The road to the temple is long, winding .. and very crowded: George Harrison's gift brought more holiness to a Hertfordshire village than it can stomach Report by Stephen Ward. Photographs by Paul Kelly
Friday 08 July 1994
But whatever deity kept Letchmore Heath (population 248) as a convenient period backdrop for generations of film-makers from the Elstree Studios up the road must have a perverse streak: in 1973 there arrived in the midst of what is probably Hertfordshire's least altered village a most holy shrine of British Hindus, visited on occasion by tens of thousands of followers and their cars.
On Tuesday night, 10 elected councillors of the Borough of Hertsmere have to try to arbitrate between these two cultures, each admirable in its way, but, sadly, mutually unsympathetic when thrust into such an arranged marriage.
However much both sides might try to compromise, as Dr Alan Goulden, who lives nearby, observes: 'A small Hertfordshire village is not a natural place to have a Hindu sect.
For 21 years Bhaktivedanta Manor, the neo-Elizabethan mansion set in 17 acres, has been a temple without planning permission, and like any householder with an unlawful kitchen extension, the owners, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) have argued that they never needed permission in the first place.
Now they are trying to get it retrospectively. Two decades of behind-the-scenes dealing, a public inquiry and an appeal to the European Court have left all sides where they began, and finally the crunch has been reached, and the unfortunate councillors have to consider a planning application to turn the manor from its agreed use as a theological training college to a place of public worship. The application includes what the sect sees as a generous compromise, an access road across green belt land and on to the A41 to keep traffic out of the village.
Akhandadhi Das, president of the temple, sitting benignly in his neo-Elizabethan office, sacred cows visible in the fields through the leaded lights, has developed a down to earth, almost bitter approach to the dispute after so long. A big indoor tennis centre and a cash-and-carry warehouse have been given planning permission on nearby green-belt land, he notes.
He is not generous about those in the village who oppose the planning application. He says: 'A thriving Hindu establishment in the village is not adding to the saleability of their homes. And saleability equals money.
Now in his late 30s, he has been at the manor for 20 years. He was described in newspaper reports as an 'English convert, but patiently points out that you do not formally convert to Hinduism. And he was brought up in Northern Ireland as a Presbyterian.
Other concerns locals have voiced, about noise from chanting, about traffic, are not real concerns, except on some of the six festival days a year, he says.
As successive planners have discovered, the more you delve, the more complex the issue becomes.
It is not possible, for example, to find the Krishna followers a less sensitive site. This house, formerly a nurses home called Piggotts Manor, was a personal gift from George Harrison, the former Beatle (who has followed the subsequent events without intervening publicly), to Srila Prabhupada, founder of Iskcon. The founder stayed for many happy periods between 1973 and his death in 1977, and his study is now preserved with a lifelike replica slightly eerily in place at his desk. 'This means we could never sell the house. There is only one other place in Europe where he spent as much time, according to Akhandadhi Das. And he says the statues on the shrine (of Krishna and his Queen) are not, to Hindus, mere representations, but are the deity themselves, and, under Hindu law, may not be moved.
The statues have to be dressed each day, brought food and other offerings for many hours a day. Other Hindu temples in Britain lack the human resources of a theological college with 150 students, 50 living in, and so miss some parts of the ritual, or some days of the week. So this is the most holy shrine, which on certain festival days attracts a mass of religious devotees to drive here and queue for up to two hours for perhaps 10 seconds before the shrine.
If you put to the president the locally expressed fears that planning permission and access road would open the door to regular hordes of Hindus every weekend, he says: 'Why would there be more people? Where from? Hindus come when they choose to, they are not made to, he insists. They come on Sundays because it is convenient, not because it is a holy day. They come on six festival days because they are the appropriate festival days for Krishna worship. 'There won't be extra festival days because we have a road.
It is this very lack of control, lack of certainty about the future, that worries the villagers most. They know they have been branded racist, and they recognise that is an effective stick to beat them with, but they insist a quiet village with narrow lanes would not be appropriate for any gathering of thousands of people. They point out that they co-exist contentedly enough with the 150 students and teachers who live or work at the house.
Philip Marsh, 49, chairman of the village trust, says everybody would be content with the present level of activity, if he knew it would not expand. But he believes the sect would not spend pounds 750,000 on a road unless it planned to develop further. They have ignored planning laws so far, he points out.
'Martin Fleming (the original name of Akendadhi Das) is a charming man. I like him and I get on with him. But what might his successor do? And expansion would irrevocably change the village he has known for as long as he can remember.
'I adore the village. I feel it needs looking after. Doesn't it sound silly to say something like that? But it's unique.
Whichever way the councillors decide on Tuesday, the endgame of a long chess match still has moves left to be played. If the planning application is turned down, the Krishna followers will appeal to the Department of the Environment. If it is accepted, it will need the approval of the DOE because it changes green belt land.
Even when that is over, many of the Krishna followers have said that if the gates were locked to visitors, they would still climb over to get close to the shrine. Or they would regularly repeat what they did last Sunday, and honour the shrine from as close as possible, a spot where they would need no planning permission . . .the village green.
But if planning permission is granted, and over the coming years the festivals grow still larger, the decision will return six times a year to haunt them.
It will surprise nobody if the planning committee decides to defer the decision and to look oncemore for a compromise, however unlikely.
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