Durban's Sri Sri Radha Radhanath Temple of Understanding is a major tourist attraction in South Africa due to its incredible architecture.
Over 2,500 devotees from all over the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal will flock to Durban this October 16th and 17th to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sri Sri Radhanath Temple of Understanding, ISKCON South Africa’s flagship temple.
From the time of its opening in 1985 to the end of apartheid in 1994, this place of worship was a beacon of hope in a violent and segregated nation. And after 1994, it became a symbol of a new South Africa, praised by dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela who were hoping for a better world.
Today the temple, with its magnificent architectural design, has become a renowned tourist attraction, and over 2 million guests pass through its doors each year.
But, as with most successful projects, it too has its story…
Srila Prabhupada’s Visit and the Early Days
In 1974, Ksudi Dasa stepped off a plane into South Africa, a country as yet untouched by the wave of Krishna consciousness that was then sweeping the globe. Pusta Krsna Swami soon joined him, and the two held Durban’s first ISKCON programs in a house in La Mercy Beach on the North coast before moving into a flat on Victoria Street, central Durban.
ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada arrived in South Africa on October 5th the next year and spent nineteen days in the country in what would be his first and only visit. Still, it would change South Africa for ever.
During his one week in Durban, Prabhupada lectured to 2,000 people at Durban City Hall, amongst other major speaking engagements. He also gave the devotees of South Africa much personal attention, showing kindness towards them and appreciation for the work they were doing to propagate his mission. Inspired, they established an ISKCON center in the town of Desainagar near Durban soon after he left, which attracted many to Krishna consciousness.
But things weren’t always so easy for the devotees. South Africa was gripped with the racism of apartheid, and the Group Areas Act prescribed that different races lived in demarcated segregated areas. Curfews were in place for non-whites working in white areas.
“Since the first devotees to arrive in South Africa were “whites” whose outreach efforts were predominantly in “Indian” areas, they were faced with great challenges,” says ISKCON Durban Communications Officer Champakalata Dasi. “There were occasions when security police raided “Indian” homes in search of foreigners and non-Indians living there.”
So the devotees criss-crossed the country, preaching and evaluating which areas where most responsive. These areas—such as Durban and Johannesburg—they then settled in.
In September 1977, ISKCON’s first temple in KwaZulu-Natal (then known simply as “Natal”) was opened in Cato Ridge, about eighty kilometers from Durban. The 120-acre farm, with its ample residential quarters, became the headquarters for ISKCON Durban. From there, tent campaigns traveled to various residential areas around Durban and, over a span of four years, established forty different congregational groups called Nama-Hattas.
A Temple in This World, But Not of It
The movement was growing, but devotees were thinking about one of the two specific instructions Srila Prabhupada had given them during his visit.
“He had requested that a beautiful temple be built in the heart of Chatsworth, a Durban suburb,” Champakalata explains, “Just like the Krishna Balarama Mandir in Vrindavana, India—which had just been completed at that time.”
So in 1978, shortly after Srila Prabhupada passed away, Austrian-born architect Rajaram Dasa, who had studied architecture in India for several years, arrived and drew up the first design for the new temple.
In 1980, construction commenced at the temple site in Chatsworth.
The result was a temple unlike anything that had been seen before.
The Temple of Understanding, featuring windows in the shape of a tilak
Resembling some sort of Vedic temple spaceship, the Sri Sri Radha Radhanath Temple of Understanding is unique in every way, incorporating a very unusual blend of modern and traditional architectural features.
Its three huge white and gold temple domes rise high above a dazzling octagonal roof of stainless steel. The center dome features windows arranged into the shape of a large Vaishnava tilak symbol, while atop it sits a traditional chakra. Constructed according to the vasta-purusa mandala and utilizing auspicious vedic numerology, the building is 108 cubits high—approximately 12-storeys—from the ground to the top of its chakra.
The grounds, meanwhile, are in the shape of a lotus flower; for just like a lotus flower, the temple is in this world but not of this world. This fact is obvious at a glance: situated at the exit of the main Highway in Chatsworth, and surrounded by a hospital, government buildings, and a shopping mall, it’s a truly surreal sight.
“A moat of water with rockeries, water plants and fountains depicts the ocean of repeated birth and death, as described in the ancient Vaishnava texts,” Champakalata explains. “Four gate entrances at each of the cardinal points depict the four yugas, or ages, from lightest to darkest—Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali. The main entrance is Kali-yuga, and from it a bridge leads over the moat into the temple room, so that visitors find themsleves leaving Kali-yuga behind, crossing over the ocean of birth and death, and entering the spiritual world.”
