Dear devotees and friends,
Please accept my best wishes. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
I last wrote on the way to the Govardhana Puja festivals in South Africa. First we had one in Johannesburg at our Lenasia temple on Friday evening November 5th, then one in Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha temple in Durban in the early afternoon of the actual day, the 7th, then New Jagannatha Puri in Phoenix that evening. Following that, on Monday evening we had a festival in our new, not yet complete, temple in Pietermaritzburg, about an hour’s drive from Durban.
I have got into the practice over the last so many years of taking the devotees in all these places on Govardhana parikrama. They make big hills – in Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha it was more than 6 metres long – and they are often more or less to scale, with all the major pastime places shown, and all sorts of wonderful decorations including birds that sing. A few years in Radha Radhanatha temple we even had water from the main 21 or so kundas, so the kundas on our hill were completely authentic!
I have to do research to try to come up with new pastimes, although there is a lot of repetition from previous years, but the transcendental subject matters are such when they’re repeated they are just as relishable as before, and sometimes even more so.
We have been trying to build our temple in Pietermaritzburg for some years, but it seems to finally be coming towards completion. One very nice devotee family have come forward and are donating enough to practically finish the project, and I met them for the first time on the 8th evening when we had our festival there. There were about 150 people present, and some of the children acted out the pastimes as I recited them.
On Tuesday the 9th we observed Srila Prabhupada’s Disappearance Day, and again in the earlier part of the day I was in Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha temple, and in the evening in New Jagannatha Puri.
Then on the 10th I flew out via Johannesburg and then Singapore to Chennai in South India. Syama Gopala prabhu had organized a major parikrama for a week, and I was going to participate in it. I arrived in the early afternoon on the 11th, and he met me at the airport, and we set off for Tirupati, the famous temple of Balaji, by far the most popular temple in Hinduism.
We stayed at our ISKCON temple there with about 100 or 120 devotees for three nights. On the first day we went up the Tirumala Hill to have darsana of Balaji in the afternoon, and I was surprised to see how much it had changed since I had previously been there in about 1995. In those days one could pay 25 rupees to get into the fast queue for darsana, and be inside the temple within 5 or 10 minutes, so we spent the days just going around having one darsana after the other for hours. But those days are long gone now. Today one has to pay 300 rupees to get into the same fast line, which we did that afternoon. We were in the queue for an hour before we saw Balaji, and Syama Gopala told me that this was really quick. He had been there two days before and had had to wait three hours.
As we moved around the Balaji temple grounds we met various of the priests from the temple, and I was astonished how friendly they were to us, and how apparently appreciative they were of Srila Prabhupada’s movement. It was quite amazing.
On the way out we stopped at the office of the chief temple administrator, Mr Bhaskar. He was a surprisingly young man, about 35 years old, and is extremely favourable to the Krishna consciousness movement. With his help the devotees have been able to set up two permanent book tables in the grounds of the temple and another in the grounds of another temple nearby which the main temple oversees. We spent some time with him and he told me that on the request of our temple authorities he had arranged a very special darsana of Balaji the following morning, and that I should come around 5am for that.
So the next morning Syama Gopala and I went back up the hill with the temple vice-president and a devotee named Hari Kripa who was previously involved in the local Tirupati political scene, and is very well connected with everyone
who has anything to do with everything in the area. We got out of our car and walked over to a special VIP entrance where there were quite a number of police with guns and a number of affluent and influential looking people waiting to also come in for special darsanas. As we waited we noticed the police come to attention and along came one of the main ministers in the state government. He was also coming for darsana.
Finally around 6am we started entering the temple complex. Hari Kripa told us that even though that state minister is such a big man, we were getting in before him, and we would have a longer darsana than him. Sure enough we got in well before him, and were brought right before Balaji by the temple brahmanas.
It was quite an experience. As we came in front of Him the four or five priests present smiled at us and said Hare Krishna to us. We were in front of Balaji for two or three minutes, just standing there about two meters from Him. He’s a very powerful Deity, and one can feel His presence extremely strongly when one stands for so long right in front of Him. He is about two metres tall, and that morning was dressed in yellow and orange clothes, with a large golden helmet on His head, and hefty pink, white and yellow garlands hanging from over His head to the ground on either side of Him. His huge tilaka covered both His eyes, as He stood with one hand raised in blessings, with the cakra by His right shoulder and the club by His left. In His blessings hand was a banana, which one of the pujaris handed to Hari Kripa, who then handed it to me. His feet were covered in green tulasi, and the pujari handed a whole lot of it to us.
After a couple of minutes we had to go out, and we observed the goings ons of the temple, which generally people don’t see. Instead of there being thousands of people thronging and pushing and shouting, at this time of the day there is nobody there except for pujaris and their assistants. As we had come towards the entrance of the temple we saw about ten pujaris carrying big twenty litre copper buckets of prasadam out of the temple room, where it had just been offered to Balaji, and other than that there were maybe ten other priests around.
We were given many leaf cups of different types of Balaji prasadam, literally hot off the altar. There was a hot, sticky, brown gur rice, a plain white sweet rice, a type of kichari called kadamban which was also piping hot and extremely tasty, and a very spicy savoury rice, and we were given so much we couldn’t eat it all.
We stayed around the temple about half an hour and Hari Kripa introduced us to some of the main priests. We met the chief priest, a well built older man with a large grey sikha. He spoke good English and was extremely nice to us.
Then we were taken into the room they store the used Deity clothes in. Balaji is dressed once a week, and the clothes are only used that one time and then they’re distributed. We were standing in the store room and the priest grabbed the previous set of clothes and pushed them into our faces. He then took the cloth that was used for applying scented oils to Balaji’s body and pushed that into our faces and rubbed it in all over our faces and heads.
