By Madhava Smullen
Lord Krishna’s eternal consort Srimati Radharani is known as the Queen of Vrindavan. So what better place in the Western World to celebrate Her appearance day, Radhastami, than New Vrindaban?
Described by Srila Prabhupada as “non-different” from Vrindavan in India, New Vrindaban’s Radhastami festival on September 21st 2015 drew many devotees from neighboring states, as well thirty students with their professor from nearby Christian liberal arts school Bethany College.
Favored by devotees for its particularly sweet and loving mood, the festival began with the traditional temple morning program when Sri Sri Radha-Vrindabanchandra were revealed in a stunning new dark blue and silver bespoke outfit made in Vrindavan, India.
With Radha carrying an umbrella of marigolds from New Vrindaban’s gardens, Krishna leaning on a staff entwined with flowers, and both Their heads decorated with heart-shaped flower halos, Their Lordships were breathtaking to behold. And, of course, Srimati Radharani’s lotus feet were visible throughout the day, the only day in the year when She bestows this boon upon devotees.
Visiting for three days, Hridayananda Das Goswami brought his scholarly outlook to several classes explaining Radharani’s position as the feminine aspect of God, and Her qualities of compassion and devotion. He also shared memories of Srila Prabhupada’s 1972 visit to New Vrindaban during an evening program at Nityodita Das and Radha Dasi’s home.
At noon, devotees immersed themselves in the Vrindavan mood, gathering in the under-construction Radha Gopinath temple on New Vrindaban’s Govardhan Hill to sing kirtan before the small yet incredibly sweet presiding Deities.
As in the transcendental village She reigns over, many residents of New Vrindaban offered Srimati Radharani dishes they had made with love in their own homes, such as laddhus, baklava, and fruit salad. The preparations included a strawberry-almond cake baked by Lakshman Isvara Das in the shape of a lotus with twelve petals representing the twelve forests of Vraj.
While Radha enjoyed Her offerings, longtime resident Varsana Swami gave a class full of entrancing stories and revelations about Her pastimes with Krishna, including one wherein She beat the Lord in a wrestling match and pinned Him down until He conceded, “I surrender!”
As it was a beautiful day, all the devotees then sat outside on the grass of Govardhana Hill around the glittering waters of New Vrindaban’s Radha-Kunda, Shyama-Kunda and Lalita-Kund to honor a prasadam lunch prepared by the appropriately-named Radha Dasi. A bull was brought up by the resident cowherds and the recently completed ornate “moon tower,” where Radha and Krishna are said to go to survey Their subjects and property, added to the Vrindavan atmosphere.
Meanwhile back at Radha-Vrindabanchandra’s temple, two visiting sisters from Mexico, Hladini and Aindayi, were married to their respective husbands Nimai Pandit and Jacob with a fire yajna and a talk on love and marriage in Krishna consciousness by Hridayananda Goswami. With its beautiful natural surroundings and spiritual vibrations, New Vrindaban has become a popular wedding destination among devotees.
The evening featured an abhisekh bathing ceremony for the small Deities of Radha Vrindavan-nath, along with a New Vrindaban Radhastami special, in which each devotee gets to receive Srimati Radharani’s mercy by submitting their own individual offering to Her.
“Everyone was given the chance to offer Her a stick of incense, a ghee lamp, and a flower,” says ISKCON New Vrindaban president Jaya Krsna Das. “They then each wrote a special vow or prayer to Srimati Radharani, which were all collected and offered in a basket at Her lotus feet. Finally everyone got to take a balloon with a heart-shaped label at the end of its string, each marked with a different one of Radharani’s 1008 names, and place it on the altar.”
The festival also included ecstatic kirtans led by Shyamala Kishori from North Carolina and Shyamasundar Das from Pittsburgh.
It concluded with a multi-course feast cooked by Sundari Dasi featuring a coconut-sauce subji with Arvi, a potato-like vegetable from India that is said to be Radharani’s favorite. There was also an oatmeal-oregano bread; a baked dish called Handvo; paneer subji; pina colada ice cream, and another jaw-dropping cake from Lakshman Iswara in the shape of the steamship Jaladuta, in honor of the recent 50th anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s arrival in the U.S.
