for ISKCON News on Jan. 6, 2012
On December 15th, devotees in Leicester, England, who had lost their Thoresby Street temple fifteen months before to a gas leak explosion, received a thrilling text message from their president Pradyumna Dasa.
“Dear devotees,” it read, “Please grab your mridangas, kartalas, and conches, and come to 31 Granby Street tonight, because it now belongs to Srila Prabhupada.”
After struggling from month to month and holding their festivals in rented halls, this was a balm to the community members’ souls.
At 6:30pm, one hundred devotees arrived at ISKCON’s new temple, an historic former HSBC Bank in the very center of Leicester, right next to the Town Hall.
Built by famous local architect Joseph Goddard in 1875, the impressive edifice is around 15,000 square feet in size, and its Victorian Gothic architecture features large stained glass windows and intricately carved brickwork and ceilings.
Devotees gathered in the former bank’s grand hall, and offered the keys of the building to a murti of Srila Prabhupada, sitting on his vyasasana in the spot they hope will be his home for good when the hall is transformed into a temple room.
The traditional Guru Puja prayers were sang with deep emotion. It had been on Srila Prabhupada’s appearance day last year that the old Thoresby Street temple had been destroyed. And now, the devotees were offering him a new, far grander temple.
As the program ended at 9pm, they enjoyed prasadam snacks and shared their feelings and realizations.
“It was just an amazing evening for us,” says temple president Pradyumna Dasa. “It was unreal.”
Despite the disaster that struck their temple, and the sometimes difficult times that followed, the Leicester devotees had never given up hope, always trusting in Krishna that this day would come.
Pradyumna recalls taking Srila Prabhupada and the Deities of Pancha Tattva to a devotee’s home straight after the explosion, and chanting there with the entire community.
“That first evening was a crucial time for us,” he says. “We sat there, with the Deities undamaged and no one hurt—which the firefighters called a miracle—and we felt a sense of protection, and shelter, but also of opportunity. Then and there, we resolved that we wouldn’t hold back; we wouldn’t despair and say, ‘Why is this happening to us?’ We would continue on with our service the way we would have if nothing had happened.”
The very next day, a large part of the community turned out for a mega Harinama in the city. As they chanted, one local English couple stopped to talk. The man had just begun looking into Buddhism and yoga as a way of life, and was so moved by seeing the devotees happily chanting God’s names a day after their temple had burned to the ground, that he has since taken up Krishna consciousness.
“He said it was exactly the real-life demonstration of spiritual philosophy that he’d been looking for,” says Pradyumna.
In turn, the devotees were also moved by the amount of support they received from their local community.
“In those few days after the fire, I learned a lot about myself, and about fear, but also about our relationship with the public,” Pradyumna says. “The reception we received on Harinama was absolutely stunning, and our local newspaper and radio station would call us up every other week and ask how we were doing and if there was anything they could publish or broadcast to help us out.”
Srila Prabhupada and Pancha Tattva remained at a devotee’s house for two months after the explosion, before they were moved to a house rented by ISKCON to be used as an ashram where small morning and evening programs were held.
Meanwhile, the devotees began to hold their Sunday Feasts and festivals at various community centers, finally settling for the past year at the East West Center, a gathering place for elderly Hindus with a vegetarian kitchen. And while there have been some difficulties, the positive attitude of the Leicester devotees has largely yielded more positive results than they could have ever imagined.
“It’s been an amazing year in terms of defining what a community can do, even without their own place,” says Pradyumna. “In fact, everything has gotten bigger than it was at our old Thoresby St. temple. There, only about 100 people could fit into the temple room on Janmastami, wheareas this year 4,000 people packed into the hall we rented. Our Saturday Harinamas, which used to draw 100 devotees, now draw 200. Our Rathayatra, the second largest in Europe, drew its largest crowd this year, to which we distributed 10,000 plates of prasadam. And in September 2011, the Krishna Avanti primary School—the second Hindu school in the country—finally opened, completing a goal I’d had since 2006.”
Indeed, it seems as if the destruction of their old temple was actually a blessing in disguise for the devotees of ISKCON Leicester—Krishna’s way of bringing them closer together, deepening their relationships with their wider community, and giving them a new determination to succeed in Srila Prabhupada’s mission.
This plan of the Lord’s culminated in November 2010, when Pradyumna was alerted that the old HSBC bank on Granby Street was up for sale. After five years of looking for a new building—Thoresby St had always been too small—could this finally be the answer to his prayers?
Previously on the market for two million pounds, the grand building was now up for 1.5 million. ISKCON Leicester made an offer of £750,000, which the bank accepted the following May. Yet after doing extensive surveys on the building, devotees discovered that it had been declared by English Heritage as at risk: while it was structurally sound, the roof needed attention, there was water leakage, and the heating and lighting systems needed a complete overhaul.
“At first we were distraught, thinking we could not afford to buy the building and pay for all the renovations too,” Pradyumna says. “We are grateful, however, that HSBC considered our vision for this important building and offered it to us at a further discounted price.”
With a kind donation from a family based in London and Leicester, the building was purchased, and renovation began.
The work is expected to cost two million pounds, and will be carried out in four phases. The first will be to fix the heating and lighting and bring the location up to health and safety standards so that it can be used for Sunday Feasts and festivals. This is expected to happen by early March.
The second will be to turn the second floor into a residential ashram, so that priests, devotees and the Deities can move in, and the building can become a functioning temple with daily morning and evening programs.
The first floor will also be renovated in the second phase, and will include a small function hall that can accommodate 150 people for receptions, community gatherings and programs. It will also feature two 40’ x 40’ multi-purpose rooms, to be used for seminars, workshops, and breakfast, lunch and evening Hatha
Yoga classes, which will also provide attendees with a link to Bhakti Yoga.
In the third phase of renovation, the ground floor grand hall will be converted into the main temple room, with a majestic altar.
And in the fourth and final phase, the rear half of the building’s ground floor will become a restaurant, library, and exhibition area.
“People will have the option of either entering the building directly into the temple room, or through this introductory entrance, which will be open to Leicester Town Hall Square,” Pradyumna says. “There they’ll be able to get an idea of what we’re all about: in the restaurant they can of course relax and taste prasadam; in the library they’ll have access to all of Prabhupada’s books, as well as multimedia stations where they can sign up for further educational courses and learn about the five themes of the Bhagavad-gita; and in the exhibition area they’ll be shown further how the five themes—the spirit soul, Karma, material nature, time, and God—are relevant to their lives.”
Pradyumna Dasa and the Leicester devotees are thankful for the personal and community growth opportunities that the past year and a half has offered them, and they’re excited about moving on to the next step.
“This has been a great story,” Pradyumna concludes.