Construction has begun on a grand new ISKCON temple in Baltimore, Maryland, which devotees hope will reach more local people and provide the facilities to better care for the existing congregation.
ISKCON devotees first established a temple in Baltimore in the early 1970s, to which ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada responded, “I am so glad… Baltimore is a very important city of your country and we must maintain our center there at all costs.”
In 1974, the current temple at 200 Bloomsbury Avenue in the suburb of Catonsville was acquired, and in 1976, Srila Prabhupada visited it, making it a dhama, or holy place in the eyes of ISKCON followers.
For at least the past two decades, ISKCON Baltimore has been a small center, and the congregation remains at only around 150 people today. But it has been growing, with more young Indians and Westerners becoming regular visitors due to several innovative outreach programs.
A 2,000 square-foot house in a residential area a quarter of a mile from downtown Catonsville, the temple has become far too small for the current congregation – what to speak of having room to grow.
“Our temple room is very small -- it can at most accommodate 30 to 50 people, with everbody really packed in,” says Lokadhyaksa Das, who overees education and book distribution at ISKCON Baltimore with his wife Vidarbha Suta Dasi. “It’s basically the size of someone’s living room. During Sunday Feast programs, people have to sit in the corridor or outside on the porch.”
“There’s a huge group of people in the Baltimore area, both Indians and non-Indians, who we’re not able to reach out to, “ adds Vidarbha Suta. “Because if they come they don’t return, thinking our temple is too small.”
On May 2nd – the auspicious occasion of Nrsimha Chaturdasi – a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the large new temple on the 2.5 acre site of the old one.
Five to six hundred devotees from Baltimore and Washington D.C. attended and offered prayers, as fire sacrifices were conducted in five yajna kundas and a Deity of Ananta Sesa was placed in the ground according to tradition.
Srila Prabhupada's Vyasasana
The foundation of the new temple is currently being built by vice president Ananta Gauranga Dasa’s own construction company, with contractors to be hired to complete the work.
Devotees hope to move the Deities into the new temple by ISKCON’s 50th anniversary on July 11th, 2016, if construction progress and funding allow. The target to complete the project is 2017.
The new two-storey temple – which will be named New Kulina Gram Dham – will have around 10,000 square feet of space. To please the community’s Deities of Nitai Gaurasundara and Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra, it will be built using a blend of Bengali and Orissan architecture.
The temple hall will be nearly ten times the size of the current one, and will have three beautiful teakwood altars for Nitai Gaurasundara, Jagannath, and new Deities of Sri Sri Radha Madhava.
It will be topped with a ceiling showing a blue sky and clouds, and will have a wrap-around balcony so that visitors can better view the Deities on festival days and can also shower Them with flowers.
On either side of the altars will be large screens showing the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and Srila Prabhupada lectures, while on the opposite end of the temple room will be a murti form of Srila Prabhupada on a handcarved teakwood and Turkish marble vyasasana.
The temple will also include a gift shop carrying devotional paraphernalia, books and clothing; a meditation room for mantra yoga classes and Sunday School; a multi-purpose hall for cultural functions, family events and weddings; a Govinda’s pure vegetarian restaurant; and a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen.
The new Baltimore temple plan, with its Prabhupada Gardens
There will also be a small museum showing the history of ISKCON Baltimore and Srila Prabhupada’s visit there. And at the front of the property, there will be a water feature, a Garuda Stambha, and “Prabhupada Gardens” with beautiful walkways, a variety of flowers and trees, and benches to sit on for a peaceful, meditative time.
All this will be in support of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions like the one in a 1973 letter: “Thank you very much for sincerely pushing on Lord Caitanya’s Sankirtana Movement in the city of Baltimore,” he wrote. “Try to always increase the distribution of my books more and more.”
Keeping these words in the forefront, ISKCON Baltimore – classified as a “maha (extra) small temple” – was ranked second in book distribution in May and fifth in the year so far, just behind giants like Los Angeles and ISKCON Silicon Valley.
The center organizes weekly outreach programs at seven local universities including John Hopkins, George Washington, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and American. Thousands of students at these colleges also receive Prabhupada’s books and sanctified vegetarian food during biannual Festival of India events on campus.
Baltimore devotees hold Harinama Sankirtana at Baltimore Harbor, one of the city’s biggest tourist spots, every Sunday afternoon.
They also feed prasadam to people at the local homeless shelter every week, and recently started a kirtan and japa meditation program at The Children’s Home in Catonsville – which cares for abandoned, abused and neglected youth aged 13 to 21.
“We do special programs for girls who are kept in extreme isolation because they come from really disturbed backgrounds,” says Lokadhyaksa. “They’re really loving the kirtan and japa, and we’ve been doing henna with them too. Every week, they can’t wait for us to come back to them.”
Since September last year, Lokadhyaksa and Vidarbha Suta have been running a weekly Bhakti Lounge in their temple’s converted garage that introduces a local Western audience to Srila Prabhupada’s books, kirtan, japa, and prasadam.
With a turnout of ten to twenty people every Sunday, 7 or 8 have become regulars. Some the couple met while distributing books; others came through meetup.com, a website for finding different groups.
“Right now we’re doing a systematic study of the Bhagavad-gita,” says Lokadhyaksa. “They’re really loving Prabhupada’s purports. So that’s a great encouragement to us.”
All these programs are expected to grow exponentially with the new temple to facilitate them.
“With our limited resources and space, it’s kind of constricting us, but with the new temple, we’ll be able to attract a lot more people and help the local community more,” Lokadhyaksa says. “We’ve asked the Mayor’s office how we can help – we hope to hold more programs at local shelters, prisons and more.”
“The goal of this temple is to base everything on Prabhupada’s books,” adds Vidarbha. “We really want to make this not just another temple, but a place for education and training for the local community.”[ baltimore ]