“Radhastami at New Vrindaban is so mellow and pleasing to the heart – hearing Radha’s pastimes and having an opportunity to make our own offerings to Her fills us with oceans of love,” says resident Autumn. “And where else in world – besides Vrindavan, India – can one spend Radhastami on the banks of Radha-Kunda?”
Gopal’s Garden Preschool, headed by New Vrindaban residents Sundari Devi Dasi and Mercy Mack, has been filled with action packed projects and fun this summer.
Starting in March of this year, the preschool began with Sundari Devi Dasi and Mercy teaming up to build a healthy and interactive place to bring their children during the daytime. Eventually, the other mothers in the community joined to support, and now there are all together 6-8 students who come regularly throughout the week.
Gopal’s Garden Preschool days include bhajan and prayers with a little dancing if the mood is right. Then they continue with playing, snacks, and indoor activities such as finger painting, coloring, and learning projects. Sundari Devi also introduces Vaisnava songs and stories towards the end of the school day before they go outside to play.
The outdoor activities include sandbox, swing set, and field trips out beyond the preschool.
During this summer semester, the children got to participate in devotional and festival projects such as making Ratha Yathra Jagannath cart and holding a pushpa abhisek for Radha Krishna.
Sundari and Mercy believe the Preschool has been a great success so far and they have had a great time putting it together. The two mothers try to teach everything with a Krishna conscious aspect to it which makes each day very special, creative and innovative. They both feel Krishna brought the two of them together to satisfy Prabhupada’s wishes for the devotee children to be cared for properly. As Srila Prabhupada mentions in a Letter written in 1972, “…If children are allowed to play just like Krishna was playing with his cowherd boyfriends, then little ABC, then see the deity and have arati, then take little prasadam; in this way if they are always diversified, they will be always jolly and become fixed-up devotees at young age. And small children, they learn better these things from their mother and women in general.”
Gopal’s Garden Preschool will commemorate in November for a sweet graduation to congratulate the children for participating in this first year’s projects! Details will be provided on the New Vrindaban website.
Both teachers thank Srila Prabhupada for all of his wonderful books and teachings he made available to pass on to the this next generation.
“We hope and pray our efforts please Srila Prabhupada!!” – Sundari and Mercy
By Madhava Smullen
As ISKCON’s 50th anniversary quickly approaches in 2016, and New Vrindaban’s 50th in 2018, long time members and residents are working to make sure that accurate histories of the past half century are available for future generations.
Since the 1980s, some devotees in New Vrindaban have mistakenly claimed that Prabhupada’s Palace is a Pushpa Samadhi. According to the Vaishnava tradition, a pushpa samadhi houses flowers worn by a departed Vaishnava, like Srila Prabhupada’s in Mayapur.
However although various stories have persisted over time that a flower or flower garland worn by Srila Prabhupada was installed at his Palace in New Vrindaban, they have since been confirmed as untrue through direct testimony by the devotees cited in the narratives.
In July 2015, after extensive research by board member Chaitanya Mangala including the testimonies, the ISKCON New Vrindaban board formally acknowledged that there are no flowers worn by Srila Prabhupada – nor one of his teeth, another claim — installed at his Palace.
Earlier inquiries by New Vrindaban GBCs Tamohara Das and Malati Devi also came to the same conclusions.
This does not, however, diminish the importance and glory of Prabhupada’s Palace. It has been appropriately identified as a smriti samadhi – a memorial shrine that preserves a Vaishnava’s memory by keeping worshipable personal items.
Three very special personal items of Srila Prabhupada’s are displayed in a glass case in his temple room at the Palace: the bongo drum that he played during the first Tompkins Square Park Harinama Sankirtan parties in 1966; a bronzed pair of his shoes; and original clay imprints of his feet.
In 1976 devotees traveled from New Vrindaban to the West 55th Street temple in Manhattan specifically to get these imprints from Srila Prabhupada in person. They are one of only two such imprints, which were copied and are now on display in ISKCON temples all over the world. But the original remains on display at Prabhupada’s Palace.
