Deities at Four-Fifteen
AS YOU CAN SEE, this is a picture of Krishna and Radha, and I’m not exactly sure what their relationship is, or was, or will be. Nothing changes you quite like Godhood. I bought their postcards in a gift shop in Bhaktivedanta Manor House. These certainly are colourful and feature extravagantly dressed people. If you but squint your eyes and stare at the picture, it almost looks like some LSD vision, if not so personally emotional. It's even stranger to stare at it in person.
The Gods, or siblings, or rather close friends, are light-brown-skinned, and they use rather a lot of makeup. It is the clothing that I like. I’m too old now—and too short and fat—to wear anything fancier than corduroy trousers and a Harris Tweed jacket, and the odd Liberty of London tie if I must. That said, in the late 1960s I fancied being more colourful than the few flower-patterned shirts I could afford to buy on Carnaby Street. For good or evil, I couldn’t save up enough to buy myself raw silk jackets, in bright colours, that buttoned with golden frogs. Baggy white trousers with huge belts and buckles. Pale blue slippers. I once prayed for a fur coat having seen they were “in” with the Beautiful People. “A fur, just like you wear, dear God.” In 1967, the “Summer of Love”, I had a vision of myself that I cannot now revisit comfortably. As all those who take a look back more than twenty years say: “What was I thinking?”
I visited London for a week, in the hottest weather on the books, in June of 2006, and it was perfect for trekking around the city on foot, and to go out by car looking for the countryside. It’s there somewhere, if you can just get past the new housing estates and old neighbourhoods. I saw a sign that read: “Suburbs next 50 Miles.” No, of course not.
So, onto the highways and byways of old England. My friends, Nalini and Shekhar, had asked me if I wanted to “See the God Revealed” as the traffic had been so congested that we couldn’t travel far and hope to be back in Wembley Park before dark, even with the long twilight. We’d been wandering around the ring roads of north and west London. I recalled some from more than thirty years in the past. I had no idea what I might be getting myself into. God revealed?
We arrived at two large gateposts, with plaques reading “Bhaktivedanta Manor” and “Hare Krishna Temple”. Inside the gates, past neatly clipped hedgerows, finely boxed hedges, greenhouses, and brilliant flower beds, was an enormous Tudor manor house, white with black beams, at least three storeys, outbuildings, and with leaded windows big enough for a church, some with stained glass. God’s summer house, perhaps? He might kick off the shoes and stretch out on the lawn, sipping a cold beverage. What would God drink? Nectar? Mead? The first and last of the wine? "Just pour me some water, I'll do the rest..." And we parked with many dozens of cars in a designated field. It would be muddy in the rain, but was brick hard in the summer of 2006.
“You’ve been in a Mormon temple a few times,” I told myself. “It just cannot be weirder than that.” And I too took off my sandals, putting them at the edge of the many outside the main door, wondering aloud: “If I find a nicer pair of shoes when I come out, can I trade up?” My joke was not appreciated. Too Church of England, perhaps.
The late George Harrison of the Beatles had presented the Manor to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness Movement back in 1973. In June 2006, I wandered about the Temple, with lots of other pilgrims; they turned out to be worshippers, waiting for the God to turn up. I was one of very few whites in the building that afternoon; half a dozen others were dressed in the saffron dhotis we’ve all seen in public places. I tried to sense George there. He wrote and sang: “All I have is yours, all you see is mine.” This was quite a donation, quite a gift.
Most of the adult visitors were people my age or older, of Indian heritage, and beautifully and modestly dressed with sudden touches of colour. With them, grandchildren perhaps: Youngsters so unlike ours. These neatly-dressed little ones walked slowly, did not call out or poke at things, and must have had some appreciation for the more sacred things in the Temple. No golden frogs on the visitors. Would the God have them when he was unveiled? It was to be at four-fifteen. On time!
All the doors, throughout the house, on three floors, were closed. What you needed to do—were encouraged to do—was to open them as you reached them. A gentle push sufficed. You pulled the doors to as you passed through, and all closed gently, none locking. I examined a huge bathtub. It was very nearly the size of the baptismal fonts in the basements of Mormon temples.
I was given two small dishes of rice when I returned to the ground floor. One was plain, the other spiced with ginger root. No knives, forks or spoons. Use your fingers. Paper towels.
As four o’clock approached, I joined Nalini and Shekhar and many others in a large hall that had no furniture. One end of the hall had a closed curtain from side to side and ceiling to floor. At the other end of the room sat a life-size—I thought it was a live person at first—figure. Nalini told me he was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. That is a fine name. He had founded the Movement. The statue was surrounded with flowers and clothed almost as oddly as I’d wanted to be back in the 1960s. People—except for me—kneeled and bowed to the statue, some lay flat out on the floor in front of it. I also saw adults lowering themselves flat on the floor at the feet of young children. Perhaps, in sympathy, to remind the children that nothing ages quite like youth: “You could be our age in the blink of Krishna’s eye.”
All the people—adults and children—moved slowly. People smiled and nodded, but did not reach for your elbow to hurry you along to where they thought you should be. There was no running about. Even with four-fifteen closing in.
Nothing seemed too weird. Even the chanting was pleasing to a degree. In the room with us—I include the Swami—there were a couple of white men in one corner, wearing the priestly robes you see Krishna people wearing in airports. One man thumped a drum and the other worked a squeeze-box. Here, in this Temple, these two priests were quite unattractive. They are creepy out in the world too, I think. What is that all about? I believe it is because I find their pallid, shaved heads and doughy bodies repulsive, rather than their Consciousness. Tanned and brown-skinned monks in saffron dhotis are wonderfully attractive. These acolytes in Watford would look so much better with a Mystic Tan. And, I thought wickedly, after a hearty meal at a Mongolian Barbecue. Clearly, I had much to learn.
