After a 6.3 magnitude earthquake completely destroyed their Deities and temple building on February 22nd—what to speak of half of their city—Christchurch devotees are trying to stay positive during one of the most difficult times in their lives.
They’ve made a temporary home for forms of Srila Prabhupada, Giriraja, and their small Gaura Nitai Deities, who survived the earthquake, in one devotee’s house.
“The worship is not as elaborate as it was in the temple, but we’re doing the best we can,” says temple president Ramanuja Dasa. “We dress them daily, bathe them with an abhishekha ceremony in the mornings, and make at least one food offering per day. Devotees also gathered for a few special programs right after the disaster, and we’ll be meeting once a week from now on.”
Ramanuja and other devotees ventured into the doomed temple building during the first two days following the earthquake, and were able to save the Deities’ outfits, and much of the paraphernalia needed for their worship. They also succeeded in saving other valuable items from the ground floor, including items from the temple gift shop, office equipment like files and computers, and expensive kitchen equipment like burners, large pots, and a commercial fridge.
“We had to leave everything that was upstairs, because the building’s too fragile, and there are still many aftershocks,” Ramanuja says. “If we were up there during one, we’d be trapped.”
With the donations that have trickled in from well-wishers around the world, Christchurch devotees have been able to purchase large storage containers to keep their rescued equipment in for the time being.
The wrecked temple building has now been condemned, and no one can enter it on penalty of prosecution. It’s so badly damaged that it cannot be repaired—it will have to be completely demolished and rebuilt.
But the Deities are not the only ones with no home. Three devotees’ houses—including Ramanuja’s—have been severely damaged, and are not fit for residence. “I’m just living in a tent in someone’s backyard at the moment,” says Ramanuja, laughing good-naturedly.
Despite his positive mood, it could be a long time before devotees’ homes are fixed and there is a temple in Christchurch again.
“Because of the amount of damage throughout the city, it could take a year to 18 months for the government and insurance people to get here, take a look at everything, and decide what needs to be done,” he says. “They’re focusing on the most damaged areas first.”
So while the temple, and its contents, are insured, it could be two years before a new place of worship is constructed.
Throughout all this time, the Deities are likely to remain where they are—in a devotee’s home. And the Christchurch ISKCON community—which is currently without income—still has to find a way to pay insurance on two properties, as well as fees to the local council.
Of course, this isn’t even the main concern right now. People are simply trying to fulfill the basic living necessities. Fifty per cent of Christchurch is still without water, although electricity is back in about 70% of the city. The government is still finding its feet, trying to get itself up and running, and concentrating on organizing the infrastructure and taking care of people.
“We’re still coming to terms with the destruction,” Ramanuja says. “Sixty per cent of the city just doesn’t exist anymore. And most of what’s left is either heavily damaged or quite damaged. The infrastructure—roads, sewage, bridges—is all trashed. It’s like a war zone.”
Like everyone else, devotees are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Since the City Center is completely destroyed, and there are many businesses that will never re-open, about half of the devotee community is currently unemployed. Many are likely to relocate simply so that they can find work—they have no other choice.
Some of the ones that do may also leave, for other reasons.
“The aftershocks are still coming,” says Ramanuja. “And they have people really on edge. We’ve had three major earthquakes in the last five months now, and continuous aftershocks throughout. The worst is when you’re trying to sleep at night, and things just start shaking. You don’t know if it’s just a small tremor, or if there’s going to be another big one. After five months of that, a lot of people are at their wit’s end. The government estimates that roughly one third of the city will relocate permanently—just never come back.”
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Many devotees will stay. And the earthquake has caused a wonderful spirit of giving and helping others amongst all the people of the city. Church groups, community groups, and even individuals are feeding others, and the devotees are playing their own part.
“Wellington temple president Jag Jivan Prabhu came with six devotees from Wellington and Auckland, and a big catering van,” Ramanuja says. “Several of our devotees who really wanted to do something for the people of the city, but didn’t have the equipment, joined them. Now there’s a team of about twelve devotees who have been preparing prasadam in a devotee’s backyard and serving it to 400 to 700 people a day since Monday.”
Devotees are focusing on helping residents in some of the worst affected suburbs, as well as the 600 or so rescue workers who are still combing through rubble in the City Center in the search for survivors.
“One devotee identified a control and command center in town where food packs can be left for the emergency workers to collect,” Ramanuja says. “They’re skilled workers who have come from all over the world—China, Korea, Japan, the US, Australia, England—to help us, and there are at least forty or fifty vegetarians amongst them. We’ve heard that they were very grateful to receive the prasadam!”
Meanwhile, there’s certainty that when the new Christchurch ISKCON temple is built, earthquake-resistance will be a major consideration.
“The majority of the severely damaged buildings in this earthquake were old, historic buildings,” Ramanuja says. “Most of the new ones survived. That’s because this country already had a reputation for earthquakes, and the building codes here were already very, very strict. Now, requirements are likely to get even more specific, so when we finally do build a new temple, it will be extremely strong and resistant.”
Ramanuja has also suggested to the GBC that any new Deities installed in Christchurch should be brass, rather than marble.
“We will also make absolutely sure they are very securely installed on the altar,” he says, “So that they will not budge during tremors.”
Devotees and well-wishers who would like to send donations to help ISKCON Christchurch can send them to vice temple president Satananda Krishna Dasa at firstname.lastname@example.org via PayPal.