As a result of the efforts by the New Vrindaban GBCs, the Palace has been officially recognized by ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission as a Shrine and Memorial and included in the ISKCON Law Book as such.
In a 2006 resolution, the GBC also listed several other reasons as to why the Palace is to be held in high regard as a Smriti Samadhi by ISKCON members all over the world.
Firstly, Srila Prabhupada personally named New Vrindaban, spent quality time there, left behind a legacy of instructions for the project, and emphasized it by stating that it was non-different from Vrindavana, India.
Secondly, Prabhupada’s Palace at New Vrindaban is the only monument in the Western hemisphere built specifically and only to glorify Prabhupada. What’s more it’s built by volunteers who put years of their life into it as devotional service – a labor of love. And Srila Prabhupada reciprocated with that love, calling the devotees working on the Palace “my jewels.”
Finally, Prabhupada repeatedly inquired when his Palace would be finished and expressed his eagerness to live there. “When my palace will be ready I shall go there and stay,” he wrote in 1974. “I like very much that place.” And during a 1974 onsite visit, he said, “If you want, I am already living here.”
While Srila Prabhupada left this world before the Palace was completed, he is living there in spirit — his murti was installed at its grand opening ceremony in 1979, and he has been steadily worshiped there ever since.
And while his physical presence (vapu) may have been limited to four visits, he lives through his teachings (vani), which he lovingly imprints on the hearts of his faithful devotees.
Thus Srila Prabhupada is eternally present at his Palace in New Vrindaban. And to this day, it remains a place where he is the sole focus: from the monthly Sangams, to the mangala-aratis just for him, to the 30,000 tourists and pilgrims who visit every year and learn about his legacy, to the sweet memories that are shared about him by his disciples on his appearance and disappearance days.
And with a major restoration plan now underway, Prabhupada’s Palace is set to become even more renowned amongst future generations as his Smriti Samadhi – the greatest memorial to our Founder-Acarya in the Western World.
By Madhava Smullen
Govinda’s Groceries, recently opened next to Govinda’s Restaurant at the Palace Lodge and run by longtime residents Nityodita and his wife Radha Dasi, is the newest store to contribute to New Vrindaban’s growth as a village.
It joins four others, each with their own specialties: The Palace Gift Shop near the entrance to Prabhupada’s Palace is run by Krsna Bhava and Kripamaya and caters mainly to tourists.
The Temple Gift Shop, located inside the entrance to Radha Vrindabanchandra’s Temple and run by Vani and Rupanuga, serves mainly pilgrims.
The New Vrindaban Artisan Co-op, located along the side of the Palace Lodge and run by Jamuna Dasi, sells locally made gift items to tourists, pilgrims and locals.
And the thrift store Krishna’s Attic, located on the ground floor of the Palace Lodge and run by Ananta and Vilasini, sells donated clothes and household items.
Govinda’s Groceries, meanwhile, will serve as that age-old village staple, the general store.
“We look upon New Vrindaban as a small village,” says shopkeeper Nityodita Das. “And generally a village means you should be able to get everything within it. So the ideal vision is to have a store that caters to the basic needs of the residents.”
The idea is not new to New Vrindaban. Over the years there have been a string of general stores including ISKCON Groceries and Simply Wonderful, managed by Meghamala Dasi in the late 1970s and ‘80s, and Hanuman’s Healthfoods, run by Jamuna Dasi in in the 1990s and 2000s.
As well as providing groceries, snacks, herbal medicines and more, the general store was also a “nerve center” where residents picked up the latest news and found a sympathetic ear.
But when Jamuna’s store closed five years ago, there was a gap until ISKCON New Vrindaban president Jaya Krishna Das encouraged devotees to open shops on the ground floor of the Palace Lodge building, alongside Govinda’s Restaurant.
Govinda’s Groceries, marked by a window with frosted lettering advertising its wares, is a warm, welcoming space that customers can drop into through the restaurant via an attractive archway.
The result of a full makeover, it has mango-yellow walls, a ceramic tile wood-look floor, candle chandeliers, ornate shelving, and lots of natural light from its glass door and picture windows.
