for ISKCON News on July 17, 2010
An estimated 20,000 devotees, congregational members, and well-wishers including local politicians and celebrities are expected to visit ISKCON’s new Vedic-style temple in Houston, Texas for its grand opening from Thursday November 4th through Sunday November 7th this year.
About 1,000 people, mostly from yoga organizations and interfaith groups, are expected at “Hare Krishna Dham” on the first of the festival’s four days to attend a cultural program and guided tour of the temple premises. Friday’s Diwali celebration, meanwhile, will draw 3,000 and will also include appreciation of volunteers and donors, cultural entertainment, a carnival on the grounds, and a prasadam dinner.
Govardhana Puja will be celebrated on Saturday, honoring ISKCON Houston’s Deity of Giriraj Govardhan, the holy hill in Krishna’s birthplace of Vrindavana, India. By this time, attendance will be up to about 5,000, and festivities will include kirtan, a fire ceremony, a drama, a talk by a visiting spiritual teacher, arati, and donor appreciation.
Sunday’s grand finale is expected to draw as many as 10,000 people, who will enjoy performances by Hare Krishna Dham’s Sunday School Children and kirtan group the Mayapuris, unveiling of the Deities of Sri-Sri Radha Nila Madhava in a special new outfit, a maha arati ceremony and kirtan, and a prasadam feast.
But ISKCON Houston didn’t always play host to such popular and expansive spiritual celebrations—in fact, this November’s grand temple opening is a culmination of nearly forty years of dedication and hard work.
When ISKCON pioneers Vishnujana Swami, Hridayananda Dasa Goswami, and Dina Bandhu Dasa first introduced Krishna consciousness to Houston in 1972, they worshipped only pictures of the Lord in a run-down old house on West Gray Street, close to downtown. Moving from one temporary location to another, they finally installed Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai in a larger building in 1974. Then, in 1978, the late Tamal Krishna Goswami began to oversee ISKCON’s efforts in Houston, a project that would stay close to his heart until he passed away in 2002.
But it wasn’t until 1984, when a 1.2 acre property containing an old Baptist Church was purchased on West 34th street—the current temple’s location—that momentum truly began to build.
“Under Tamal Krishna Goswami’s guidance,” says management team member Manasi Ganga Dasi, “ISKCON Houston gradually evolved from an all-brahmachari monk book distributor’s group to a solid family community.”
Encouraging the devotees to bond with their congregation, Tamal Krishna led by example, himself developing personal relationships with the Indian community. As a result, many Indians began to serve the temple and later took initiation—including current president Shyamasundara Dasa and head priest Chaitanya Dasa, who have both held their positions for over 17 years.
In 1996, to cater to the needs of this growing Indian community, the 1,000-person capacity, two storey Gauranga Hall was built. On its first floor was a large industrial kitchen for catering, a stage for drama events, and the hall itself, which quickly began to draw revenue for the temple from wedding and event rentals.
The second floor, meanwhile, featured a small conference room and eight classrooms that served both Sunday school children and adult education students systematically studying Srila Prabhupada’s books for their Bhakti Sastri degree. In accordance with Tamal Krishna Goswami’s vision, the hall also began to attract western visitors for cultural events, some of which were organized jointly with the local interfaith chapter.
Enthusiastic development continued as devotees encouraged congregational members to host weekly programs in their homes. Today, these early efforts have evolved into structured Bhakti Vriksha programs, and ISKCON Houston’s congregational base has grown from 40 to 200 families. Meanwhile many more, drawn by the temple’s Sunday School program for children, have begun attending.
“Over the past fifteen years, we’ve also developed a strong partnership with the organizers of some of Houston’s major city festivals such as I-fest, Bayou festival, and Art Car Parade,” says Manasi Ganga. “And this festival participation has increased our visibility to Houstonians. It’s also raised their awareness of Srila Prabhupada’s books, kirtan and prasadam, which has become so popular that ISKCON has been ranked as one of the top food vendors in the city, although we don’t even have a restaurant.”
Prasadam’s popularity was further helped by ISKCON’s Food for Life partnering with the local “kids on meals” program to help feed hungry children in the area. The community continued to grow, until ISKCON found itself ranked as one of the top 3 out of 75 Hindu temple organizations in Houston.
With so many extensive outreach programs and such a large congregation, the devotees began to consider constructing a new, grander temple. The old one, made of wood, was starting to deteriorate and was too small to accommodate worshippers during major festivals. It also had no ashram or guest facilities.
“We had enough land for a new temple—the property had since grown from 1.2 acres to 7 acres,” Manasi Ganga says. “And although all our priests and volunteers performed their services while supporting their familes with full-time outside jobs, we knew that we could maintain a larger facility in the same way.”
About 420 families pledged or donated $5,000 each, and in 2004, construction of the new temple began. “It would have been very easy to just demolish the old temple and start constructing the new one,” says Manasi Ganga. “But so as not to disrupt Deity worship, our temple president Shyamasundara Dasa planned the construction in a way that actually incorporates the old facility.”
A new roof and walls now encase the old temple, which is set to become Holy Cow, a vegetarian restaurant inspired and named by Tamal Krishna Goswami. Shyamasundara has even incorporated some of the old temple’s architecture—such as its ceiling domes and floor—in the restaurant’s décor.
The new temple, meanwhile, will cover 24,000 square feet, and its central dome will stand 72-feet high. Its worship room will be divided into two sections to
accommodate small or a large crowds, depending on the festival or event. And on its altar will stand Giriraj Govardhan, Sri Sri Gaura Nitai, and the life-size Sri Sri Radha Nila-Madhava—the largest Radha Krishna Deities in the US.
The property will also feature a gift shop, three guest rooms and two ashram rooms, an audio / visual library, three administrative offices with a reception area, a Deity kitchen, a prasadam area, a shower facility for priests coming to serve straight from their day jobs, a new house for the sacred Tulasi plant, a memorial room for Tamal Krishna Goswami, and a multi-storey parking garage.
“This temple will be unique because it is 99% run, serviced, and managed by volunteers—a system that plays a big role in our operating debt-free,” Manasi Ganga says. “When we are done with the construction, everything will have been completely paid for. No loans have been taken to finance this project—everything has been financed solely by donations.”
And the future looks bright. The vegetarian restaurant Holy Cow is expected to fulfill the demand for vegetarian food in Houston, as well as to gradually introduce customers to Krishna consciousness. Eventually, it could be the foundation for several satellite outreach centers around the city. And a whole host of other projects are on the cards, including a nearby farm community that will help support self-sufficiency at the city temple, a gurukula school, and a hospice care center for devotees.
“We also hope to acquire more land and build apartments/housing for devotees and congregation members that wish to live near the temple to do their service,” says Manasi Ganga. “And with such housing availability, we hope to attract other devotees from around the country to choose our community to reside in.”
In the meantime, devotees from around the country will certainly be choosing Houston this November, not wanting to miss out on one of the biggest temple openings in the US in recent years.