ISKCON Leicester Builds Community with Ten-Day Kirtan Fest
ISKCON of Leicester in the UK’s Midlands has been through a lot since its temple—a two-storey residential house—was burnt down in an accidental fire on September 3rd, 2010.
It’s been a tough couple of years, with devotees renting local halls to hold their programs and raising funds for support.
In December 2011, however, devotees closed on a stunning new temple building, a historic 15,000 square-foot edifice in the center of Leicester, which was built in 1875 and served as an HSBC bank for many years.
As they undergo the long process of converting the building into a temple and ashram, devotees are busying themselves connecting with their local community.
A major step in getting the word out about the new temple and building relationships was the recent Kirtan Fest, a ten-day kirtan festival during World Holy Name Week that displayed creative ways of reaching out to the public.
For the festival, running from September 28th until October 7th, temple president Pradyumna Das decided to hold kirtans every day in a different “ward” or neighborhood of Leicester.
The stunning former bank building that's the new headquarters of ISKCON Leicester
Throughout the week devotees chanted the Hare Krishna mantra in two Hindu community centers, an Afro-Carribean center, the University of Leicester, and a football club, Leicester Nirvana FC.
Kirtan also came to areas with a high Muslim population, and to a very British upperclass neighborhood. Devotees even visited a secure unit of a local psychiatric hospital to chant.
Thirty to fifty devotees and members of the general public attended each program, with the football club event turning out particularly popular with locals.
“People arrived at 6:30pm, were welcomed, participated in the kirtan, and then enjoyed a sanctified prasadam vegetarian meal, before leaving at around 9:00pm,” says ISKCON Leicester spokesperson Nimai Dasi.
She adds: “We made sure all the kirtans were held in very public places, so that people could just walk in off the street. And we made friends with the people that did come, inviting them to visit us again.”
The building features high valuted ceilings
The Kirtan Fest concluded with 24 hours of kirtan spread across the weekend of Saturday October 6th and Sunday October 7th. Held at ISKCON Leicester’s grand new temple, kirtan ran for 12 hours each day, from 8am until 8pm and sometimes beyond.
While the days started off quiet, with only fifteen people at the 8:00am kirtan, attendance rose to over 350 by the evening.
Organized by second generation devotee Kishori Jani, the roster of kirtan leaders hailed from all over the UK and featured some exciting devotional talent.
Senior devotee Kripamoya Das’s daughters, Jahnavi and Tulasi Harrison—established kirtan musicians in their own right—sang, as did professional singer Ananda Monet, 12-year old Nimai Gadhvi, Srila Prabhupada disciple and author Ranchor Prime, and Leicester’s own Bhaktin Chandni and Nayan.
The kirtan also ranged across a wide variety of styles and moods.
“Young Nimai leads in a very similar style to Aindra Prabhu,” Nimai Dasi says. “He rocked the house. People were blissed out. Then on the other side of the scale, Ranchor Prabhu, another highlight for me, led a very mellow chant and brought us all into a beautiful, meditative trance.”
The Kirtan Fest came to a grand finale with ISKCON Birmingham’s bhajan group The Streets of Nadia singing their own epic version of Govindam, interspersed with rap lyrics.
Devotees and guests pack into the former bank building to celebrate the Holy Name
“They were accompanied by a whole host of instruments, like an orchestra,” Nimai says. “They had a harp, a sitar, a guitar, a vina, and different types of drums and flutes. It was such a sweet way to end the program.”
The ten-day Kirtan Fest was a big hit with devotees and members of the public alike. One devotee called it, “the nicest festival I’ve been to,” while others commended the warm mood of service.
Jahnavi Harrison accompanying the kirtan with her violin
One British woman who dropped by after receiving a flyer was so moved that tears flowed down her face as she listened to the kirtan. After some time she left, only to return with friends and stay for the rest of the weekend.
The event also made a big impression on an Indian woman and her husband, who worked for the government in India and was in England on a study program.
“He never goes to temples at home,” the woman said. “But here he’s been dancing the whole weekend!”
“Kirtan has a profound effect on people,” Nimai Dasi comments.
She says that as well as being moved by the kirtan, devotees were extremely impressed with the brand new temple building, which is the next step for ISKCON Leicester.
“Many said it’s one of the nicest acquisitions ISKCON has had since the early days,” she recalls.
But there’s still a lot of work to do. Kirtan Fest was only a once-off event; for while architects and plans are already in place, it will take about one year until the building is ready to officially open as an ISKCON temple.
And then, devotees have to make sure they’re ready for the wonderful gift they’ve been given.
“Moving into this palacial, busy city center location, we have to leave behind our ‘small house mentality’,” says Nimai Dasi. “We’re trying to adapt, to rise to the mission.”
Madhvi Mulji leads kirtan on day 1 of Kirtan Fest