Open from 1pm to 6pm with a view to extend its hours soon, Govinda’s stock serves two distinct customer bases: pilgrims and resident devotees.
The pilgrims are attracted by its deity dioramas, gift items like bath soaps and jewelry, and especially its homemade New Vrindaban hot-sauce, maha-prasadam, and “Vrindavan” brand ghee, which is cooked and bottled in New Vrindaban.
For residents the stock is more practical. There are Indian spices, chapati flour, dosa mix, and organic couscous and millet. There are natural versions of quick-meal staples like canned beans, frozen vegetables and not-dogs, and breakfast items like cereal and almond milk.
There are also organic snacks like rice cakes, kettle chips and Natural Brews sodas. And there are prasadam items from devotee company Pure Bliss like granola, spicy nuts and health bars.
“Next we really want to develop a line of what I call fast prasadam,” Nityodita says. He’s most excited by this idea. “Homemade sandwiches, spring rolls, cheesecake and more — prasadam alternatives to temple fare.”
In September, once the tourist season is over, Nityodita plans to survey resident devotees so that he can supply them with more of what they want. He intends to add fresh bread to his shelves, and if there is the demand even a weekly organic vegetable co-op. The idea is that devotees will be able to fulfill their basic grocery shopping needs within the community.
Nityodita feels that Govinda’s Groceries and all the other stores at the Palace Lodge will help bring devotees together.
“Right now we’re all going outside the village to spend our money, which is kind of backwards to the purpose of living in a community,” he says. “Investing in local businesses brings us together to share resources. And, to me, that’s a nicer future.”
By: Madhava Smullen
Over the years, New Vrindaban has been famous for a long list of mouthwatering prasadam dishes – Hladini’s cinnamon rolls; Radhanath Swami’s sandesh; Madri, Dharmakala and Kutila’s cheesecake; Dharmakala’s baked goods and milk sweets; Taru and Amburish’s sweet rice; Vani’s dokla and idli, and many more.
But first, no story about New Vrindaban cuisine is complete without mentioning the legendary rice and oat water breakfast introduced in early 1976 and prepared by Sankirtan Das from 1977 until 1992.
It all began when Madhava Gosh read an article about how oat water was fed to inmates because of its energy-giving properties, and suggested it be adopted at New Vrindaban. Sudhanu Das then developed the first recipe and passed it on to fellow cook Tejomaya, who taught Sankirtan.
Oat water fueled the devotees who built New Vrindaban, and was symbolic of the austerities practiced in those early days. But, although an acquired taste, it could also be rather relishable.
“Oat water was not thick like oatmeal, but rather a savory liquid oatmeal brew,” says Sankirtan, who moved to New Vrindaban with his wife Ruci and their children on Gaura Purnima 1976. “I made it for 60 or 70 devotees, using 10 gallons of water, one gallon of oats, a cup of salt and ginger and raisins to taste.”
Sankirtan was one of those who relished oat water. “It was fantastic,” he says. “It was like having your morning cup of coffee before you got on the road. Sometimes it was sipped, and sometimes poured over the plain rice that went with it. In winter time, served hot, it warmed your insides and was a source of immediate heat against the cold.”
Just as the oat water symbolized the hardships of New Vrindaban life, it was also a challenge to cook.
From 1977 to 1979, Sankirtan prepared the rice and oat water breakfast in an outside kitchen in Bahulaban called “the pits,” which was just about as delightful as it sounds. Adjacent to the Deity kitchen, it had only a tin roof to protect one from the elements.
“I would collect my firewood the night before, because if it was wet, it would just smoke and wouldn’t ignite a decent fire to cook with,” he says. “I’d also fill the pot up with water at night.”
The next morning, Sankirtan would begin cooking at 5:00am, as in those days, devotees chanted most of their japa before mangala arati, had no japa period, and were finished the entire temple morning program and ready for breakfast by 7:00am.
The pits were literally three holes in the ground containing wood fires, with a grating over them on which the pots sat. Cooking over them was tricky.
“It was like a juggling act,” says Sankirtan. “You had to maintain a wood fire that would fluctuate if you weren’t attentive, while stirring the pot constantly so as not to burn anything. For the first few weeks until I got the hang of it, the rice was either uncooked, burnt, or mushy.”
