May 02, 2012

ISKCON Temple, New Delhi

“Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare”
– Invocation to the beautiful and pleasurable lord by members of ISKCON society

Unlike my usual visits to monuments/heritage structures that are generally pre-planned and well-laid out, the visit to ISKCON temple was as spontaneous as it was unplanned – I was supposed to meet some college mates at Nehru Place market (a large locality composed of big corporate offices housed in large glass buildings and small electronics and hardware shops housed in small, congested shops), but they called at the last hour to inform that they would be late by an hour at least (what? not again!). I had already reached the metro station and was left with nothing to do to kill my time except fiddle with my mobile phone and gaze out of the large glass panes. Looking out of the windows at the tall towers of ISKCON temple and the complex architectural layout of Lotus Temple and wondering why do I always have to be on time even when my friends always arrive late, I impulsively decided to visit the former – now that I reflect on it, I guess it must have been the aforementioned lofty towers of the temple that attracted me in the first place, though to be sure, the temple doesn’t look very eye-catching nor does it boast of an architecturally/artistically ingenious construction, it is just another temple except that it is spread over a much vast area. The other reason that guided me to the temple complex is the fact that I had already been to Lotus Temple several times in the past, and no matter how mesmerizing it appears, there are only as many times that you can visit it (refer Pixelated Memories - Lotus Temple). I must have passed ISKCON numerous times too, and were it not for the long queues of foreigners snaking their way in and out of the temple complex, I wouldn't perhaps have even wanted to visit the place so eagerly. The temple is extremely popular amongst tourists, as is apparent from the number of visitors – Indian and foreigners alike – that it commands. Besides an enviable fan-following including the uber-rich and powerful, the temple also has its own website and facebook page.

The ISKCON temple - One of the largest and most popular temple complexes in the city

The temple was built on a rocky natural outcrop in 1998 by the "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" cult, otherwise known as the "International Society for Krishna Consciousness” (ISKCON), which originates from Krishna worship prevalent for over five hundred years in the Gaur region of Bengal. The cult has commissioned atleast two score other ISKCON temples all over the world (mostly in India) and has the primary mission of disseminating and propagating the philosophy of Krishna and the way of life as dictated by Bhagvad Gita, the sacred book of Hindus. According to Hindu religious texts, Krishna, a warrior king and master statesman, was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the God of life and nourishment – besides being an exceptional flute-player, he was also a cow herder and romantic lover in his younger days, maturing into a pragmatic, worldly-wise philosopher and an extremely powerful and cunning territorial overlord in his later days. One has to make corrections for poetic license while listening to legends associated with him – he was a demon-slayer, could lift elephants and mountains, was a pied-piper who could control all mankind and beasts through his ethereal flute music, fought massive, underwater seven-hooded serpents and could even make time and universe stop, besides the usual romantic escapades and defeating evil, megalomaniac emperors. One account even talks of him as having over sixteen thousand wives, the chief of whom was Queen Rukmini, who too is believed to be a deity and an incarnation of Lakshmi, the boon-bestowing Goddess of riches and prosperity. Yet he is almost always depicted in paintings and temple shrines as being accompanied by his childhood beloved Radha (why not Rukmini? Radha never even married him). Krishna was also the best friend and spiritual guide of the archer-warrior prince Arjuna, glorified for his archery skill and battle might in the epic Mahabharata, who, along with his four brothers and several relatives, supposedly reigned over the Gangetic plains some 5000 years back from their massive citadel at Indraprastha – the site of Delhi's Old Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort). In my opinion, Krishna wasn't really a God – it could have been that there were at the same time or at different times but in close continuation different individuals each christened Krishna – the romantic cow-herder, the mighty weightlifter, the skilled warrior and the cunning statesman – over time, the many stories got jumbled up and morphed to create a superhero incarnation of God himself. Plus, it is assumed to be given that the lore merged with the legends and has been highly-embellished and exaggerated by successive poets and writers.

