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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the longest-running feuds in Britain - the battle of Bhaktivedanta Manor - may finally be approaching its conclusion. It began in 1973, when George Harrison, hardly a typical Home Counties villager himself, donated his 19th-century mock-Tudor manor to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon). A community of shaven-headed mystics moved in, and the villagers of Letchmore Heath, in Hertfordshire, threw up their hands in horror. Then, it seemed a simple battle. Objections were raised about noise, traffic, crowds and amenities, but the real issues were more more basic, more fundamental: it was the exotic east versus the xenophobic west; Hindu spirituality versus stolid English rural traditionalism. But time has clouded the picture, hardening positions but also confusing them. The manor is now revered by Hindus as a temple - one of the most sacred outside India. Most of the villagers who originally objected have moved out: today,three-quarters of the 220 or so inhabitants of Letchmore Heath are newer to the village than Iskcon. And, after countless thousands of newspaper column inches, the 22-year-old dispute has become an English rural tradition in its own right.

Soon, though, it may all be over. Since 17 January, a public inquiry in Borehamwood has been considering Iskcon's proposal for an access road to the Temple (as it is now known), and the question of whether or not the Temple should be allowed to continue in either of its two current roles: as a centre of public worship and as a residential Hindu theological college. As the inquiry reaches its end, all that remains is for John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, to study the report and announce, in a few months' time, his verdict. After that, one way or another, the dispute will be settled.

Looking at life inside the Temple, it is hard to see what all the fuss is about. There are around a dozen permanent monks and 50 trainees living there, while on most days 15 to 20 visitors come to worship or to take part in purification rites such as theMundan ceremony - in which boys under the age of three have their heads shaved. This, explains 29-year-old Bimal Krishna Das, a trainee priest, "is a sign of renunciation - a voluntary offering that purifies your whole existence." The daily routine is mostly quiet, beginning at 4.30am with a service (followed by two hours of meditation and scripture classes) and ending with bedtime at 8.30pm. In between, Bimal and his fellow students (who have all taken vows of celibacy) adhere to a rigorous routine, in which prayer, housework, cooking and gardening are the principal activities. For some villagers, even this is too frenetic, but most objectors reserve their complaints for the two-day celebration of Krishna's birthday in August. Then, some 20,000 followers and their cars descend upon Letchmore Heath, making village life intolerable for anyone who does not wish to be involved. Last year the event went ahead despite an enforcement order from Hertsmere Borough Council forbidding public worship. Predictably, the ill-feeling generated on such occasions lingers through the rest of the year.

According to Bimal, the root cause of the disagreement is ignorance on the part of certain villagers - a minority, he says. "We have a lot of supporters. But the problem is this xenophobic `not on my back doorstep' attitude. If they were denied access toSt Paul's Cathedral, how would it make them feel?" Like other religious centres, the Manor exists, Bimal believes, to serve and educate an outside community. "If Hindus couldn't come here, we would lose our aim in life."

Philip Marsh, 50-year-old chairman of the Village Trust and a resident of Letchmore Heath for 24 years, is not impressed by such arguments, and nor does he respond kindly to suggestions that his objection to public worship is racist. "That is not what the dispute is about. Absolutely not," he insists. "We've always said it's the wrong place for mass gatherings of any description."

Marsh's worst fear is Iskcon receiving permission to build an access road to the Temple. "If that happens, we will see festival-size crowds there on normal weekends," he warns. "It's obvious that numbers would escalate, and the whole area will totally change."

But other villagers are in favour of retaining the Manor as a public shrine and believe, like Bimal, that opposition is based on snobbery and fear. "It's appalling," says Maureen Hewlett, 56, a resident for nearly 14 years. "If it was a Conservative village party or a gymkhana nobody would say a word. All I can say is I hope it turns into a borstal for teenage boys - then they'll know what's hit them." !