Photos by Arjun Bhattacharyya.
Everyone remembers where they were and what they were thinking when the lockdown started.
Arjun Bhattacharyya has worked in the IT industry and as a photographer for the Detroit Devasadan Mandir and the Kolkata ISKCON temple (his homebase), and serves as personal assistant to senior devotee Deena Bandhu Das.
He was was at Krishna Balaram Mandir in Vrindavan when the temple closed its doors to the public and all non-residents, six days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24th.
The deserted Krishna Balaram Mandir campus under lockdown
“I had been traveling with Deena Bandhu Prabhu, assisting him in his preaching, helping him with his Vraja parikramas, and taking photographs,” Arjun says. “I was preparing to return to Kolkata, where I was planning to look at business options with my father, and had a confirmed train ticket from Mathura to Kolkata on 19th March.
“Just one day before, on 18th March, Krishna Balaram temple announced that it was closing at 1pm. I was outside buying essential items for my trip. Suddenly, I got a call from Deena Bandhu prabhu asking me to come back before 1 o’clock. Somehow, I made it back in time. I saw the gates of Krishna Balaram Mandir closing right before my eyes.”
Told that if he left again he would not be allowed back in due to safety measures, Arjun made the difficult decision to wait out the lockdown at Krishna Balaram Mandir.
(left) A security guard washes his hands with soap at the sink provided (right) Sanitizing the main gate
“I realized that Deena Bandhu Prabhu’s usual caretaker, who lives off the compound would not be allowed in,” he says. “I immediately called my father and told him that Deena Bandhu Prabhu would need my assistance at this point, and that I’d be safe here. My father understood and told me to cancel my ticket. It was also not safe to travel in India at that point. I was a bit scared. I didn’t know whether I was making the right choice of staying away from my family in this time of need. I don’t even know how long I’d have to stay in Vraj, as the whole country was facing a heavy situation.”
Life at Krishna Balaram Mandir, one of ISKCON’s most famous temples, is a different picture during lockdown. The number of devotees in the compound has dropped from 100 to 75. All temple departments, as well as Govinda’s restaurant, are closed. ISKCON Vrindavan’s book distribution program, well-known for reaching high scores, has completely ceased. Only Deity worship continues.
No resident devotees are allowed to step outside, while those involved in essential services like Deity worship who previously lived off-campus now live in the guesthouse. Offering outside garlands to the Deities has been stopped – instead, devotees make garlands from flowers in the goshala garden. Even resident devotees maintain social distancing amongst each other.
A devotee chants peacefully on the empty property
An in-house doctor, Radhacharan Das, is looking after devotees’ health and giving advice and medication when needed.
Arjun says the first couple of days of the lockdown were particularly strange. “It took a little time to sink in,” he says. “The first shocking day was 22nd March. We were already quarantined inside the temple compound, but the Prime Minister had just announced public curfew. We looked through the front gate to see the street completely deserted and all the shops closed. That was a very unusual scene to witness – it is usually the busiest and noisest right in front of Krishna Balaram Mandir.”
There are challenges to life in lockdown. Personal items and medicines that the in-house doctor does not have are harder to get. And although the temple is getting its supplies from the local market, things are not as easily available as before.
“Each moment, we realize how correct Srila Prabhupada was when he advised all the temples to be self-sufficient and have their own farms,” Arjun says.
Srila Prabhupada seems more regal than ever in his Samadhi Mandir
But there are silver linings to be found, too. “The first thing that will look odd to readers is the empty temple hall,” says Arjun. “It’s very, very peaceful and meditative.”
With the streets outside so quiet, devotees have started to hear birds singing sweetly again, parrots landing on the lower branches of the trees, and peacocks calling.
“Their calls are getting nearer with each passing day,” Arjun says. “Maybe we’ll see them from the temple one day. The real Vrindavan is manifesting because the ‘civilized’ humans are all locked in. I’ve even seen on Facebook that the Yamuna water is now clean and transparent.”
Arjun spends his time chanting on the roof of the guesthouse, where he can look out over the Vrindavan skyline and the Yamuna river; working on his photography; and helping Deena Bandhu Prabhu with his new book and online Facebook live classes.
Arjun likes to watch sunsets from the guesthouse roof
On Sunday April 5th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested everyone in the nation to light lamps at 9pm for nine minutes, to show solidarity in the fight against the Coronavirus. Krishna Balaram Mandir joined in.
“This was done specially to give everyone the feeling of unity that we are all in this together, and none of us are alone,” Arjun says.
At Krishna Balaram Mandir, devotees lit lamps at exactly 9pm along with millions of others around the country, offered them to the Deities, and then decorated the temple and Srila Prabhupada’s Samadhi Mandir with them.
Sri Sri Krishna Balaram are still beautifully dressed and worshipped -- here They give darshan on Sri Balaram Rasa Purnima
“Different devotees took responsibility to put lamps in different parts of the temple compound,” Arjun says. “I personally decorated the rooftop of Krishna Balaram guest house, so that it was visible from all directions of Vrindavan.”
Devotees then ascended to the rooftop of the Brahmacari ashram building and offered a kirtan prayer.
“From the rooftop, we observed how all the lights were turned off not only in Krishna Balaram Mandir, but also throughout the whole of Vrindavan, and we watched as people lit lamps on their balconies and roofs,” says Arjun. “It was truly a divine atmosphere.”
While Arjun was alarmed when he first learned he would not be able to return home during the lockdown, he says he soon started realizing, “I’ll never be able to experience such a thing in my whole lifetime – being locked inside Krishna Balaram Mandir, the spiritual kingdom. Even Srila Prabhupada is personally present here in his samadhi.”
Sanatana Gaura Hari Das prepares prasad to send out for distribution in the town of Vrindavan
With Prime Minister Modi recently extending the lockdown, which was set to end on April 14th, until May 3rd, Arjun will be at Krishna Balaram Mandir for some time yet. But he won’t be alone.
“The good thing about being in this lock-down is that it is strengthening the community spirit for the devotees who are living inside,” he says. “Although everyone is maintaining social distance, I see in this tough time that everyone’s hearts are coming closer to each other and they are more helpful and understanding towards one another. I was only visiting Vrindavan, but the kind of love and care I’m receiving from all the devotees has been truly overwhelming. They make me feel like I am a part of their family.”
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