Images and text copyright Chris Wormald and may only be used with written permission
5th January 2009
I arrived in a taxi from Shantiniketan using the terrible, potholed, “main” road to Mayapur (no detours through villages, although I did negotiate a stop or two when I glimpsed something photogenic, and we had not bounced too far along the highway for me to walk back). We drove under a huge and garish signboard, spanning the road that stated “Welcome to the Land of the Golden Avatar” and there was still several miles to go!
When we arrived at the Avatar’s main gate, (there are 3 or 4 of them, his estate is that big), there was security. A guard looked under the taxi for bombs with a flat mirror on wheels and another waved a metal detector at me, which bleeped frantically at the Leica beside me. I showed him the camera. He scanned my big case on wheels in the taxi boot. It bleeped frantically at this laptop hidden in the depths of other items. He demanded to look inside so I opened the outermost pocket and showed him my washbag, wire strap and padlocks, expecting him to ask to see the padlocked, main body of the case where the laptop resides. To my surprise he shrugged and told us to proceed through the gate.
I was given a room and told to report at main reception at 7am next day to see if I could stay in it as I was trying to book in for 10 days. At 7am next morning, I was told to return at 8am and at 8am told to return at 9am and at 9am told to move to another room in a different building. The Avatar has a small town with quite a few big guest houses scattered around, some as big as hotels. But I did not know that then. There is no map by the main gate, showing where everything is, or one anywhere else come to that. I asked for a sketch-map but there was none available. However I was happy with my new room as it was better than the old one in a more central located block. I found Govinda’s Restaurant in time for lunch. It takes a while to get used to their system, order and pay at the cash desk, hand the tickets to the different departments, one for cold drinks – juices, lassis, smoothies and shakes, another for cooked food, yet another for teas and hot drinks.
The food and drinks menu is long and comprehensive. How can they cook all this to order! But they do and promptly and very well indeed, and reasonably priced. In fact Govinda’s restaurant is a jewel in the Avatar’s crown (both Krishna and His later incarnation of Lord Caitania have a fair few jewels in their crowns, and, as I was to discover during the following 9 days, they also have a bizarre dress sense.
The Temple in the Avatar’s complex is hidden by other buildings, set in a large park area complete with lily ponds, fountains and flowerbeds. I am a poor judge of area but probably 100 acres would sum it up there is also another enormous building called a Samadhi, more of that later.
The Temple has two entrances, one long winded and winding, with security barriers, and a side entrance, nearer the accommodation blocks that those in the know seem to use, let’s call them the devotees! I don’t do devotion very well but appreciate an easing of impediments so whilst I was in residence I used the short cut, leaving my sandals at the entrance, of course, for the Temple is a strictly shoeless zone.
The Temple is a genuinely impressive building and once inside, the kitsch parkland setting of fountains and artificial lotus ponds is forgotten. It is divided into two areas both with stages. I call them stages because that is exactly what they look like whether the curtains are open or drawn. The larger part of the Temple has the larger stage (and two small annexes as well which I shall go on about later); on the stage is what appears to be an elaborately dressed wedding party with a male (if sometimes effeminate) figure surrounded by a Bride with Her bridesmaids.
This is Lord Krishna and His Shakti (feminine power) Shri Radha. (Or Rhoda as my American English spell checker informs me!) The Bridesmaids are the Gopis that according to which text one reads are either just the dairymaids that Lord K sported with during His youth in Vrindavan, or representatives of a troop of 1000s of Rishis (high-up Yogis), who were reincarnated as Gopis so that Lord K could do the business with them and so release them into the higher planes, fulfilling a promise made to them by Lord Ram, (Krishna in a previous incarnation! Krishna himself being an incarnation of Vishnu). Vishnu is a Top Chap, equal with Shiva and Brahma, and an all round nice God. To make it more complicated still, Radha is an incarnation of Parvati, who is a version of Devi — Oh! I forget!
All outfits and accessories are changed at least once a day by a team of priests called pujaris. The wardrobe of each of these figures must be enormous, but it is all behind the scenes. The curtains of each stage are opened several times a day, accompanied by the ringing of bells and blowing of conches, for people to gaze at the Gods, and worship them. This is called Darshan, the theory is that the devotees, not only look at the Gods, but in turn are seen by them, which I think is a brilliant idea. The pujaris undertake elaborate rituals using fire, water, sound and light as well as food and drink, so the gods are happy and will think well of their devotees in their daily lives. No expense and I mean NO EXPENSE is spared in the care of the Gods, sometimes one feels this is profligate in a society where a large portion of the population are, by any world standard, desperately poor.
