British village fights Krishnas for the right to worship quiet

March 10, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

Letchmore Heath, England -- It's the Hare Krishnas vs. the preservationists.

The battleground: the mock-Tudor Bhaktivedanta Manor, donated to the Hare Krishna movement in 1973 by ex-Beatle George Harrison and transformed into a shrine that on festival days lures 30,000 mantra-chanting pilgrims to the 13th-century village.

The Hare Krishnas, devotees of a branch of Hinduism, want to build a new road to the manor. The preservationists serve up legal obstacles, and demand that the manor be restricted to its stated use as a training center for a maximum of 50 priests.

"If you ruin Letchmore Heath," says Phillip Marsh, head of the preservationist-minded Letchmore Heath Village Trust, "you cannot turn the clock back. I believe another road will destroy this environment."

Atamni Vedan Swami, one of the manor residents, suggests the preservationists are trying to stop forces that will always elude control. "A place of pilgrimage is not legislated," he says.

"It is not planned. It becomes."

Letchmore Heath, 15 miles north of London, is a slice of old England. It has winding country lanes, 98 brick and stone cottages, a cozy pub and a village green.

It's a perfect place of retreat from the hustle of big-city living, which is why most of the residents now dread the annual festival of Janmashtami, celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna. For two days and nights every August, the village is crammed with thousands of Hare Krishna followers who come by foot, bus and car to the manor, which sits on 75 acres of rolling farmland.

"You hear people shouting and singing and getting very excited," says Julyanne Burgess, who lives next door to the manor. "There's lots of noise and car fumes. But the biggest problem is the actual preparation for the festival. It goes on for six weeks, all hours of the day. That's when we know that Janmashtami is about to descend upon us."

Actually, the manor creates a lot of traffic throughout the year, as members of the Hindu community venture to the site from London. Weekends are filled with weddings. Summers are jammed with youth retreats.

The dispute between the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON) and the village goes back nearly two decades, and has been dragged through local councils, the Royal Courts of Justice and the European Court.

At nearly every step, the court rulings have gone against the Hare Krishna community. But through various appeals and the technicalities of zoning, the Hare Krishna members have not yet had to comply with an order issued in 1990 that the temple be closed. Its fate may be determined by a public inquiry scheduled to resume in May.

"This has been going on so long that some people who fought tooth and nail for peace and quiet have died," Mrs. Burgess says. "I even find it very wearing."

So does the Hare Krishna community.

"We're not a cult or sect or a new religious movement, and we're not a made-up idea," says Bhagavat Dharma, the manor's communications director who was once a beat poet named Alan Clark. "People come here for the quality of worship."

Inside the 19th-century manor, saffron-robed Hare Krishna followers chant a mantra 1,728 times a day, clutching japa beads and walking in stocking feet along oak floors. Incense wafts in the air. Fireplaces have been turned into shrines.

A cavernous ballroom is dominated by a pagoda-like altar, filled with marble statues of deities dressed in a shimmering array of clothes and jewels. Sweets and vegetables are laid out on silver platters and offered to the deities.

There also is a life-sized model of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who founded the shrine in 1973. The statue sits cross-legged, a ski cap on its head, a sweater over its shoulders. Upstairs, the bathroom and bedroom used by the founder have been turned into a museum and classroom.

"It's not as if we can whimsically move the deities," says Acharya Sevaka, who has lived here 14 years. "Basically, there are some people who are trying to deny the Hindu community's right to worship.

"We're sticking up for our rights as a religious minority. We feel we're being persecuted."

Indeed, Hare Kirshna followers say the dispute is more about racism than zoning.

"That's a blatant lie," Mrs. Burgess says. "It is a planning issue. To think that a group of grown men can resort to calling people names simply because they are not getting their way is a juvenile way to behave."

So the battle for Letchmore Heath continues, with a mantra and a mandate:

No retreat. No surrender.

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