A chateau in southern Belgium houses one of Europe’s largest Iskcon temples. Pallavi Aiyar visits the medieval building to find a community struggling for recognition.
The air is crisp with the leafy scent of autumn, but the forests covering the rolling hills of the Ardennes in southern Belgium are still green, reluctant to surrender their vibrant colour to the approaching winter. A shaggy horse chews on bales of hay by the wayside; the chimneys of the stone and brick houses that line the way exhale wisps of thin smoke. It’s a bucolic setting, one that is quintessentially European.
But then suddenly, faint chants of ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama’ unexpectedly waft through the open car window, even as a Neo-Gothic castle rears into view. A board identifies the imposing building as the Chateau de Petite Somme, but another sign next to it claims it to be ‘Radhadesh’: the land of Radha.
Radhadesh is one of Europe’s largest Iskcon temples and the main centre for Hindu activity in the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg) region. It is also a unique model that blends the traditional proselytising associated with Iskcon followers with a focus on ‘Hindu tourism’ for curious visitors to the area.
I arrive at the chateau on Janmashtmi, Krishna’s birthday and an occasion of great celebration for Hare Krishnas who spend the day fasting and singing kirtans until midnight. I’m picked up at the railway station by Martin Guruvich, also known as Mahaprabhu Dasa, a soft-spoken Uruguayan who has worked at Radhadesh since 1988 and deals with the temple’s external communications.
Neatly dressed in white kurta-pyjama, Mahaprabhu tells me he is also head of the Hindu council of Belgium. This is a group that has been asking the Belgian government for official recognition of Hinduism as a religion for the last three years.
There are some 20,000 Hindus in Belgium, Mahaprabhu claims, comprising mostly people of Nepali and Indian origin. What benefits would result from official recognition, I ask.
“Respect,” the Uruguayan replies. “Moral recognition that we are a religion and not just some evil cult.” And there are more practical benefits too. In Belgium, official religions are provided subsidies by the state that include salaries and housing for religious leaders, funds for renovating religious buildings as well as access to public radio and TV air time.
But so far the government continues to deny Hinduism official status, partly out of budgetary considerations and partly out of continuing misunderstanding about what Hinduism is, says Mahaprabhu.
Iskcon (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) was established by Indian guru Bhakti-vedanta Swami Prabhupada back in the 1960s in the United States. For decades it was synonymous with white westerners, dressed in robes, chanting Hare Krishna at airports and street corners while persuading passersby to purchase religious texts.
Accusations of cultish behaviour have dogged Iskcon over the years and despite its more recently adopted low profile spiritualism, it is perhaps unsurprising that misunderstandings about Iskcon’s intentions persist.
Radhadesh stands as a stone and mortar rejoinder to these misunderstandings. The community is resolutely open and welcoming to anyone. It has a guesthouse with basic but clean rooms in addition to a boutique shop selling a range of Radha and Krishna icons, fabrics and carpets from India, incense and other goodies.
A restaurant and boulangerie complete the attractive package. The restaurant serves vegetarian food from pizza to paneer and the boulangerie is suffused with the heavenly scent of fresh bread.
A couple of cows graze in the extensive back garden of the chateau. Cow protection is something the devotees here take seriously. “Hare Krishna”, people call out to each other cheerily as they walk briskly around, jap malas in hand.
Dotted among the European faces I spot several Indians. Iskcon may have begun as a western movement but today there is a reverse cultural flow with new devotees overwhelmingly coming from India.
Mahaprabhu speaks with envy of the richly endowed and attended Iskcon temples across India from Mayapore in Bengal to Bangalore. By contrast, it’s a daily struggle at Radhadesh to keep the temple running.
Although 30,000-40,000 tourists visit Radhadesh every year, this is barely enough to sustain the community of 100-odd devotees who live at the temple while maintaining the medieval chateau and grounds. Patronage from Indians in the Benelux region is, therefore, crucial and is picking up.
Inside the temple, idols of Radha and Krishna are dressed up in shiny new clothes. Devotees chant repetitively: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna; Hare Rama, Hare Rama.” There is dancing. Some leap up high. Others shuffle to an internal rhythm.
As the night wears on, a collective, ecstatic, force fills the room. The chants become louder, the dancing more electric. I’m bewildered, then elated. The energy is difficult to resist even for someone as non-spiritually inclined as I am.
That night it’s icy cold as I huddle in my thin blanket trying to sleep. That’s always the problem with these medieval castles I think. High on charm and very low on insulation. My mind is restless, refusing to be lulled into quiet. The rituals of kirtan and prasad are reminiscent of home to me. To have found them in this unlikely temple in southern Belgium is as comforting as it’s disconcerting.
What motivates these people from Belgium and Uruguay and elsewhere to renounce their own cultures and often their families in order to devote their lives to Krishna worship, I wonder. A whirl of questions swills about my head until at last my eyes close.