However there are very rich ISCON patrons worldwide, who take great pride in donating very large amounts of money to keep the deities in fabulous hand stitched garments, which I suppose in itself creates jobs. Donations are sometimes also used for a program called “Food for Life” that supplies free food to the destitute at events, which was where I wished my donations to go.
After the Darshan and at least three times a day starting at 4.30am! The devotees have a good sing and dance, called a Kirtan.
Outside the Temple, walking around Krishna World where everything seems overblown and over-elaborate, reeking of money, resembling an American theme park, it is hard to get it into perspective that this is an offshoot of a sincere and very ancient religion. The same religion for those who worship at beautiful natural or manmade altars in countless villages across a sub-continent; wells and trees, rocks, springs and other features, to buildings of marble set in a landscape where a whole pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, see and are seen by millions upon millions of devout, moral and faithful men, women and children of every description from every social and economic position. I am not saying that poor people do not come to Krishna World, they do! By the coach-load and by train and then ferry across the river, to marvel at the richness and worship sincerely at the altars. There is something about ISCON that also attracts very well heeled Indians as well, in new 4x4s and limousines complete with servants. I met and talked to some of these families and they are delightful including their immaculately behaved children.
But there is another type of ISCON devotee I find worrying. Wealthy (for India) and independent, they come from the 4 corners but especially Europe and the USA. They integrate and infiltrate, influence and carve niches, take starring roles in the festivals and processions, dress up as poor religious Indians and walk barefoot, but live in separate western style estates resembling areas of Milton Keynes. Whilst all around the real work of cooking washing gardening, childcare is done by poor workers who are almost exclusively Indian. I saw no white man with a broom, fork or spade but I saw many riding the elephant, or in the pull-along bullock carts with the deities, dressed in robes and turbans. The starring roles, whilst the Indian devotees who have struggled to get to Mayapur on overcrowded buses loaded even to the roof, in unreserved seats on impossibly crowded trains, or who have just plain walked – stare at tall, blond 16 year old “all American” type youths in robes and silly haircuts, riding elephants pretending to be Indians. It is like some sort of perverse twist on a traditional colonial lifestyle, where white men and women once again lord it and this time I mean Lord it over others. I know I am in danger of making sweeping generalisations but that was how it felt. I know full well that there are many sincere and lovely western devotees of Krishna, who are not playing power games, and are as loving as Krishna was Himself, and would put themselves out no end, to help others less fortunate than themselves. That Krishna was a God of Love is indisputable in the same way that Jesus was or the Buddha. But if only man and womankind would learn from their loving Gods, to be as loving to themselves and to each other, there would be hope for this world, where greed, violence and selfishness seem to have taken over.
On a separate altar in a sort of alcove in the main part of the Temple sits an altogether different God. Half man-half lion, Lord Nrisimhadeva is another incarnation of the superb Vishnu. For there once was a nasty devil type, who had by a combination of austerity and cunning, won a powerful boon (gift) from a rather sleepy Brahma; that of immortality. Being a thoroughly nasty type he caused a lot of damage and could not be got rid of until Vishnu reincarnated himself as a get out clause to all the criteria that the devil type could not be killed by – i.e. man or beast (he was both and neither) no weapon but his nails (claws) neither inside or out (the porch) night or day (twilight). I expect by now you will get it. Anyway, He finished off the devil type in a gory, limb from limb sort of fashion and wrote Himself into the pantheon, becoming a symbol of powerful protection for those who respect him. I found myself rather attracted by Lord Nrisimhadeva, to the extent that I used to creep into the temple nearly every night that I was there, just before His curtains were drawn, to wish Him goodnight. He is fierce but not overwhelmingly so, yes he has staring red eyes and long claws, but he never overdresses like the others, although He does wear some discrete jewellery. He commands respect.
I bought the booklet and read the story and if I ever go to Mayapur again, He would be the first on my list to say hello to. My next stop, of course, would be Govinda’s for a banana lassi or a fresh orange/pineapple juice, a palak paneer and a paratha.