Then, my hosts’ bowing over, we joined dozens of others sat on individual bottom-sized flat mats, on the floor facing—curiously—the closed curtain, and they chanted. As people lowered themselves, they picked up the Mantra.
There I was: Sat on a mat in a dimly-lit hall with about fifty people singing “Hare Krishna! Hare Krishna! Krishna Krishna”. To think I was—for over thirty years—severely limited by panic disorder. And then we watched the God unveiled at 4.15pm. Why 4.15pm? The curtains were opened by two more shaved, robed men after a little bell rang somewhere. Is my mobile phone switched off? The Divine One had been behind the curtains all along: Or was he wheeled in from the wings? Actually, this Krishna was a sort of conjoined entity: They were very attractive if you like that sort of thing. They were life-sized, unlike Christian Gods, and very colourful, and draped beautifully with flowers as they sat at their altar.
This Godly altar held candles, incense, flowers, dishes of food, and drink placed before and around Krishna and his partner. Offerings over, there followed a thorough scrubbing of the floor within the holy place and then a careful dusting and polishing of the images took place. I wondered why the God’s place was so carefully cleansed after receiving gifts from his people. I’ll write 250 words on that the next time I stay after school.
Chanting! Chanting! I’m thinking of the line in “Absolutely Fabulous” when Eddie tells her concerned Guru over the telephone: “I’m chanting as we speak.” Before the ceremony wrapped up, a large, wooden chest—that just didn’t fit in with the general decor—was placed on the floor where Krishna’s floor became ours. People went—on their knees and backsides—to the chest and slipped money into the slot in it. Mostly coins. Krishna would prefer the rustle of five and ten pound notes, I’m certain; the Church of England does. But clinking coins sounded good at a ceremony that was orchestrated with bells and other plucked or thumped instruments. Another draped man—they seemed to be getting paler the nearer they were to Krishna—waved a very large feather, perhaps that of an ostrich, to encourage the burning incense. To get the scented smoke up Krishna’s noses. Hare! Hare!
Quite suddenly a bell rang somewhere, reminding Krishna—I suppose—that he had another appointment. So, abruptly, the curtains were pulled to. Getting to my feet was not easy, the mat slipping about, and then fine dust on the floor, and only the flat wall to claw at. I ached all over.
Having withheld my coins and five pound notes from the temptation of the ugly wooden chest, I headed outside, and noted my own sandals were the nicest in the heap, so I put them on again. I was thus able to afford some postcards and a string of love-beads and a mango milk-shake at the “Hare Krishna Temple Store and Café.” I bought sodas and biscuits for Nalini and Shekhar. I’m wearing the beads today, so many years later. I cannot figure out how to release the clasp. A bit like some branches of Christianity.
Leaving the Café, we walked through greenhouses and past above-ground pools with water lilies in them, and little golden fish chasing bubbles and sparks. You could reach out to a lotus blossom without falling over and into a ground level pond. We could see the parked cars in the distance, but went through wooden gates towards the posted “Temple Farm”. Enormous cattle, water buffalo, gave us the eye from a field very nearly crowded with enormous multi-coloured wagons. Nalini explained—poor thing had been explaining before we ever left Wembley Park—that at times the oxen would be hitched to the wagons, which were then considered “chariots” and the teams raced about. I recalled the charioteers in “Ben-Hur” and laughed somewhere behind my Foster Grants. I couldn’t imagine it here, and they had no postcard showing bus-size wagons drawn by burly bulls. How fast could that be? Do they smack their oxen to hurry them along?
The very large building had a sign reading “Temple Barn”, and as we walked in, we were asked to wash our hands. That’s not a bad idea; for over an hour I’d been pushing myself about on my mat on the floor of Krishna’s audience room, trying to get my legs under me bearable, and some feeling back in my lower body. I was dusty.
And there were no cows in the barn after all that. It was milking time in another building, somewhere sterilised. This barn looked as pristine a place one might have. We found a ramp that went up to an elevated platform, higher than the barn floor, about six feet. Up I went. Outside a gate on the platform was a shining steel bin filled with exquisite fresh, unblemished fruit and vegetables. Behind a stall door, lying on fresh hay, were two calves: Quite young and almost golden, coats brushed clean, no flies, no bits of straw, eyes enormous and brown almost as if they were wearing make-up. No manure in the stall, and only a sweet fragrance. A picture of total serenity. One calf was called Krishna, a common name at the Manor, and I cannot be sure the other was Radha, it might have been Vishnu, you know how the mind works. Their mothers must have been in the milking shed.
I crouched on my aching legs to reach in and touch the calf nearest me, who might have been Krishna, or the other one. I didn’t recall ever having touched a live cow. This one didn’t look as if it would bite me. I gave the creature’s ear a nice massage and did the same routine that works for dogs, cats, swans, budgies, lions and tigers, and everything else, including Lotus Europa sports cars. Singing:
Hello Baby! Hello Baby!
I would like to stroke your muzzle!
Come on Baby! Come on Baby!
You’re such a beautiful Baby!
Someone below called out: “Would you like some very fresh ice-cream?” Of course I would, as a chaser after the mango milkshake. I pushed down on my legs and made to stand up. That didn’t happen: I felt dizzy—I do that often with my dodgy blood pressure—and went sailing off into space.
My knapsack came up behind my head and upper back when I reached the concrete floor below the platform, protecting my head from a direct blow. Some loose, clean hay softened the fall of the rest of me. The barn was so immaculate that not even a straw was out of place and in need of refreshment. Does Krishna actually keep a look-out for his followers and visitors? If he does: “Thank you, Sir.”
We then had the very fresh ice-cream, again mango flavoured. I was but a little shaken by my fall. As I hit the ground I’d thought: “This will make a good story.”