Devotees from all over Ireland and abroad gathered this July 15th, 16th and 17th to celebrate Sri-Sri Radha-Govinda’s 25th anniversary, on the twenty-two acre wooded island in County Fermanagh once known as Inish Rath—and now called Govindadwipa, or Govinda’s Island.
Radha-Govinda were installed here, amidst what looks like a mountain of emerald green trees floating magically on Lough Erne, on July 20th 1986. For Their head priest (pujari) Maha-mantra Dasi, it’s a year that she’ll remember forever as the time when the greatest tragedy in her life struck, but also for how that tragedy turned into a loving blessing from the Lord.
“Five weeks after I joined ISKCON, my little girl, Jane, died at only three years old,” she says. “I really needed something to replace her, to fill that empty gap. Five months later, Radha-Govinda where staying in my room, waiting to be installed, and I formed an attachment to Them. When They were installed, I became Their pujari and threw myself into Their service. I was able to wake, bath, dress and feed Them, all the things I could no longer do for Jane. It was the only service which could really make up for my loss. And I just loved that beautiful, peaceful island—I could never have served anywhere else.”
And she hasn’t. Twenty-five years later, Maha-mantra is still the head pujari at Govindadwipa, serving her beloved Sri-Sri Radha Govinda with the sort of conviction that is rarely seen—that They are real people to care for and love.
Maha-mantra Dasi, who has dedicated her life to Radha-Govinda
One of the areas where this is most evident is in her boundless creativity in creating the Lord’s pastimes around Him on the altar. In fact, this July’s 25th anniversary festival began as devotees gathered to see Radha-Govinda sporting in one of her masterpieces: a beautifully decorated swan boat, in which Their Lordships were accompanied by their associates Lalita and Visakha.
The first day of the festival continued with a three-hour pilgrimage, guided by special guest Deena Bandhu Dasa, of the island’s “Vraja-Mandala Parikrama Path.” Gradually gaining a reputation around ISKCON, it’s an ingenious recreation of the holy places in the land of Vraja, India, where Lord Krishna appeared 5,000 years ago.
Part of the work was already done for the devotees when they embarked on this project in 2002. Govindadwipa is covered with forest and surrounded with water, which makes it resemble Vraja, with its twelve forests and Yamuna River.
To heighten the effect, artists first placed signposts in different places on the island where the natural landscape matches a location of Radha-Krishna’s pastimes. They then made beautifully painted four-foot-high wooden cut-outs of Radha-Govinda and Their associates performing different pastimes, and used creative placing and a few extra touches to make visitors feel for all the world as if they were in the real Vraja. Every year, a few new cut-outs are added.
Krishna prepares to jump from a tree onto the serpent Kaliya
“Walking around the island and finding the pastime places became a wonderful meditation,” says Maha-mantra, who has participated in the original month-long Vraja Mandala parikrama fourteen times. “It started to be that nothing on Govindadvipa was ordinary anymore. When I found an old stone structure that resembled the grinding mortar which Krishna pulled between two trees, knocking them down, I put it in our Gokula beside the painted figures of Krishna and His mother Yashoda. It had been outside the temple for years, but now it was definitely ‘the grinding mortar.’”
Deena Bandhu, who guides pilgrimages in the original Vraja, has been a guest tour guide at Govindadwipa during six different Radha-Govinda anniversary celebrations. This year, as usual, he described the Lord’s fascinating pastimes at different locations.
At the island’s Kaliya Ghat, where Krishna killed the terrible many-headed serpent, a cut-out of Krishna sits in a real tree, tensed and ready to jump. In the forest of Talavana, where Krishna’s brother Balarama killed the donkey demon Dhenukasura by hurling him into a tree, a stuffed donkey created by Maha-mantra flies into a tree on a wire, at that exact point in Deena Bandhu’s story.
“One of everyone’s favorite places is Chir Ghat, where Lord Krishna stole the clothes of the gopis who were bathing in the Yamuna, because it looks so real,” Maha-mantra says. “Our very talented artist Nandagrama Mahi Dhara Dasi painted eight gopis, and Bali Maharaja Dasa fixed them on poles in the actual waters of Lough Erne. Meanwhile, Krishna is sitting in a tree, with real saris draped over the branch beside him.”
The gopis bathing at Chir Ghat, where Krishna steals their clothes
Another popular attraction is the Giriraja Gazebo, which sits beside the parikrama’s ‘Radha-Kunda’ pond. Its eight walls feature pictures of various pastimes, while holy water fonts in four courners contain the waters of Manasi Ganga, Kusum Sarovara, Radha Kund and Govinda Kund. In the center is a large wooden cut-out of Krishna lifting Govardhana Hill. It’s a common refuge for devotees to go to chant or read.
“The original Vraja Mandala Parikrama takes a month, but we can do it in a few days.” Maha-mantra grins. “And there are no twenty-five kilometer walks, no blisters, no mosquito bites, and no stomach problems—just nectar katha (stories) about Krishna’s pastimes.”
Deena Bandhu tells stories at the Giriraja Gazebo
After the parikrama, the 25th anniversary festival continued with a ceremony in Govindadwipa’s Vrinda Kunda garden, which replicates the Vraja residence of Krishna’s greatest devotee Vrinda Devi, or Tulasi, who in this world takes the form of a basil-like plant. Maha-mantra pushed small forms of Radha-Govinda on a swing, cosily wrapped up against the chilly Irish weather in little red and gold coats, as a flag of the monkey warrior Hanuman was installed for auspiciousness.