An interesting facet of ISCON life, explaining yet another alcove in the main part of the temple and the reason for extraordinarily overwrought edifice in the grounds called the Samadhi is the fact that the Hari Krishna crowd actually worship their guru in much the same way as they worship their God.
As far as I know, their guru was, and is still, an Indian with a turndown mouth who therefore always looked a trifle miserable, unless he is really smiling (I’ve seen the photo!). Swami Prabhupada was a Sanskrit scholar who had completed a new translation of the Bhagavad Gita and wished to establish a new religious order based on a strict re-interpretation of Vishnava religion. Although it had, and still has, a plethora of associated do’s, don’ts and rules, it caught on in the west and now there are centres and devotees worldwide. Like many new and re-launches of old religions, it gained popularity when celebrities joined its ranks and donated money, resources and publicity. As much and as well as celebrity help, was the timing of the launch in the west, where, in the sixties and seventies, a whole generation of young minds were looking for new ideas and practices different from the drug induced psycodelic culture of unhampered creativity and licence, and a wish by many for a fresh and different approach to religion and faith. The timing was everything.
So now in every large Hari Krishna temple, a life sized model of Sri Prabhupada sitting in an armchair, is worshiped, anointed and dressed and paid homage to by every devotee. He has a very posh alcove in the Mayapur Temple, looking straight down its length at Lord Krishna and the wedding party, devotees or casual visitors are asked to move aside if they obstruct his view.
The Samadhi in the park is where Shri Prabhupada is buried and also houses a museum of his life and the story of the cult’s creation. Like everything else in Krishna World apart from the accommodation for the Indian workers, which is awful, no expense has been spared in the creation of the Samadhi. Marble staircases, beautiful, if extremely kitsch artworks, including what appears to be a huge mosaic ceiling, are all apparent as the visitor makes the spiral tour up to roof level and down again, going through the museum on the way. I was after the photo opportunity from the roof (close-ups of the edifice are forbidden). But for 10Rs. It was worth it, even for someone such as myself, who has only a passing interest in the Gurus life, and a wry smile for his taste in art.
The smaller section of the Temple mentioned earlier, houses the other stage where the Merry Crew disport themselves in some rather fetching outfits. Lord Caitania, for it is He, is a later incarnation of Lord Krishna, appearing as his own perfect Devotee. Quite why he should have wanted to go to such trouble eludes me. He stands in a group of other male figures, all posing away as if they were being photographed for a spread in a new and trendy gay magazine. With gold and silver faces, they look quite the bees’ knees. Though just why real human devotees prostrate themselves on the ground in front of them also eludes me. But they look a cheerful bunch of lads. And Krishna devotees really do seem to enjoy prostrating themselves. They do it all the time, before, during and after their Kirtan, suddenly at a signal, down they go like skittles.
So why should a casual visitor spend time in Krishna World? In short, it’s a safe harbour. The accommodation is very good value as is Govinda’s where the food, as stated, is excellent. Serious devotees stand in long queues for the free temple food, or Prasad (blessed, after being offered to Krishna first) which is served in huge halls under whichever hotel one is staying. I didn’t have any Prasad (I don’t do queues very well, or respond well when a uniformed guard shouts at me through a megaphone). Besides even if it is free, it would take a lot to top Govinda’s.
Once behind the park gates, the constant hassle from hawkers ceases and there are other things to do besides visit the Temple. Krishna liked Moo Cows in his Gopala (cow-herder) incarnation, in a reverse sort of way to His dislike of garlic and onions (Govinda’s is onion and garlic free, which is a pity)! But in an effort to keep in tune with the Divine Will, and to have plenty of fresh milk, gee, cheese and butter, the cult looks after their cows very well indeed. A visit to the Goshala (cow sheds) is entertaining, the beautiful animals, each one named, must be the most pampered sacred cows in India, if not the world. Indeed their standard of accommodation and care is considerably better than that of the dozen or more workers (Indian of course), who look after them.
