopinatha at Chowpatty, Mumbai. They wanted Radharani's features to be a mix of the features of the Radharani Deities in ISKCON's Mayapur and Vrindavana temples.They wanted Gaura-Nitai's hands to resemble those of the Gaura-Nitai Deities in South Africa.The Jagannatha-Baladeva-Sudhadra Deities came from Puri. The smiling face of Lord Vrindavanacandra and the graceful pose and merciful mood of Gaura-Nitai are enrapturing. The beauty of Their Lordships can't be described in words, but after seeing them there is no doubt that nothing and no one can be anywhere near as beautiful as they. The original Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Sri Radha Vrindavanacandra, resides in the NVCC, eager to bestow His unlimited blessings to the residents of Pune.
A New Beginning
The inauguration of the NVCC marks the beginning of a new chapter in ISKCON Pune's history. Radhesyama Dasa summarizes his vision for the project: "The NVCC will be a flourishing project where children, students, working people, families, senior citizens, all will have friends. They will also have satisfying cultural, educational, religious, and spiritual engagements. The soothing spiritual ambience with state-of-the-art interiors will bring great inner peace, home like atmosphere, and ever-expanding happiness to all visitors in such a way that nobody will feel like leaving." Not only will the NVCC continue to expand the current temple activities, it will also venture into new and innovative ways of spreading Krishna consciousness. For example, the multi purpose hall at NVCC will be used for dramas, art, music, dance, debates, and so on, all to attract thousands to learn Krishna consciousness through entertaining presentations. The NVCC will become a center for training devotees from all parts of the world. It will also start rural outreach programs to take the message to villages around Pune. This is but a glimpse into the future of the NVCC.
The NVCC is an offering of love from the devotees of Pune to Srila Prabhupada and Sri Krishna, It's a testament to how the temple residents and the congregation worked together to achieve grand results for Krishna, It's a story of cooperation, perseverance, and faith. At this joyous juncture, pregnant with grand possibilities, let's all rejoice in this remarkable success story in the glorious mission of Srila Prabhupada's ISKCON.
Ajita Nimai Dasa is a member of the congregation of ISKCON Pune. He works with Symantec Corporation, also in Pune. Visit his blog: thebandwagonofmoltengold.blogspot.com