The temple room certainly feels like a different realm, eliciting gasps of wonder from visitors. The reflective golden ceiling consists of eight panels, each set with a three-meter high painting of one of Krishna’s pastimes by ISKCON artists and reproduced by a computer with laser beams. In the skylight at the center is an original painting, commissioned from the ISKCON art department in Italy, of Radha and Krishna in the spiritual world. The marble floor features a large intricate star shape made of different colored pieces of marble, imported from Portugal. And gazing out over this splendid scene are the beautiful presiding deities of Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha, flanked by a unique deity of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
The stunning temple room at ISKCON Durban
“The temple’s opening ceremony took place on October 18th, 19th and 20th, 1985,” Champakalata says. “Over the years after that, its awesome architectural design made it a major tourist destination—it featured on Milescapes and in several magazines including South African Airway’s inflight magazine. This media coverage as well as the expanded outreach efforts of the devotees caused attendance at our weekly Wednesday and Sunday programs to surge.”
ISKCON Durban Inspires Nelson Mandela and other Heads of State
As Hindus as well as ISKCON devotees upped the attendance for prominent festivals such as Rama Navami, Krishna Janmastami, and Diwali to over 10,000 people, the community set about realizing Srila Prabhupada’s second specific instruction—to hold Ratha Yatra, the ancient festival of the chariots, on Durban’s beachfront.
In 1988, Indradyumna Swami and a triumphant crowd of devotees chanted and danced down the beach for Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, as his cart’s fifteen-meter-high multicolored canopy towered over them. The festival has taken place annually since then, and has expanded over the years from a two-day to a four-day festival, with an attendance of nearly 200,000.
Various Heads of State and government ministers have attended and supported the festival, including Former Deputy President Jacob Zuma and State President Thabo Mbeki, who said in an address: “Our country is in need of a lot of healing. It carries many scars and many wounds from the past. It carries many divisions. It needs that sense of oneness, which His Holiness (ISKCON guru Giriraj Swami) has just been speaking about, a oneness, I believe, that is derived from a common conviction that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God…
“You are people of peace, people who are committed to a non-violent world,” he continued. “His Holiness took me to the booth outside where the cows are being protected, and said to me that this is also a soul and should not be made to suffer as a result of violence brought against it. It would be a very good thing if we all do something to end the violence in our province, and that we go out to preach this message of the International Society…”
A temple priest places the deity's crown upon Nelson Mandela's head
ISKCON further drew the government’s attention through its philanthropic activities, with Food for Life feeding nutritious meals to thousands in need on a daily basis. Various local and national ministers graced ISKCON’s festivals as Guests of Honor, praising the society for contributing to the building of a democratic nation.
“In 1992, former President Nelson Mandela visited the temple in his capacity as the leader of the African National Congress,” Champakalata says. “He offered his obeisances to the deities, took a tour of the temple, enjoyed a prasadam feast at Govinda’s restaurant, and dined with ISKCON leaders including Bhakti Caitanya Swami, who had the opportunity to share Krishna consciousness with him.”
On November 6th 1994, shortly after South Africa’s first democratic elections and Mandela’s appointment as State President, he again visited the temple for Diwali, with a large entourage of government ministers and ambassadors. Thousands of locals thronged to the temple to hear his official Diwali address. Later, Mandela was introduced to the late ISKCON guru Bhakti Tirtha Swami and was greatly impressed by him, giving him a standing ovation during his speech.
In 1996, ISKCON’s excellent relationship with local government resulted in Chatsworth Circle, where the temple is located, being renamed Bhaktivedanta Swami Circle. This astonishing achievement was offered to Srila Prabhupada on his centennial celebrations.
On April 23rd 1997, The Festival for the Children of the Rainbow Nation, hosted by Food For Life, drew together 50,000 educators, Members of Parliament, King Goodwill Zwelethini (King of the Zulu Nation) and President Mandela at the Kings Park Soccer Stadium, Durban.
Nelson Mandela at Food For Life's Festival for the Children of the Rainbow Nation. Bhakti Tirtha Swami is on the far left.
Organized by Kapiladev Dasa and Srutakirti Dasa, the program offered entertainment and meals for all who attended. President Mandela enjoyed himself so much so that he cancelled the rest of his day’s engagements and instead extended his stay at the festival. The next morning, Durban’s newspaper The Mercury quoted Mandela on its front page saying, “It was the happiest day of my life!”
Preparing for the 25th Anniversary
In the new millennium, with brahminically-inclined Swarup Damodar Dasa as its president, the Temple of Understanding renewed its focus on deity worship and temple restoration.
“The deities were repainted by an experienced devotee artist, and revealed their freshly painted exquisite features on December 3rd, 2003,” says Champakalata Dasi. “Also, as the temple was close to twenty years old, it required major maintenance and repairs—and so its interior and exterior were also completely repainted, and its lighting renewed.”