All that glitters might actually be gold! - The idols of the presiding deities encased within gold canopies

I quickly crisscrossed my way through the surrounding gardens, asking my way to the temple complex’s entrance. Externally, the temple, designed by the renowned architect A.P. Khanvinde and funded through voluntary subscriptions (a major portion of which was donated by the Hinduja business conglomerate), is very similar to most North Indian temples, the only exception being that its towers extend so high that I was having difficulty clicking them properly – referred to as ”Shikharas”, they are each over 90 feet high and from certain angles, especially when looking up at the portion flanking the large circular cavities, appear to be skillfully crafted so as to depict the graceful peacock feather that Krishna was believed to ornament his headgear with – the extensive use of red sandstone in contrast with the otherwise white structures throughout the complex is endearing too. Spread over a majestic three acres of landscaped area, the temple complex is formally known as “Glory of India – Cultural Center”, but is referred to popularly as ISKCON. The security guards informed me that I can photograph the entire temple complex, except the shrine – thankfully, the guards posted within the shrine too let me click when I informed them that I need to write an article about the temple – I was till now cursing my friends for never being on time and leaving me stranded in such scorching heat – things got better when I realized that since it’s so hot, there would be fewer people around and thus relatively less-cluttered photographs (though of course there were several devotees in the central prayer hall since it is fully air conditioned).The temple, by the simple act of allowing photography inside its well-maintained and aesthetically-pleasing premises, won my heart and scores over several other more famous temple complexes throughout the city.

A huge sculpture of Lord Vishnu reclining on the primordial serpent Sheshnaga (considered independently to be an incarnation, a brother and a devotee of the former by several legends) and being served by a consort

I dashed to the central prayer chamber which is essentially a huge, incredibly beautiful, marble-lined room with the roof marked by triangular panels alternately demarcated by blemish-free white paint and splendid paintwork depicting the life and adventures of Krishna; from the center hangs a massive glass chandelier that must definitely light up the paintings at night and endue them with a pristine glow. Convergent with the ISKCON society’s commitment to congregational prayers in devoted religious spaces, visitors can almost always be found at all times, sitting cross-legged in the prayer chamber, chanting prayers and invocations, and often clapping their hands with the beat. Simultaneous chants of “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” erupt from the devotees gathered at near-constant intervals – they can be rhythmic music to some, and crass jarring to others, but the words and their flow continue to ring in the ear for a long time after exiting the temple complex.

Adorned - The central prayer hall

The sanctums are three in number, each a cavernous niche in which are set large gold canopies. The presiding deity of the temple is Krishna and hence the temple’s formal nomenclature after the set of idols set in the central sanctum – Sri Sri Radha Parthasarthi Temple – Radha being Krishna's beloved and Partha Arjuna's alias. “Sarthi” literally translates to charioteer – "Parthasarthi" thus is "Arjuna's charioteer" following the rules of word conjugation – which brings us to another dilemma regarding accepting all the fables about Krishna’s existence – if he was indeed a great warlord and a much esteemed governor–ruler, why did he decide to charioteer Arjuna's horses in the great war depicted in the Mahabharata? In fact, according to scriptures, it was as Arjuna's charioteer that Krishna narrated Bhagvad Gita, after bringing the universe and time itself to a halt, in the middle of the battle field with the two sides raring for bloodshed – Bhagvad Gita, a collection of rules related to the way of life and the story of genesis as believed by the Hindus, has since become one of the most acclaimed and highly venerated religious text. 

The idols are covered in expensive, glittering clothes and jewelry and the entire scene – the small idols, housed in their pretty gold canopies – presents a picture of unabated affluence and a colorful, sparkling existence. The sparkle of gold certainly awes all visitors, many would have actually wanted to bite it to test its purity – but a barricade separates the deep niches from the visitors while a large retinue of security men and women ensure that visitors do not venture too close to the idols or reel on the barricades. Opposite the sanctums and near the entrance sits a life-like sculpture of Swami Srila Prabhupada, the convener of ISKCON group, a much revered saint and philosopher-author and the (posthumous) commissioner of this magnificent temple complex. The statue looks incredibly realistic and at first glance it struck me as an actual person and I felt I was blocking the field of view of the priest by standing in front of him. It was only after a few seconds that it registered that it was just an idol! All idols in the temple have been sculpted by Russian sculptors and one has to concede that they have performed an unsurpassable job in creating such wonderful and exquisite pieces of art.

The statue of Srila Prabhupada - It doesn't look as realistic in photos as it actually is.