The oat water was also a very precise recipe that could be easily ruined in a myriad of ways. At times over the years when Sankirtan was away for a few weeks, New Vrindaban residents would pray for him to return while his substitute undercooked it, oversalted it, or tossed in experimental ingredients to disastrous effect.
When each dish was done, Sankirtan struggled to lift the huge 20 gallon pots they were cooked in off the pits on his own, so that they wouldn’t burn. This left his apron covered in charcoal so black and all-encompassing that a visitor once mistook him for the mechanic.
The weather didn’t help, either.
“In the winter, it was an ordeal by both fire and ice,” Sankirtan says. “You were scorched on the side closest to the pits, but freezing cold on your back. And of course, if it rained or snowed you would be dealing with wet wood which didn’t give off too much heat but a lot of smoke.”
Sankirtan also cooked lunch six days a week, until the early 1980s. Fortunately, he had help with cutting vegetables and cleaning up from Shobavati Dasi. And in 1979, an indoor kitchen was built on the ground floor of the guest house in Bahulaban, making the cooking less challenging.
It was still hard work, however, and from 1981, what really kept Sankirtan going was pairing with fellow theater performer Lokamangala Das. Sankirtan would cook breakfast on his own, lunch with Lokamangala, and in the afternoon the two would work on developing plays.
“Sometimes we’d even rehearse our lines while cooking,” says Sankirtan. “It was kind of fun!”
Although he stopped cooking lunch when the devotee kitchen moved to the current temple complex in 1983, Sankirtan continued to cook breakfast until 1992. Both meals were plain – lunch was rice, dahl, chapatis, and later one subji too; what’s more, after lunch there was nothing to hold residents over until the next day but some leftovers.
Of course there were treats, too. On Sunday mornings, Jaya Murari would make a pancake breakfast with fresh homemade syrup. And Sunday Feasts would be a sumptuous spread, with New Vrindaban’s best cooks going all out, and families stashing the goodies for during the week.
But on an average week day, it was the oat water that woke the devotees up in the morning, and gave them the energy to go out and work hard to build Srila Prabhupada’s Palace, Sri Sri Radha Vrindabanchandra’s temple, the Palace Lodge, the residential cabins, vegetable and flower gardens, cow barns and everything else we think of as ISKCON New Vrindaban today.
“In the early days , devotees were performing austerities on a lot of different levels – the oat water was part of them,” says Sankirtan. “And personally I think that’s what built New Vrindaban. Everyone was performing the same austerities; we were all in it together. And that’s why, in one sense, there is a kind of comraderie between the older devotees here.”
Of his part, Sankirtan says, “I wasn’t a cook by nature. But I relished cooking because it was both a form of surrender for me, and a service to the devotees. And in that, I felt that I was helping to build New Vrindaban.”
We’ve modified the recipes for rice and oat water for home cooking and shared them with you below. Try them out and let us know how they inspire you with a flavor of that classic “Brijabasi Spirit!”
Rice (Serves 2)
2 cups of water
1 cup of rice
1 teaspoon ghee (butter, or ghee impurities)
1/4 teaspoon of salt
(Approximate cooking time: 15 to 25 minutes)
1. Bring the water to boil in a sauce pan.
2. When the water boils, stir in the rice, salt, and ghee (if using), and bring it to a gentle simmer.
3. Cover the pot and turn the heat down low.
4. Start checking the rice around 15 minutes.
5. When done, the rice will be firm but tender, and no longer crunchy.
Oat Water (Serves 2)
8 cups of water
1 cup of rolled oats
1 teaspoon ghee (butter, or ghee impurities)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Raisins & fresh ginger – to taste
(Approximate cooking time: 30 minutes)
1. Bring the water and salt to boil in a sauce pan.
2. When the water boils, stir in the oats, fresh ginger and ghee (if using) and bring it to a gentle simmer.
3. Stir occasionally and cook for approximately 30 minutes at a simmer.
4. The oat water is ready when the oats lose their form and become creamy.
5. Towards the end, add a few raisins so they get cooked enough to soften and plump up.
By Madhava Smullen
This year’s Janmastami festival at New Vrindaban, West Virginia on September 5th is expected to be packed with inspiring spiritual activities and sweet exchanges between residents and guests alike.