The presiding deities of Sri Sri Radha Radhanath, with Radharani dressed up as a cowherd boy for Gopastami
In 2005, the moat surrounding the temple—which had been drained dry—was restored to its former glory. Sri Sri Radha Radhanath then enjoyed their first ever boat festival on the eve of Radhastami, riding in a swan boat amidst floating candles and flower petals as devotees chanted bhajans.
On March 21st, 2005, a representation of the sacred Hill Govardhan, hand-selected by Bhakti Bringa Govinda Swami and Indradyumna Swami, was installed and continues to be worshiped on a daily basis. The Aniyor festival, meanwhile, is celebrated annually, with hundreds of delicacies being offered to Sri Giriraj Govardhan.
“We also recently introduced Gopastami, a pastime where Lord Krishna’s eternal consort Srimati Radharani disguises herself as a cowherd-boy to enable her to meet Krishna,” Champakalata says. “Visitors to the temple were quite astonished to see Radharani attractively dressed in full cowherd-boy regalia!”
In 2008, after a fire engulfed the tower above the altar and damaged most of the deities’ attire, devotees created a state of the art wardrobe and jewellery facility for them. The deities also moved from the altar which had been their home for the past 23 years onto a brand new altar, traditionally carved from wood and imported from India, on Janmastami day.
This year, the deities’ kitchen was completely refurbished, and the renovated facility was offered to Srimati Radharani on the auspicious occasion of Radhastami, her appearance day.
Celebrating 25 Years
And now, after many trials and victories, the Sri Sri Radha Radhanath Temple of Understanding will celebrate a quarter of a century in service to Sri Krishna.
On Saturday October 16th, the first day of the 25th anniversary festival, senior devotees will recount their memories of service to Sri Sri Radha Radhanath. The whole community will pledge their future service to the deities, while priests who have served them since their installation in the early days will cook feasts for them throughout the day.
“A special boat festival will also be held, and the premier of a video highlighting the milestone events since the opening of the temple will be shown,” says Champakalata Dasi. “In addition, a special souvenir magazine will be presented to the deities and distributed.”
On Sunday October 17th, there will be further remembrances by senior devotees about their service to Sri Sri Radha Radhanath. A Puspa Abhisek of Sri Sri Radha Radhanath, Lord Chaitanya and Giriraj, in which almost 1,000 kilograms of flower petals will be showered over the deities, will be the centerpiece of the day.
The beautiful Sri Sri Radha Radhanath and Lord Chaitanya
“We will also have many special guests, including GBC and South African spiritual leader Bhakti Chaitanya Swami, spiritual leader Partha Sarathi Dasa Goswami, BBT Africa manager Govardhana Dasa, and former Durban temple president and current Johannesburg president Nanda Kumara Dasa,” Champakalata says. “Early Durban pioneers Bimal Prasad Dasa, Ramanujacharya Dasa, Shyamlal Dasa and Tribhanga Sundara Dasa will also be with us.”
A week later, on Saturday October 23rd, the 35th anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s visit to South Africa will be celebrated. The festival will include congregational offering of lamps and food to the ISKCON founder, remembrances of his visit to South Africa by devotees such as Partha Sarathi Dasa Goswami and Ramanujacharya Dasa—founding disciples who still serve in South Africa—and pledging of future service to Srila Prabhupada.
Looking to the Future
Today, there are over 700 initiated devotees in KwaZulu-Natal, and their spiritual life is thriving, as are many exciting ISKCON projects.
The Sunday Feast is attended by 500 to 700 guests every week, while devotees chant sixty-four rounds in the temple every Ekadasi, and refresh their souls at least twice annually with spiritual retreats facilitated by senior devotees.
“We also hold three-day childrens’ holiday programs twice a year, in the summer and winter,” says Champakalata, “As well as youth gatherings, and forty nama-hatta programs every week.”
Food For Life, which has been running for twenty-five years, still takes place on a daily basis.
Bhakti Yoga classes are offered and prasadam distributed weekly at seven tertiary institutions, namely universities and technikons. Bhakti Lata—a mentorship program based on systematic progress in practising Krishna consciousness—is also offered.
And the devotees of ISKCON Durban continue to find more ways to serve Krishna and spread Srila Prabhupada’s message. In the next two to five years, the Temple of Understanding plans to establish a devotee spiritual welfare program to provide tangible shelter to its congregation. It also plans to greatly expand book distribution, and to open more centers in African areas.
“More long term—in the next five to ten years—we hope to develop the Radha Radhanath Temple Phase Three project,” Champakalata says. “This will feature a hall, restaurant, conference centres, guesthousing, education centre, hospice, and a small student hostel.”
Whatever happens in the next twenty-five years, it is certain that the Sri Sri Radha Radhanath Temple of Understanding will continue to be a beacon of hope for the needy, a spiritual haven for seekers of God and an oasis of solutions for the world’s problems.