ISKCON Leicester: ‘A spiritual centre at the heart of England’

ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) established its first centre in the UK in London on Bury Place, Bloomsbury, in 1969 and then in 1973 another centre was set up in a manor house bought for that purpose by the Beatles band member George Harrison,  renamed Bhaktivedanta Manor. In England today, ISKCON has 9 temples with their own buildings. This includes 3 in London (Radha Krishna Temple, Soho, ISKCON South London and ISKCON Redbridge), 2 in the North (in Newcastle  and Manchester), 3 in the Midlands (in Birmingham , Coventry  and Leicester) and 1 in the South (Bhaktivedanta Manor, Watford). There is also a charity shop in King Cross, London called Matchless Gifts  and a longstanding vegetarian restaurant called Govinda’s, which is next door to the temple in Soho. In addition to these there are many more ISKCON groups that meet across the country renting or borrowing buildings for meetings and other activities.

In 2011 ISKCON Leicester obtained a grade II listed former HSBC bank in the centre of Leicester at 31 Granby Street, designed by Joseph Goddard (opened in 1874) in a Gothic style and we went to visit this towards the end of 2015, shortly after it had opened as a new temple.

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31 Granby Street, Leicester

ISKCON, however, has a far longer history in the city, with devotees coming there to teach since the 1970s. Our interviewee told us that…

‘….the first place we had was on Belgrave Road in one of the shops in the basement…a small shrine and a restaurant and that was it….Then we moved around the corner to a terraced house where we used the front room [That would have been early 80s]…The front room was used as the temple and then we had some monks staying upstairs…Then we moved from there and got a five bedroom house [in North Evington on Thoresby Street] and thought “wow, progress, bigger property, a bigger temple hall” and then we were there for over 20 years.’

In September 2010 there was a massive explosion, caused by a gas cylinder used for cooking, at the temple on Thoresby Street. About 1/3 of the house was destroyed, but ‘miraculously’ the deities, even though they were only made from plaster, survived. They were taken to the house of a couple of devotees who ‘could look after them, they had space and time’ and the community began to reflect on what had happened and what they were going to do in the future.

The community had some relatively recent experience of being in another location, when for 3 months in 2005 the temple had been based on Belgrave Road in a building belonging to the a branch of the Indian organisation the Brahmo Samaj, while repairs were being made to the Thoresby Street property. Our interviewee told us…

‘…speak to anyone in ISKCON in Leicester, they will tell you that those three months were the best that they ever had…Because we were on the main road, every morning for the morning service, we had 40 people…People from the Belgrave area came up and said, “Since you were in Belgrave, we thought you left Leicester, we didn’t know you had a place in Evington”. Every evening we would have 100 people for the service, every Sunday, it’s like a community day where we have a full meal… just going there doubled the amount that we were cooking every single Sunday and by the end of that time, we were tripling the amount we were cooking from when we started, just because of the volume of people.’

Being in this property underscored the importance of a central location for ISKCON and upon moving back to Thorseby Street they began to look for another property. ISKCON tends to have a younger demographic, as our interviewee told us, with most devotees in Leicester, for instance, being British-born, with the majority British Asian. Also in contrast to many other Hindu organisations in the UK there was a focus on providing a ‘very systematic, step by step learning opportunity’ about the Hindu tradition in the English language. Being in a central location makes it more likely that this demographic will be able to find out about and access ISKCON.

Before obtaining the former HSBC bank on Granby Street, which had been empty for  4 years, ISKCON devotees had met in different venues, including the ‘East West Centre just off Narborough Road’. The Granby Street bank was on the market for £1.5 million but needed around a further £3 million to repair it. After a period of fundraising and of hard bargaining with HSBC the community managed to secure it for just £350,000.

Our interviewee also told us about an news article that the Leicester Mercury had run – Can City Bank be Saved From Ruin – that had also supported their case – in fact we were told that it represented a ‘turning point’. The article was about ‘Leicester’s at risk heritage buildings’ with most of it focussing on the Granby Street building, drawing attention to   ‘HSBC’s negligence of a major heritage building’ and including a ‘quote from the Civic Society chairman, Stewart Bailey [who] says, “it is our hope that ISKCON can take this and make it into something beautiful”.’

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The Victorian bank, 31 Granby Street

A landmark in Leicester’s Victorian architecture the former bank in Granby Street used to be the headquarters of the Leicestershire Banking Company. According to the ISKCON Leicester website:

 ‘The Leicestershire Banking Company was established in 1829 to finance the burgeoning industries of    Leicester. By 1840, the bank stood at Granby Street. The Three Crowns Hotel had previously stood here for more than a century, providing rooms and refreshments for travellers on the busy route between London and Manchester.

By 1872 the expansion of the bank’s business required a similar growth in its premises. Local architects were asked to submit their designs for a new bank in an open competition.

The winner of the competition was Joseph Goddard….The spectacular gothic building was executed in red brick and Portland stone with an unusual corner porch and French pavilion roofs. The front to Granby Street is particularly impressive with its three tall-decorated windows. The finished building cost £7439 and opened for business in 1874….

The interior of the bank is also a masterpiece of design. The enormous hammer beams form a lantern roof giving the building a lofty and imposing atmosphere. The pillars are hand-carved with individual friezes and each corbel stone is decorated with a different coat of arms. These heraldic arms belong to those towns and cities where the Leicestershire Banking Company carried on its business. It is not certain whether or not the stained glass windows were part of the original plan as they display certain art nouveau features. The clock in the banking hall was made by Dent’s of Southwark, also responsible for Big Ben. The portraits in the banking hall depict H Simpson Gee and Samuel Bankart, past chairman of the Leicestershire Banking Company.’

temple

The news that Listed Building Consent and Planning Permission for the design and renovation work for 31 Granby Street had been granted was received in August 2013 and as our interviewee told us ‘we then did some initial work which completed in 2014, opened up the main hall, put some new toilets in, cleaned it up a bit and so on. From the end of 2014, we then moved all of our activities into the building, opening once a week, maybe in the evenings for different classes and for celebrating all of our festivals.’

When we visited in July 2015 the deities had not yet been properly installed at the new temple and instead the community were using pictures since ‘when we have deities properly installed in the shrine…there have to be people living on site as part of the services that need to happen.’

In addition to religious activities there will be a restaurant, a coffee shop, a heritage room and facilities for classes, in Hindu teachings, music, drama and dance. Recently, ISKCON Leicester have won £37,500  Heritage Lottery Fund to restore stained glass windows in the building. Work has started to restore the historical stained glass windows at ISKCON Leicester.

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