Like other Hindu temples, a passageway is provided here too around the idols of the deities for the purpose of “parikrama” (circumambulation) – the entire passageway has been lined with paintings depicting scenes from Krishna’s life and the recital of Bhagvad Gita by him in the battlefield; besides, marble has been skillfully carved to depict the different incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the one I liked the most was an engraving of four-armed Vishnu dressed in his entire divine regalia and resting inclined while holding his weapons in two hands, a lotus in third and granting blessings with the fourth. The temple is flamboyantly modern in decor and can definitely be regarded as a marvelous beauty in itself made further appealing by means of striking idols and intricate artwork. The central hall is said to be capable of housing 1,500 people at one go, however it did not look that large to me.

The temple also hosts special animatronics show titled “Gita Saar” with the use of three specially design robots, built to imitate Krishna, Arjuna & Swami Prabhupada, which deliver the message of Bhagvad Gita and other Hindu scriptures by playing the roles and discussing upon the philosophies inherent in the text. I found the sermonizing boring and especially sleep-inducing given that photography is not allowed within the darkened chambers where the entire play is carried out – the attendants even asked people to switch off mobile phones on the pretext that the magnetic waves emitted within the chamber will interfere and damage the phones, however, as is evident from the photo I clicked (albeit a poor quality one since it had to be clicked in dark with the mobile phone when the attendant was away), nobody turned off their phones.

Robots enacting the roles of Krishna and his disciple Arjuna in the animatronics show

After the dark chamber, it is exciting to get out into the open – the beautiful surrounding lawns and manicured landscaped areas with fountains, waterfalls and well-laid terrains are praiseworthy – one prefers to roam around in the complex or near the rugged hill face than be in the prayer hall. One of the major attractions is a striking sculpture of Krishna dancing upon the heads of the seven-hooded mythical serpent Kalia Naag situated at the bottom of a large, deep fountain. Like most parks in the country that are christened as memorials to historical/religious figures, this entire area too is known as “Krishna Jayanti Park” – the fountains and greenery ensure a cool, airy environment despite the scorching summer heat. The multiple-layered complex also boasts of a vegetarian restaurant and a publications and souvenir outlet located immediately next to the media hall. Besides these, there also exists a museum dedicated to spiritual and philosophical knowledge that was a hallmark of ancient Indian civilization, especially the Vedic ages when most of the Hindu holy scriptures came into existence or were penned down; I couldn’t visit the museum due to paucity of time since my friends had arrived by then and were continuously calling me. Given its numerous features and especially mesmerizing idols and stone artwork, the temple is at least a one-time attraction. Though I would still venture to claim that it isn’t much different from ordinary Indian temples despite all the claims and protestations of its priests and managing committee, yet the extraordinarily enchanting surroundings and the graceful sanctum make a visit worthwhile – the best view is of course from the Nehru Place metro station which directly overlooks the dizzying towers and the huge complex and then one begins to appreciate the massiveness and the innovative architecture of the entire scheme.

Flamboyantly colorful - Krishna and the serpent Kalia

Special prayers and spiritual discourses are preached in the central hall every Sunday. The temple is especially ornamented with incandescent bulbs and flowers on the auspicious occasion of Janamashtami – Krishna’s birthday – prayers are organized from early morning (4:30 am) and continue well after midnight, the entire complex wears a festive look and thousands of devotees thong to adore the decorated temple complex and the idols of Krishna and other deities. As before, the most spectacular view can be had from Nehru Place metro station, but one should head to Kailash Colony metro station if the purpose is to click both the temple and the nearby Lotus temple in a single frame.

Janamashtami glitter

Location: East of Kailash
Timings: Open on all days from 4:30 am – 1 pm and 4 pm – 9 pm
Prayer timings: 4:30 am, 7:15 am, 12:30 pm, 4:15 pm, 7:00 pm and 8:30 pm.
Nearest Metro Station: Nehru Place
Nearest Bus stop: Nehru Place
How to reach: Walk from the metro station/bus stop.
Time required for sightseeing: 1.5 hrs (including the 30 min animatronics show)
Entrance fees: Nil (Rs 50 for the show)
Photography Charges: Nil (Video recording is not allowed)
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