Salt Lake City temple president Charu Dasa speaks to the public on the topic "Who Is God?"
On a recent Friday evening, motorists in Salt Lake City, Utah pulled over to take photos, and pedestrians stopped in their tracks, staring, as a llama wandered sedately down 33rd South, one of the busiest streets in the city. The surreal scene even made its way onto Fox News that night.
In rural Spanish Fork, one hour’s drive away, the sight of a llama would have been common, as they are one of the many attractions at the area’s Hare Krishna temple. The temple, a stunning feat of Rajasthani-style architecture, has grown more and more popular since its construction in 2001, and draws thousands of guests for its many festivals, including the phenomenally successful Festival of Colors, and yes, Llama Fest.
So naturally any llama-spotting in the area would indicate that the Hare Krishnas weren’t too far away.
But where could a llama have come from in the middle of Salt Lake City?
It turns out, the answer’s the same. For ISKCON now has its own center on a four-acre plot of land in Salt Lake—a satellite of the larger Spanish Fork temple. And because of its location, it looks set to become even more wildly popular.
“33rd South is within five to ten minutes’ drive of most residents of Salt Lake City,” says president Charu Dasa. “That means that now, we’ll see people a couple of dozen times a year at the new center who might have only turned up twice a year at Spanish Fork. Of course, the two temples will complement each other well—Spanish Fork is an ideal place to experience major festivals in the great outdoors, while Salt Lake is perfect for popping in on a daily basis on your way to or from work.”
A panorama view of the new Salt Lake City temple, formerly a Seventh Day Adventist elementary school
Charu’s strategy to bring the new center to the attention of City residents is to hold four major events in rapid succession within a month’s time.
“On August 16th, the Krishna Culture youth tour performed their variety show featuring kirtan, traditional Bharat-Natyam dance, and the epic drama Bharata:
The Three Lives of the Emperor,” he says. “On August 20th, we had our Janmastami festival. On the Labor Day weekend of September 3rd, 4th and 5th, we threw the Great Salt Lake Yoga Fest, a three-day event with twenty yoga teachers, ten different bands, and a host of Krishna conscious exhibits. And on the weekend of September 10th to 11th, we held India Fest, celebrating Diwali.”
Before all this, however, the center officially opened its doors on July 23rd, with 400 locals coming to welcome devotees to the neighborhood and admire the beautifully renovated 13,000 square-foot building.
Building a human pyramid in "Dahi-Hundi," a traditional game re-enacting Krishna's pastime of stealing yoghurt.
“The building had previously been used as an elementary school by the Seventh Day Adventists for fifty years,” Charu says. “So it was a little run down. Still, the renovations only took about five weeks. My wife Vaibhavi brought in subcontractors who were very friendly to us and they worked at discount prices, painting the entire building, installing floating laminate floors, replacing the carpets in the hallway, and sanding the floors in the auditorium. We left the bulletin boards so that we could post notices of upcoming events, and transformed the separate library and computer lab into a giant 75’ x 45’ giftstore emporium, filled with spiritual clothes, brassware and jewelry.”
Meanwhile, rather than having a big temple room, Charu opted for a smaller sacred area, with a separate cultural auditorium, as favored in South-Indian temples at Guruvayur and Udupi, as well as at ISKCON Pune.
“I think people like a certain quiet intimacy when they come to worship or meditate, or when they’ve got problems and difficulties in their life,” says Charu. “I think they prefer it to an overly spacious or crowded place.”
Hundreds gather to watch cultural performances in the auditorium
The temple room, therefore, is a converted classroom that could hold sixty to a hundred people. Currently it is home to a temporary altar and small brass Radha-Krishna Deities, although a larger altar is on order from Mayapur, India and two-and-a-half foot marble Deities will be installed as soon as a qualified devotee comes forward to serve as their full-time priest.
On major festival days, the smaller Utsav Deities are brought into the large, vaulted-ceilinged auditorium for abhiseka bathing ceremonies and aratis, as they were on Janmastami day, ISKCON Salt Lake City’s inaugural event on August 20th.
“We didn’t know how many people would turn up for it, whether the word had gotten out yet or not,” Charu says. “Still, between 1,500 and 2,000 people, half Western and half Indian, came and went throughout the five-hour event.”
The Krishna Culture youth group perform a traditional Bharat Natyam Dance
Several hundred attended Gaura Arati at 7:00pm, followed by a talk by Charu entitled Who Is God? At 8:00pm, guests got to take part in Dahi Hundi, the traditional re-enactment of Krishna’s stealing the gopi’s pots of butter and yoghurt. As many built a four-level human pyramid outside on the grounds, one youth designated as Krishna scaled them all to reach and break a clay pot suspended high above.
“A shower of chocolate coins came cascading down, and kids scrambled to get them,” recalls Charu. “It was great fun!”
Next, guests again gathered into the auditorium, to see local Bharat Natyam dance teacher Divya Narayanam and twenty of her students perform a forty-five minute piece, followed by a drama depicting Krishna’s birth and the killing of the demon Kamsa.
At 10:30pm the grand finale began, with the Abhisekha bathing ceremony of the Deities, and a midnight arati and feast for those who had not eaten the prasadam being served throughout the evening.
“Our next move is to continue reaching out to the community,” Charu says. “I estimate that 50% of the Indian population and 60% of Westerners still just associate us with Spanish Fork, and don’t know we’re here. We also need to connect with the 30,000 students at the University of Utah, just twenty blocks from us.”
Salt Lake City devotees perform a drama depicting Krishna's birth
To do this, ISKCON Salt Lake City will have an onsite traditional dance school, an active mentoring program for Indian and Nepali youth, and up to twenty weekly yoga classes.
“We feel strongly that the yoga community, who are often vegetarian and are now taking a brisk interest in kirtan, are the prime candidates for learning more about Krishna consciousness,” Charu says.
Regular Bhagavad-gita classes, as well as Krishna conscious ‘transformational seminars,’ are also on the cards.
“We want people who come to the temple to leave transformed,” Charu says. “So we put a lot of thought into our talks. They’re usually somewhat different from your standard ISKCON temple class—the speaker stands at a podium, uses Power Point, and talks about contemporary issues, with lessons from the scriptures and Srila Prabhupada’s life. We’ve done lecture series on how to break bad habits, how to think positively, how to master your moods, and one called “Move over Mediocrity,” about how, with faith in God, one can live an above average life. We feel that our philosophy should breathe life into people and give them a sense of purpose.”
In the future—in as soon as four or five years’ time—Charu plans to build a large Rajasthani-style temple on the four acres of land ISKCON now owns right in the center of Salt Lake City. Architects will reconfigure the same molds and domes used on the Spanish Fork temple to create a recognizable yet completely unique look.
“In this location, I believe, it will become one of the top five tourist spots in all of Utah,” Charu concludes.