“Under the steady leadership of our community president Jaya Krishna Prabhu, the quality of the festival has been improving every year,” says one of the festival’s organizers Gaura Nataraj Das.
Around three thousand people, including ISKCON devotees from around the country, members of the Hindu community and some Western tourists are expected to attend. Meanwhile, the event will also be broadcast live internationally at Mayapur.tv.
The numbers demonstrate New Vrindaban’s popularity as a holy place where people can celebrate Lord Krishna’s appearance day on the United States’ East Coast.
After all, it was often described by Srila Prabhupada as non-different from Vrindavana, India. And with its beautiful Radha-Vrindabanchandra temple, cow protection program, and replicas of Govardhana Hill and Braja’s sacred lakes, it’s a place where one can truly celebrate Janmastami steeped in the mood of Krishna’s sacred village.
This year’s festival will begin with a stunning reveal of the altar at 8:00am that will send participants even deeper into this meditation. Dressed in a gorgeous new maroon and gold outfit imported from Vrindavana Dhama itself, Sri Sri Radha Vrindabanchandra will be nestled in a stunningly elaborate arrangement of flowers and foliage replicating the forest of Vrindavana.
Long-time community resident Varshana Swami will then immerse listeners in his trademark sweet stories of Krishna’s pastimes and deep philosophical realizations.
After more kirtans and spiritual discussion throughout the morning, there will be a sudarshan maha yajna fire ceremony for the auspiciousness of all at 3:00pm.
“Just as Lord Krishna’s sudarshana discus cuts everything, we’ll pray to the Lord to please cut away all the obstacles in our spiritual lives,” says Gaura Nataraj.
Next, everyone will make their way to the goshala, or cow barn, which will be beautifully decorated with flowers and festoons.
“Everyone will get the chance to worship Lord Krishna’s cows, whose horns and bodies will also be decorated for the occasion,” says Gaura Nataraj. “Then everyone will also get to pass below the stomach of the cow, which is considered very auspicious. It will be lots of fun!”
After that, it’s a special treat for the kids, with professional storyteller Sankirtan Das donning a ceremonial princely garb and telling the story of Krishna’s birth in his riveting style. Props, such as the basket in which Vasudeva carried the Lord across the Yamuna, will add to the experience.
After a stomping 7:00pm kirtan and Nrsimha arati, devotees and guests will get the chance to bathe the Lord, a sweet and intimate service.
“As we meditate on all the the fruit juices, milk, honey, and yoghurt cleaning the body of the Lord, our hearts will be cleansed,” says Gaura Nataraj. “It’s a highlight for many.”
Next, hundreds of dishes lovingly prepared at home and brought in by community members – subjis, rices, fried treats, chutneys, cakes, sweets, fruit, pies – will be piled onto the altar and offered to Lord Krishna.
Meanwhile, New Vrindaban residents will perform a drama telling the story of Krishna’s birth, Gujarati dancer Reshma Bharti will perform a traditional Bharat Natyam piece, and the children of Gopal’s Garden preschool will make a special appearance all dressed up as Radha, Krishna and the gopis of Vrindavana.
Throughout all these activities, of course, the momentum will be building towards the grand finale: the epic Janmastami midnight arati. As the rest of the temple room is plunged into darkness, the curtains will open to reveal a glowing altar, completely covered in a lavish bounty of green branches and flowers of every kind and color imaginable.
“In the morning, the pujaris decorate as much as they can with the one-and-a-half hours they have,” Gaura Nataraj says. “But after that, community residents pack into the prasadam hall to make flower arrangements all day, and the pujaris keep adding more and more to the altar. This year, our head pujari Abhinanda Prabhu is making a concerted effort to use up all our locally-grown New Vrindaban flowers. It will look like Radha Krishna are hiding in a beautiful grove of Vrindavana. People will be awestruck.”
As devotees and guests gaze on in amazement, the moving evening melody of “Samsara Dhava” will wash over them, gradually building into the most ecstatic kirtan of the day.
“Last year, men, women, children, young, old, all were dancing so enthusiastically,” says Gaura Nataraj. “My own daughter was only one-and-a-half years old at the time, and she was jumping too. People wait the whole day, participate in all the activities, and when the time comes to really express their love for Krishna by chanting His name and dancing, everyone does so with so much love and affection and great relish. The devotees love to express themselves!”
Gaura Nataraj is so carried away by the memory of this experience, that he forgets to mention the feast.
“Oh, yes, then at 1:30am, after fasting all day, we’ll have an Ekadasi feast for all our devotees and guests,” he says. It will be huge. There will be kichari, halava, pakoras, two or three types of subjis, soups, sweets, cakes, everything!”
For those who aren’t able to attend the Janmastami day festivities, another Janmastami festival will be held two weeks prior, on Saturday August 22nd. The celebrations will be mostly the same, with the midnight arati replaced by a 10:00pm Swan Boat festival in which small Deities of Radha Vrindabanchandra will ride across the waters of New Vrindaban’s Kusum Sarovara.
All in all, Janmastami 2015 at New Vrindaban is expected to have a profound impact on the thousands that participate in it.
“This festival nourishes relationships between residents and guests, and its sheer beauty and grandeur deepens their faith and inspires them to become more serious in their spiritual practices,” Gaura Nataraja says.
By Madhava Smullen
After Festival of Colors (Holi) drew 5,000 people last September, tri-state area locals are invited to come and participate in another one of India’s most ancient and popular celebrations, Festival of Chariots (Ratha-Yatra), in Moundsville on Saturday July 18th.
In the holy city of Puri in Orissa, India where it originated, the annual procession – full of music and dance — draws over one million pilgrims. Each hopes to get the honor of pulling the ropes of the 45-foot-high chariots carrying the deity of Jagannath (Lord of the Universe, a name for God) and His companions, Baladeva and Subhadra.
For the British ruling India in the 1800s, the festival was such a powerful experience and the sight of Lord Jagannath on His chariot so awe-inspiring that it originated the word “juggernaut.”
The historic festival was first transplanted to the Western World by the Hare Krishna Movement in San Francsisco in 1967. Today, it’s held every summer in over 200 cities worldwide.
The Hare Krishna temple in the unincorporated village of New Vrindaban, near Moundsville, has been celebrating its own Festival of Chariots since 1973. But this one, its 42nd, is the first time locals have been invited to participate on a large scale.
Between 800 and 1,000 people are anticipated for the event, with locals from the tri-state area expected to join Hare Krishna devotees from along the East Coast.
The day will begin with the usual early morning worship at New Vrindaban’s Krishna temple, followed by a talk at 8:00am explaining the history and significance of the Festival of Chariots.
“For all faiths, although we understand God is everywhere, we go to the temple, church, synagogue or mosque to see Him,” says Malati Devi, who helped organize the first Festival of Chariots outside India in 1967. “But not everyone goes to those places. So Jagannath comes out of his temple on Ratha Yatra so that everyone can see him, smiling from His chariot.”
Everyone will be able to see Jagannath’s broad smile – His defining characteristic – when the parade starts at 11:30am on McCreary’s Ridge Road.
The over five-foot tall deity will look out from a hand-carved chariot with a vibrant red and yellow canopy topped with a gold spire that will rise 30 feet into the air.
The colorful parade, filled with balloons, flags, joyous Mantra music and dancing, will last around two hours and cover just over a mile.
It will pass the Palace of Gold – dubbed one of the eight religious wonders in the U.S. by CNN – as well as a recreation of India’s sacred Kusum Sarovara lake and giant figures of 15th century Bengali saints on its way to the Hare Krishna temple.
At the temple, a sumptuous Indian vegetarian feast will be served from 2:00 to 3:30pm free of charge, featuring rice, vegetable curry, vegetable frittes, and mango yoghurt drink. For dessert, there’ll be rice pudding, and gulabjamun, a spongy milk powder sweet soaked in rosewater syrup that has to be tasted to be believed.
At 4:00pm, visitors will get the chance to push smaller deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra on an ornate swing in a ceremony called “Jhulan Yatra.” This will be followed by a play portraying the Festival of Chariot’s history, and a traditional arati worship ceremony in the main temple space.
“Meanwhile, we’ll be offering continuous temple tours from 3:00 to 7:00pm,” says director of public relations Vrindavan Das. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about this ancient culture and interact with practioners from different parts of North America.”
The day will end in grand style with the “Swan Boat Festival” from 9:30 to around 10:15pm. Tiki torches will cast an echanting glow in the darkness as small deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra ride on a swan-shaped boat across the mirror-like waters of Kusum Lake. There’ll be more mantra music and dancing, culminating with a firework display in the night sky.
The saying, ‘And a good time was had by all’ fits the Festival of Chariots perfectly,” says Malati. “It’s just a great family day out with a wonderful, congenial atmosphere.”
By Madhava Smullen
On Monday June 29th, New Vrindaban children waited excitedly while an inaugural puja was offered to open their brand new fully-equipped playground next to the Palace Lodge, before running into it to play with blissful abandon.
The playground is an endeavor by ISKCON New Vrindaban to serve and accommodate both the children who live in the village and the thousands who visit for festivals throughout the year with their families.
Ananga Manjari Dasi, mother to five-year old Chintamani and a member of the ISKCON New Vrindaban Board since early this year, brought the suggestion to the board when she saw the dilapidated condition of the old playground.
“It had been there for over twenty years, since the early 1990s,” she says. “It was a wooden play set, and carpenter bees had bored into the wood until it looked like Swiss cheese. The metal parts were all rusty. It was rickety and falling apart. And it didn’t have proper drainage, so there would often be standing water and it would get muddy. As a parent, I was concerned for my kids’ safety.”
While participating in the Farmers’ Market in Wheeling, Ananga Manjari would regularly see the stellar children’s facilities at other local churches. And with ISKCON New Vrindaban repairing a lot of its long-neglected infrastructure, she wanted to do something for the children too.
“As a new board member, I want to bring something to the table that shows that we put our kids first,” she says.
The ISKCON New Vrindaban Board agreed unanimously to fund the project. So Ananga Manjari partnered with Malati Dasi, whose previous research on play sets led them to a Mennonite family-run business in the Pennsylvanian countryside.
“My daughter Chintamani played with everything, and we asked her what she liked,” says Ananga. “We also customized our purchase according to our community’s needs. For example, they had play sets with closed-in playhouses and tube slides. But we didn’t get them because we wanted to make sure that parents never lost sight of their kids on the playground. We wanted everything to be visible and open.”
Back at New Vrindaban, facilities manager Gopisa Das oversaw the installation of new French drains at the playground site to eliminate the previous problems with mud and standing water. Over these, gravel was laid, and then several inches of shredded recyclable rubber mulch, which is shock absorbent and doesn’t rot.
Meanwhile the playground itself was installed by the Mennonite family who handmade it. “It felt really good to support not only local business, but also God-loving, gentle people from another religious community,” says Ananga.
The new playground includes a rock climbing wall with a rope, two standard swings, two baby swings, a tire swing, trapeze bars, a slide, and a bridge that connects two towers. It also includes items donated by Malati – a seesaw, and three benches so that parents can sit comfortably right in the playground to watch their children.
“We’re trying to cultivate a culture of parents and caregivers staying with their children at all times,” says Ananga Manjari.
All pieces of the play set are made of wood that is vinyl-coated to keep out carpenter bees and eliminate the possibility of splinters. Safety is also ensured by the railings throughout and the eighteen-inch faux rock wall surrounding the playground. Looking down over the whole scene is a picture of Lord Nrsimhadeva, who fiercely protected His five-year-old devotee Prahlad, and lovingly watches over all His devotees.
Ananga Manjari smiles, remembering how, during her most recent visit to the temple, she saw kids of all ages having a great time on the new playground.
“I see this as an investment in our families,” she says. “And I see it as just the beginning of making New Vrindaban so family-friendly that families will want to come here and stay – not just for one or two years, but for good, because it’s such a great place to raise children.”
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