The following day we set off by bus for Sri Rangam, which was to be about an eight hour drive or more. On the way we took a short detour to visit Kancipuram, which is very intimately connected with Ramanujacarya. We had amazing darsanas of Varadaraja, the main Diety there, who is Visnu in the mood of giving benedictions, and then we met an ISKCON devotee from there who took us around the other temples in the complex and introduced us to various of the priests, who, just as in Tirupati, were extremely happy to meet us, and very respectful.
We stayed in Sri Rangam for two full days, and had darsana of Ranganatha on a number of occasions. It’s the biggest temple in India, but it’s visited by a lot less people than Tirupati. While there we visited the place Lord Caitanya had stayed when He spent the caturmasya period there in 1510, 500 years ago, and met Murali Bhatta, a descendant of Venkata Bhatta, who is described in Caitanya-caritamrita, and who Lord Caitanya stayed with. Murali Bhatta is the chief priest of the Ranganatha temple, and, as with so many other priests we had met over those days, he was extremely nice and friendly and appreciative of ISKCON and ISKCON devotees. He showed us the personal Deity that Gopala Bhatta had worshipped as a boy before he left Sri Rangam to go to Vrindavana to become the great Gopala Bhatta Goswami of the Six Goswamis of Vrindavana.
Ranganatha is a fascinating Deity of Lord Visnu lying down, partially on His right side. His eyes are captivating, and we spent as much time as we could when we came before Him to have darsana, although we were not able to spend as much time as we did in Tirupati.
Then on the 16th night we left by train for Chennai, and then flew to Delhi the next day at midday, and then drove to Vrindavana by the early evening time, for two weeks of parikrama there.
While there I participated in a special memorial programme for Purnacandra Goswami, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada who unfortunately passed away on November 4th in Moscow. Indradyumna Maharaja and Govinda Maharaja were
there, along with Kavicandra Maharaja, Deena Bandhu prabhu and Bhurijana prabhu, and everyone spoke, glorifying Maharaja for his wonderful service. Shortly before I had written a message from the GBC Executive Committee to acknowledge Maharaja’s contribution to Srila Prabhupada’s movement:
Please accept our humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
We are greatly saddened by the untimely departure of His Holiness Purnacandra Maharaja.
Maharaja was a dedicated disciple of Srila Prabhupada, and he had worked hard to spread Prabhupada’s message in different parts of the world, in a number of services. He was a dedicated ISKCON sannyasi, preaching enthusiastically and effectively, particularly in the former Soviet Union. Many devotees were enlivened by his wonderful preaching, and he had many initiated disciples particularly in that part of the world.
He also formed and was the chairman of the GBC Body’s Sastric Advisory Committee. This group of some of the most knowledgeable devotees in the movement would consider different important philosophical questions put to
it by the GBC, and present papers clarifying different issues for the Body. Through his thoughtful Krishna conscious discrimination Maharaja was able to distill essential truth from many perplexing discussions.
Maharaja was a wonderful kirtana leader and dancer who relished the transcendental sound of the holy names, and loved to chant in the company of his Godbrothers and other devotees. His passing is a great loss to Srila Prabhupada’s movement.
We are sure that Srila Prabhupada has taken him on to further service at his lotus feet.
The GBC Executive Committee
We did parikrama every day for two weeks. Perhaps the most outstanding experience was our visit to the Dauji temple in southern Vraja Mandala. Dauji is a name for Lord Balarama, meaning “older brother”, and He is one the original 5000 year old Deities of Vraja, installed by Vajranabha, Lord Krishna’s great grandson. He is about two metres tall and very handsome, and we arrived there quite early, while He was still wearing His night clothes.
We decided to stay on and watch His bathing ceremony, which takes place about 8.30am, and then watch Him being dressed and have darsana at 9am. Anyone can watch the abhiseka and dressing from the doorway on our left of Dauji. As we were waiting and watching we met Mahadeva panda, one of the local priests, who has become connected with ISKCON devotees over the years. We gave him some laksmi and he arranged that five of us could go into the altar area just after 9am, and spend some time with Dauji. He was dressed in effulgent orange clothes, and Mahadeva told me to put my head at His feet which I did. I was also fortunate to put my head at the feet of Revati, Balarama’s consort, who is in the corner facing Baladeva.
It was an amazing experience, which I will treasure forever. When you’re so close to these amazing Deities you feel Their presence very strongly.
We did two Govardhana parikramas, one on the 26th, and the second on the 30th. We spent the whole day on the first one, starting before 7am and only finishing after 5pm, but the second one we did relatively quickly. As we started out I noticed that the ground was really cold, and that my feet seemed very sensitive, and I wondered if it was just the cold, or whether my feet really were so sensitive after so much walking for all those days. It turned out to not just be the cold, and my feet really were sore, but somehow we managed to drag ourselves around the second time, concluding with a very nice bath in Radhakunda, followed by an ecstatic kirtana on the kunda’s banks. Both times we had harinama through Radhakunda village, and we noticed how the local people appreciate that so much. It means a lot more to them than if we just chant japa as we walk around, which is what we normally
As usual my trusty translator Ananda Caitanya prabhu was with me, although on two days he was sick and couldn’t come, so we enlisted Sivaratri, the 14 year old daughter of my disciple Radha Prema, to translate, and she did a very good job for such a young devotee.
So now I’m flying back to South Africa for the Rathayatra in Lenasia Johannesburg this weekend, and then on the 6th I’ll go to Mauritius for the Rathayatra in Mahebourg.
Hoping this meets you well.
Bhakti Caitanya Swami