Sri-Sri Radha Vrajasundara, installed in Villa Vrindavana in 1983.
On July 13th and 14th, five to seven hundred devotees from all over Italy and beyond are expected at Villa Vrindavana to attend the 30th anniversary of Sri Sri Radha Vrajasundara’s installation.
The weekend festival will begin with a fire sacrifice on Saturday afternoon to create auspiciousness. Next there will be the inauguration of the Villa Vrindavana branch of MOSA (Museum of Sacred Arts), which was originally established in Radhadesh, Belgium.
Saturday’s opening will be a special event for devotees. It will follow the official opening on July 11th for VIPs including the local Mayor and Chief of Police, as well as the Director of Museums in the Tuscany region.
Both opening days will feature the first works to be added to the museum—twenty-five original paintings by veteran BBT artist Jnananjana Das, from his upcoming huge eighty-painting collection on the Indian epic Mahabharata.
The paintings, a special offering to Sri Sri Radha Vrajasundara for Their anniversary, are just the beginning for MOSA. Over the coming months and years, Villa Vrindavana will work with Radhadesh MOSA director Mahaprabhu Das to acquire an extensive collection of Vaishnava and Vedic art and sculpture from ISKCON and all over India.
Villa Vrindavana, nestled in the beautiful hills of Tuscany's Chianti region, Italy
“Much of the existing artwork by ISKCON’s publishing arm the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust is in a renaissance-influenced style, including that of Jnanajana Das,” says Villa Vrindavana temple president Parabhakti Das. “As Villa Vrindavana is located in Tuscany, the birthplace of the Renaissance, MOSA’s art will continue in this theme. For this reason, the regional government wants to support our museum, which we expect will attract many tourists.”
After the MOSA opening, Radha Vrajasundara’s installation festival will continue with theatrical performances by several different devotees on Saturday evening.
On Sunday morning, many senior devotees will be invited to share their memories of Villa Vrindavana and Sri Sri Radha Vrajasundara from the past thirty years.
In the afternoon, devotees will observe an abhisekha bathing ceremony for their beloved Deities. They will then savor a delicious prasadam feast.
The enchanting gardens at Villa Vrindavana
“The main goal of this festival is to bring devotees together who haven’t seen each other in a long time,” says Parabhakti. “Because most of the devotees don’t live in the temple now. Some live very far away from Villa Vrindavana. So the idea is to bring everyone together for these two days to share and spend time together.”
Devotees will be sharing memories of how they purchased Villa Vrindavan, the first non-rented property in ISKCON Italy, in December 1979.
At first, they worshipped a large painting of the Pancha Tattva, while they worked hard to renovate the huge property—the Villa itself is 12,000 square feet, and sits on 200 acres of land.
By 1981, the first Deities—Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra, and Sri Sri Gaura Nitai—had been installed.
Devotees look at photos of ISKCON in Italy over the years at an exhibition held in 2008 in Villa Vrindavana
But someone was missing. The altar had been designed to host three sets of Deities. And two years later, in 1983, devotees installed Sri Sri Radha Vrajasundara amidst a joyous festival.
“In the beginning, ISKCON was booming in Europe,” Parabhakti says. “Many, many devotees joined in Villa Vrindavana, and remained there. About 150 to 200 devotees resided on the property. Most were celibate brahmacharis and brahmacharinis.”
Over the years, ISKCON began to change. Leaders left, various challenges arose, and devotees moved out of the temple to marry and start families. By the 1990s, Villa Vrindavana was nearly empty, with just a few dedicated souls holding on and serving the Deities.
Devotees gather in Villa Vrindavana's temple room
“When I arrived in 2005, there were only four or five devotees in Villa Vrindavana,” Parabhakti says. “Something needed to change. And one of the most important changes was to build a bridge to the so-called ‘outside’ society.”
Parabhakti created a team to respond to the problem, and gradually Villa Vrindavana transformed from a very private, internally-focused community to one that made the public feel welcome and attracted.
Devotees created connections with Interfaith groups, and invited them to hold events at Villa Vrindavana. Devotees also participated in Interfaith meetings at the Florence Municipality and at the Tuscany Parliament, engaging with local governments.
Devotees honor a prasadam feast in Naimisharanya, the beautiful woods which surround Villa Vrindavana
Meanwhile, Villa Vrindavana hosts the annual Bhakti festival every summer to promote Bhakti amongst yoga practioners of various paths. This year’s event will be held in May. And in early June, they’ll host an interfaith conference.
“We are opening up our world, contributing something useful to society, and giving people a reason to come and start interacting with devotees,” Parabhakti says.
Meanwhile, there continue to be events catering to devotees as well. 2014, for instance, will see a major celebration in Rome in honor of the 40th anniversary of Srila Prabhupada’s visit to Italy. Many senior devotees who served in Italy during that period will attend, including Indradyumna Swami and Dhananjaya Das.
Children feed a cow at Villa Vrindavana's educational goshala
In the future, Parabhakti hopes to continue attracting many of the millions of tourists who visit Florence each year, to see Villa Vrindavana’s temple, museum, gardens, and educational goshala, and develop an interest in Krishna consciousness.
“The idea is to have spirituality, culture, agriculture, and ecology working together to create a model that can inspire society,” says Parabhakti. “I strongly feel in my heart that we have something very important to say. And when people see we are doing something useful, they will come to hear it.”