“When Deena Bandhu Prabhu first started guiding our parikramas, he was disappointed to see only a signpost marking Vrinda Kunda, and encouraged us to create something special to commemorate it,” says Maha-mantra. “So we selected a whole field next to the temple to turn into a beautiful garden. We saved money over several years and bought a new Tulasi house, and I ordered a four-foot tall figure of Vrinda Devi from the best sculptor in Mathura. Since Vrinda Kunda is the place where Vrinda devi and the gopi Paurnamasi meet to decide which pastimes of Radha-Govinda will happen that day, we made a secluded fenced-in area with a painting there and a seat for devotees.”
The Govindadwipa team also made pathways and flower beds, and added artificial animals to the garden, including a life-sized cow and calf, a lion family, and monkeys. They installed a swing for Radha-Govinda, and created a kunda, or lake, along with a fountain, and a waterfall cascading beneath a small bridge.
Deena Bandhu opened the Vrinda Kunda garden last year
“Rupamati Dasi planted seeds from the Tulasi plant at Vrinda Kunda in India, and we did lots of hard work digging, carrying rocks, transporting five tons of ornate gravel, and planting and sewing grass,” Maha-mantra says. “Finally we finished it all last year, as an offering for Radha-Govinda’s 24th birthday. Deena Bandhu offically opened the garden, and poured Vrinda Kunda water into our pond, so that it became the real Vrinda Kunda.”
After launching the 25th anniversary of Radha-Govinda at Vrinda Kunda, children and other devotees—including Deena Bandhu as narrator—performed a drama about Radha and Krishna’s boating pastimes on Manasi Ganga, concluding the first day of the festival.
On the second day, devotees attended two more parikramas with Deena Bandhu, watched a film about the opening of Govindadwipa’s Vrinda Kunda garden, and viewed Sri-Sri Radha-Govinda in another splendidly inventive outfit.
Radha-Govinda and their associates garlanded with pearls from Govinda’s magical pearl plant
This time, they were dressed in pure white, and flanked by gopis, cowherd boys, and a white cow, all garlanded with pearl necklaces. After paying thir respects to the Deities, local devotees went out into the Vrinda Kunda garden to perform a drama of the story behind the fascinating scene, taken from the Mukta Charita, by Vaishnava Saint Raghunath Dasa Goswami.
As the story goes, once Krishna sewed pearls in the ground, which grew into pearl plants that He used to decorate Himself, his cows and His friends. When the gopis tried to grow their own pearls, the cowherd boys played a prank on them, stealing their plants. Eventually, however, Krishna stopped teasing them and gifted them all with beautiful pearl jewelery.
On Sunday, the final and biggest day of the anniversary festival, devotees drank in yet another stunning scene on the altar, as Radha-Govinda were outfitted in new clothes embroidered with elephants, matching the two amazingly realistic full-size baby elephants flanking them. Meanwhile, Deena Bandhu and pujari Rupamati Dasi performed an abhishekha (bathing ceremony) of the small Radha-Govinda forms, with all the other devotees getting a chance to bathe Them too.
“We then offered Radha-Govinda a birthday cake in the shape of a boat, before taking them out on the lake for Their Boat Festival,” says Maha-mantra. “It was typical Irish weather, but fun. Our artist Nandagrama Mahi Dhara had created a swan figurehead from papier mache, coated it with fiberglass, covered it with white flowers, and fixed it to one of our row-boats. The Deities looked out from their altar on the boat, as we circled the island with a kirtan group following us on our barge ferry.”
Their Lordships and two baby elephants
The 25th anniversary of Sri-Sri Radha-Govinda concluded with opening of Their presents, a sumptuous feast, a film of Their installation twenty-five years ago, and an account of Their appearance by Prithu Dasa, who originally purchased Govindadwipa and brought Them there.
Prithu recalled how he had spotted Govinda in a store in Jaipur, India, fallen in love with Him, and requested His sculptors to make a Radharani to go with Him.
“I promise that I will find the most beautiful place in Ireland, and buy it for you,” Prithu told the Deity, with folded hands.
Soon after, someone mentioned to him that County Fermanagh was the most beautiful part of Northern Ireland. Immediately, Prithu gathered a few devotees, and drove to a real estate agent in the town of Enniskillen.
Just at they were pulling up, a hand was placing a photo of Inish Rath Island—which had just come on the market—in the window. Wrangling a good deal, Prithu purchased it, and two years later, Radha-Govinda were being installed on a beautiful golden altar with hundreds of locals and devotees gathering to bear witness.
Govindadwipa: the most beautiful place in Ireland
“I still remember that day clearly,” Maha-mantra says. “They only had two outfits then, and I spent much of Their installation day trying to sew Their new evening outfit in time. Since then, I’ve made 162 outfits for Them, the last of which I offered Them for Their birthday this year.”
For Maha-mantra, serving Radha-Govinda is still more absorbing than ever, and she’s always focusing her creative tendencies on planning the next festival.
“Even when there’s no festival, we can make one,” she says. “For instance, we keep bees here, and when Bali Maharaja Prabhu extracts their honey, I dress Radha Govinda in a honeycomb outfit, place all the jars of honey on the altar to be offered, and decorate it with artificial bees. I even put one jar of honey in Radha’s hand! I love creating scenes like that for Them.”
There’s nothing better that Maha-mantra can imagine doing with her life.
“I’m hoping Radha-Govinda will keep me as part of Their paraphernalia,” she says. “I never had a plan B.”
When you’re under the shelter of Radha-Govinda, there’s no need for a plan B