on Sept. 23, 2011
If you happened to be walking past a friendly farmer’s field in Southern Italy this summer, you might have seen an astonishing sight: an 18-meter-high, 40-meters-in-diameter circus-style tent with a plaque reading, “Hare Krishna Festival Dell’India” affixed to its peak. And next to it, three camper vans, and four huge trucks—one inscribed with the Hare Krishna mantra and beautiful images of Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda dancing ecstatically.
If you had walked up to this truck, you would have seen connected to it a yellow tent housing a spacious eating area. And if you had ventured inside, you would have seen a Vaishnava temple room, decorated with saffron curtains and fully equipped with musical instruments, arati paraphernalia, a murti of Srila Prabhupada, and Deities of Lord Nrsimhadeva, Gaura-Nitai, Krishna Balarama and Sri-Sri Radha Vallabha on an ornate wooden altar.
Next to this truck would have been one that housed the large tent, and another filled with Prabhupada’s books and devotional paraphernalia to create a gift store. The fourth and last truck would have been opened up as a stage, complete with curtains and a backdrop of Srila Prabhupada and the Maha-mantra.
This impressive set-up is all part of Bhakti Shakti Dasa’s Traveling Sankirtan Temple and book distribution party.
The interior of the Traveling Temple
The party was formed in 2007 when Bhakti Shakti, a dedicated book distributor since 1982, grouped together with three other devotees and began traveling around the country to distribute books using the ISKCON center in Catania, Sicily, as his base.
When the Catania center closed down, the sankirtan party purchased a large truck which they converted into a full-time traveling temple.
“Gradually, by Krishna’s arrangement, we got more equipment and our party grew from four members to ten full-time members,” Bhakti Shakti says. “Most of them are brahmacharis—celibate monks—and a couple are householders, but all are completely dedicated to the mission and are not taking any kind of payment.”
The traveling temple moves to a different location two or three times a year, setting up a base in the countryside near towns like Catania, Naples, or this year, Rome. Sometimes, Bhakti Shakti and his team are hosted by ISKCON communities, for whom they put on festivals. Mostly, however, they are simply given a field by a friendly farmer.
Brahmacharis set up the Traveling Temple
There, they park their vehicles including the temple truck, which functions like a real temple with a full spiritual program.
Throughout the year, five or six sankirtan devotees travel out within a 100-kilometer radius of this base to distribute books. Meanwhile, the others stay at the temple to worship the Deities, take care of their cow, Surabhi, and receive any guests.
During ISKCON Italy’s two book distribution marathons—in the summer and in December—only two devotees stay at the base, with eight venturing out in the camper vans.
Devotees guide guests in chanting inside the Traveling Temple
“Each camper is fully equipped with an altar, kitchen and bathroom, so that the book distributors don’t feel isolated or uncomfortable, and can mantain a regulated spiritual life,” Bhakti Shakti says. “They also return to the base every week or two to spend several days restocking on books, associating with the other devotees, helping with the temple services and replenishing themselves by studying together.”
This small group is the most successful book distribution team in Europe: in a regular month, they distribute anywhere between five and six thousand books; while during the marathons, they can dispense as many as 12,000 books in a month.
Srila Prabhupada’s books are sold from the Gift Store tent
For two months during the summer, however, they reduce their book distribution efforts in order to hold public programs, which they dub “Festival Dell’India.”
“We leave the base intact, but bring our stage, a mobile kitchen, and sometimes the temple and the large tent to a nearby town,” says Bhakti Shakti. “There, we hold festivals for three consecutive evenings, before taking a three-day break and then moving on to the next town. This summer, due to storm damage to the big tent, we only visited three or four towns; but usually we visit at least five or six every month.”
Stocking up on delicious prasadam
Set up in busy city centers at around 9pm every evening, the festivals tend to draw between 500 and 1,000 intrigued passers-by.
They first enter the traveling temple, where they take a guided tour, view the Deities, and ask questions of the devotees about their lives, practices, and philosophy. Next, they browse the large, well-stocked gift store tent, filled with devotional clothing, japa beads, musical instruments and full sets of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
“Although our cow Surabhi now stays at the base, when she was a calf she would come with us in her trailer, and a big highlight of the evening for people was going in to see her,” Bhakti Shakti says. “Everyone, young and old, was delighted to see her and would pat and hug her with great smiles on their faces.”
Guests visit Surabhi the calf
Later on, people can sit back and watch spiritual documentaries about Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON, and various holy places on the stage-truck’s big screen, while enjoying light prasadam such as freshly made pakoras and chutney, herbal tea, and cookies. A live bhajan and kirtan performance by devotees rounds out the continous program, as people come and go, and mill about.
Devotees chant onstage….
“When the crowd gets bigger, we invite them to chant, and we even climb down off the stage and dance with them,” says Bhakti Shakti. “People love it. Often the program runs until after midnight, sometimes going on as late as 3:00am. Even then, the same people will return as we’re setting up the next day and tell us, ‘I loved your festival—I was happy all day after it! I want to chant and dance again!”
…And get the crowd dancing!
In fact, these festivals create such a positive impression of devotees, that when the sankirtana team returns to a location where they’ve held one—even if it’s a year later—people remember them and happily take books.
“More than good organization, whatever success we may have comes from each devotee on our team absorbing himself in his service and chanting Hare Krishna in a serious way,” says Bhakti Shakti. “So I don’t know exactly what the future holds for our Traveling Sankirtan Temple. But I do know that as long as we continue to chant attentively and serve, it will continue to be maintained in a wonderful way by the miraculous mercy of the Holy Name—Sri Nama Prabhu.”
The world is their stage