Srila Prabhupada – the founder of ISKCON – first arrived in London on September 11 1969 and ‘after a short press conference, he was driven to the Beatle John Lennon’s Tittenhurst Manor. John Lennon had personally sent his white Rolls-Royce and chauffeur to drive Prabhupada from the airport. After arriving at the Manor, Prabhupada’s first visitors were the Beatles George Harrison and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He took off the garland he was wearing and gave it to George Harrison. George smiled welcoming him to England.’(1)
This relationship between Srila Prabhupada and the Beatles – with George Harrison in particular – was to shape the future of ISKCON in the UK.
Our interviewee told us that Prabhupada approached one of his disciples -Shyamasundar das – whom he knew had become friendly with George Harrison – to see if he could help them a new property as the temple at Bury Place had become overcrowded and was no longer big enough for their needs. When Shyamasundar das posed the question to George, ‘a lightning bolt hit the building they were in, the lights went off, came back on and George turned round and said, “I guess I’ll have to help you then.”’
George tasked another devotee – Dhananjaya das – to select a property. Dhananjaya das found what was to become Bhaktivedanta Manor. Our interviewee told us that there ‘was an old Scottish woman [Mrs Ruffles] living here in one room of the entire building with quite a few cats. He looked at the property and he thought, “This is a good one,” he phoned George Harrison, it was a coin phone from what is now our temple. He said to him, “This is what’s here, this is what’s available,” and George Harrison said, “Get it but don’t pay a penny more than the asking price,” and that was it, and he got it.’
The temple was established in 1973 in a stunning mock-Tudor manor house and became one of the first Hindu temples in England. Our interviewee emphasised that he has ‘always been of the view that the Hare Krishna temple inside a mock Tudor mansion has been an iconic thing for British Hindus.’ The estate can be traced back to 1261 as belonging to Geoffrey Picot and in the 16th Century a Tudor house was built on the site. This was purchased by George Villies in 1884, who demolished the house, constructing the building we see today. It was named ‘Piggots Manor’, after Mr Picot, and was renamed Bhaktivedanta Manor in 1973, which at that time included 17 acres of land. (2)
When they first got the property it seemed too big for their needs but within a few years the Hindu population in England began to grow as people had to leave their homes in East Africa, including from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. As the Indian High Commissioner said at a recent function at the Manor, ‘This was a great watering hole for the tribes of people that arrived with no place of worship in the UK.’
For these East Africans, the first Hindus that many of them saw or met in England were were these strange western converts who were Swami Prabhupada’s first followers there and who ‘were wearing Indian traditional clothes and probably not wearing them very well…the common things was people… wrapped in bed sheets….not knowing quite what the traditional clothes were…they went out and got whatever they could. At one point rather than the sacred Tulsi plant they were growing Basil and their beads…were whatever they could get…But the thing about us then was western people were the growing Hindu influx and it was all happening in the village of Letchmore Heath. At the time it was just an alien presence.’
Growth and resistance
Situated in middle-England, in the Parish of Aldenham in Hertfordshire, just over a mile from Radlett and four miles from Watford, the juxtaposition of this ‘alien’ presence alongside the trappings of quaint British rural life has over the years generated some local opposition to the activities undertaken at the Manor, not least due to the increased levels of traffic. Our interviewee explained that ‘dealing with the local complaints, the council of Hertsmere took a position to shut the worship here down on the basis of what this place had permission for being I think just a theological college and training place.’ In 1981 the council ‘tried to stop worshippers and pilgrims by banning all festivals. Later, however, a compromise was reached to limit large festivals to six days a year.’ (3) As a solution the temple proposed to buy adjacent land to build an access road but this fell through. This gave rise to a ‘massive campaign from the 80s that went on right through to 1996 when it concluded with the Secretary of State finally [granting] permission for this ‘access land’ to be purchased’. They were told that this land ‘must be purchased and accessed, a road must be built or you’re closing for worship.’
In his concluding report, the Secretary of State acknowledged that ‘[the temple] is unique in the UK because there is no comparable alternative place for teaching, worship and meditation; and the level of provision of these religious facilities is to an exceptionally high standard. Furthermore, the close association of the Hare Krishna movement’s founder with the Manor makes it a special, if not unique place . . . so that association must continue.’ (3)
Activities and facilities
Our tour around the Manor took us to the private quarters of Praphupada which have been preserved as he used them, as a shrine to his memory.
In addition to the worship of the deities throughout the day and the celebration of religious festivals the estate also houses the Bhaktivedanta Manor School, the Krishna Club/Sunday School, the Manor Preschool and the College of Vedic Studies.
Another key aspect of the work undertaken at the Manor is New Gokul a dairy farm and visitor centre, ‘ a mixed herd of 57 animals, some of whom give milk, some who are working oxen, and some who are retired or in their childhood. We operate a system of cow protection. This means that unlike most commercial farms we don’t slaughter any of our cows, bulls or calves, regardless of whether they give us milk or not.’ In Hinduism it is a sacred duty to protect the cow, and many Hindus are vegetarian.
In 2012, Hertsmere Borough Council carried out a consultation process about the use and future needs of the Manor and produced a ‘planning brief’ to guide future plans for development.(4) (5) The brief recognises the special significance of the site for ISKCON specifically and for Hindus more broadly and that ‘the whole of the Manor estate is a ‘Dhāma’ – a sanctified place’ (5). Given the listed status of the Manor house and the fact that it does not meet modern accessibility requirements, limits the extent to which the Manor itself can be altered or extended to meet current needs. In 2014 permission was sought for the ‘Erection of a two storey community building (Haveli)…Relocation of existing poly tunnels, greenhouses and playground, revisions to existing playground and erection of a single storey extension to the ladies Ashram, including landscaping to site.’ (6) (7) Much more recently in 2016 Hertsmere Borough Council Planning Committee has given consent for the Manor to build the Shree Krishna Haveli.