Yes, Krishna Himself would be in His element, apart from a singular lack of real, flesh and blood Gopis. For the female devotees (Materjis – reverend mothers) are second class citizens in a male dominated cult. It is rammed down their throats, similar to Catholicism, I suppose, that the female of the species is second rate, and potentially unclean. (If they have a poo, they have to have a shower and put on a clean sari. – And you think I am kidding?) So the Materjis especially the western ones are a drab, miserable looking crowd. They dance when they are allowed to, but in a controlled way in segregated areas. They walk around with downcast eyes, dressed in what appear to be table cloths, muttering their Hari Krishna mantras. Apart from a few that I met who could talk and still use their brains, they seem to be a morose, resentful sort of woman. Surely the brides of Krishna should be happy, colourful and joyful, like Krishna’s Gopis in the woods of Vrindavan; full of life rather than waiting for it to be over.
Outside the Gates of Krishna World is India proper; beautiful women dressed in gorgeous, colourful saris, happy children, who although poor and grubby, smile and say “Hello” and are thrilled to bits when a westerner says “Hello” back. There are thousands of hawkers, desperate to sell you their wares, even though you can carry no more. Craftsmen and women of every description have workshops and trade with the Iscon crowd and the Indian and western visitors. The Rickshaw drivers are desperate to take every last rupee from a foreigner! Food stalls offer every delicacy that the western tourist dare not eat, and an easy walk away, a ferry ghat, with frequent ferries that will take a tourist over a sacred river to Nabadwip, a genuinely ancient small city for one and a half rupees
Go to Krishna world, talk to the rich Kolkatan families, smile at their servants, answer their imaculate, well mannered, children’s’ eager questions about European cities, sport or education, gaze awestruck at the Saturday night procession and wonder how much was spent on just the flowers. Laugh at the pompous, posing westerners, trying to outdo the Indians in their own country, whilst trying to stay on the back of an elephant. Commiserate with the mournful Materjis, listen to the barking mad Australian or American devotees who will tell you that in the very near future there will be only one religion (Krishna Consciousness) in the whole world, and that the earth is the centre of the universe, after all they know, having read the books and attended the lectures. Snigger at the kitsch, marvel at the marble, and the skill of the stonemason who was just doing his job. Say good morning to Lord Krishna and his wedding party (“whatever are they wearing today?)”. Comment on Lord Caitania’s dress sense and golden face, and say a heartfelt good night and thank you to the Friendly Lion and hope for His protection in your life both now and in the future.
Across the River to Nabadwip
Many ferries ply between the ferry ghat at Mayapur to Nabadwip every day. For the grand sum of about 8 pence in UK money for a return trip.
Nabadwip is a wonderful breath of fresh air (not literally) from the manicred lawns and artificiality of Krishna World, however there are links between them that are not just passenger ferries, for in the late 15th century, the Golden Faced One is supposed to have been born there. Actually there are many places contending for that honour and I suspect that no-one knows for certain.
Lord Chaitanya, Lord Krishna’s perfect devotee with a sense of style, sparked off the Bhakti movement in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It is a centre for Krishna Consciousness that is not directly under ISCON Rules & Regs. The town is crowded and chaotic as are all towns and cities in India, where smells, colour and the vibrant life-force is so evident that the senses of a westerner are on permenant overload.
Nabadwip has one of the highest rates of literacy for both sexes and was once refered to as the Oxford of Bengal. It is a friendly place, people smile and say hello very readily, rather like Shantiniketan.
I headed off to the market place and the ancient Shiva and Kali temples, where a huge banyan tree drapes its branches over the buildings in a Godesses’ embrace; and the flower sellers of the market attend a permenant wedding of She, the dark and impenetrable but loving, Mistress of Time and He, the enigmatic blue throated, Lord of all Yogis.
Walk to and fro from the ferry ghat, don’t play the rickshaw drivers’ game or you will miss the myriad sights, smells and greetings on the way, it is not far.
Nabadwip is one of those places that in retrospect I wish that I had given more time to explore. If the opportunity presents itself I will return.
The next day I determined to take one of the cycle-rickshaws that line up outside both gates of the Iscon campus. I felt the need to get out of the town and head for some nearby villages to look for rural real life.
After period of negotiation, I found a rickshaw man who understood what I wanted to see, and agreed a reasonable fee for what would be 2 or 3 hours ride. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go, so I left the route to him and we set off country-wards; stopping when I saw a would be picture.
Half a 4gig compact flash card’s contents later, we returned and I booked a shared taxi back to Shantiniketan to take pictures at the forth-coming Poush Mela, a yearly folk festival held on the outskirts of the town, near the university campus.