Srila Prabhupada disciple Surabhir Abhipalayantam Das, who was the design coordinator for ISKCON’s flagship Indian temples in Vrindavana, U.P. and Juhu, Mumbai in the 1970s, has passed away.
He left due to liver cancer on July 30th in the sacred land of Vrindavana, surrounded by devotees including fellow Prabhupada disciple Daivisakti Dasi, Madhavi Devi from his native Holland, and his longtime partner Lalea Ika. All were chanting along to a recording of Srila Prabhupada’s kirtan.
Born as Hans Keilman in Amsterdam, Surabhir studied architecture and was working on a book on city planning in the 1960s. He also hitch-hiked all the way to India, where he soaked up the culture and architecture. But it was in 1969, after he returned home to Amsterdam, that his spiritual life began.
There, he met ISKCON devotees for the first time at The Milky Way, a psychedelic night spot in Amsterdam where they were chanting Hare Krishna onstage with Eric Clapton’s backing band.
Wanting to find out more about the roots of Krishna consciousness, he flew back to India in 1971, where he searched for a Radha Krishna temple in Bombay. Ironically, he was directed to the ISKCON temple at Malabar Hill. As he arrived, the devotees were just leaving for a pandal program with Srila Prabhupada in Juhu, where they were planning to build a new temple.
The Juhu temple construction team, led by Surabhir Prabhu, in 1976.
Since Surabhir had a tape recorder, the devotees asked him to record Prabhupada’s lecture. Prabhupada spotted him as he was setting up the recorder, and the next day asked to see him.
“I sat down, and he asked me one question: ‘What is the use of decorating dead bodies?’” Surabhir recalls in a talk given in Los Angeles this May. “I said, ‘No use, Srila Prabhupada.’ He said, ‘Exactly, so Krishna has sent you here to design the temple. And you can start right now.’”
Then a young man, Surabhir had little work experience – and any he did have was on contemporary, alternative building projects. But Prabhupada asked his secretary, Shyamasundara Das, for a pen and paper, and Surabhir sat down on his balcony and began drawing.
“Every so often Prabhupada would come out of his room, look over my shoulder, and nod, ‘That’s nice. That’s nice,’” Surabhir says. “And that was the beginning of the Bombay temple.”
Later that same day, Prabhupada told him, “Tomorrow we will have the foundation ceremony for the temple. And you will take initiation.”
Surabhir (in center with garland) in Vrindavana with Panca Gauda, Pancharatna, Gunarnava, Sruta Kirti, Lalea Ika, Visakha Dasi and Vishalini Dasi
Completely confused as to what was happening, Surabhir attended the ceremony and received the name “Saurabh Das” from Srila Prabhupada. In his trademark good humor, he recounts how at first he heard the name as “Zorro,” and was dismayed until Shyamasundara confirmed with Prabhupada that he had a spiritual Sanskrit name just like everybody else.
(Later, Srila Prabhupada would give him the name Surabhir Abhipalayantam, when awarding him sannyasa in 1976.)
From initiation on, Surabhir’s life completely changed, and he embarked on a service he later described as “totally fulfilling.” For the next year, he worked on designing the Juhu temple from his little office in a chetai hut.
In 1973, Srila Prabhupada requested him to go to Vrindavana, where another major temple was to be constructed.
“When I went to the site, I saw that Prabhupada didn’t just want me to design, he wanted me to build!” Surabhir recalls. “So I had to work onsite and learn by visiting downtown Vrindavana, studying other temples.”
Often struggling with money, Surabhir describes the construction of Krishna Balarama Mandir as “beautiful” and “sad” with “all the problems and excitement,” and Prabhupada as “sometimes very happy” and “sometimes disappointed” that progress was too slow.
Gunarnava Das, Surabhir Das and Lokanath Swami
Throughout, however, Prabhupada was very encouraging. “He gave me that freedom that I needed as an artist to create something unique,” Surabhir says.
Srila Prabhupada was also constantly teaching practical skills to Surabhir and the other devotees who worked on the project, like Gunarnava Das and fundraiser Gurukripa Das. “He taught us accounting, how to keep a ledger so that you know exactly how much goes out and how much comes in,” Surabhir says.
In the end, Prabhupada was very pleased with the final result. Vrindavana’s Krishna Balarama Mandir opened in April 1975, to his delight. And although Bombay’s Radha-Rasabihari Mandir opened in January 1978, after his passing, Prabhupada did spend some time living in his room there and seeing the progress – and he was happy that it would turn out the way he envisioned.
After the Juhu temple opened, Surabhir settled at Punjabi Bagh, New Delhi.
Then, in 1990, he left ISKCON and, he says, “the association of devotees.”
“I ran out of service, and I was a little lost,” he says.
He moved to Hong Kong, where he worked and lived with Lalea Ika, his partner of 22 years.
At Vrindavana anniversary (front next to Prabhupada)
Then, in March 2015, he visited Vrindavana again for the 40th anniversary of the temple he designed and helped build.
“I was just emotionally overwhelmed with all the devotees there, the same people that I worked with 40 years ago,” he said. “And it just changed my life.”
Ika saw the impact the experience had on her partner and convinced him to accept an invitation to speak at the Prabhupada festival in Los Angeles this May.
Speaking at that festival, Surabhir bared his heart to the assembled devotees, “I really don’t know who is Krishna, I don’t know who is Lord Chaitanya. I don’t know what is the parampara. Actually, I don’t even know Prabhupada. But I know all of you. And I’m going to stick around, and I’m going to grab your feet, and you’re going to help me.”
Two months after he made this heartfelt decision to refocus his life, Ika brought Surabhir to Vrindavana to pass away.
“I have the honour of association with Surabhir Prabhu and his Godbrothers and Godsisters,” she says. “I felt I had ‘borrowed’ him from Krishna consciousness. I therefore felt obliged to help him return to Godhead.”
In Vrindavana in his last days with cancer nurse Jayasri Dasi from Hong Kong (pushing wheelchair)
Surabhir is survived by his brother Hari Krishna Das, also a Prabhupada disciple. He is remembered with love and affection as an extremely intelligent, articulate, competent, and good-humored person by all who knew him.
Giriraj Swami, who worked with Surabhir in Bombay, summarizes his legacy.
“He lives in his works of devotion and in Srila Prabhupada’s grace, eternally.”
Aug 06, 2022
Brahmatirtha das Director, Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies