Objections to pounds 1.5m road plan could halt pilgrims' progress: The dispute over a controversial Hare Krishna temple has entered a new phase. Andrew Brown reports

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST two deities came from Jaipur 21 years ago. They were not, so to speak, animated until they reached Hertfordshire, where ceremonies were performed to invite Krishna to appear in their forms. That was when the trouble began.

The deities are housed in a large mock-tudor mansion in the village of Letchmore Heath. It is an idyllic place, reached down twisting narrow lanes.

Hindu pilgrims come there from all over the country; as many as 20,000 on major feast days twice a year. Many villagers find this deeply offensive.

Legal skirmishing has continued since George Harrison, the former Beatle, bought the manor in 1973 and gave it to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Hindu sect founded by Bakhtivedanta Swami Prabupada, and better known in the West as the Hare Krishna Movement.

The movement planned to use the place as a theological college, which required no planning permission, since it had been a training college for nurses. But the centrepiece of the college is the deities. Tending them with offerings and devotion is an important part of what the Hindus call theological training. The more successfully they are tended the holier they become, and the more attractive it becomes as a place of pilgrimage.

Neither the villagers nor, perhaps, the Hindus realised in 1973 that permission for a theological college would entail permission for a centre of pilgrimage. Once this became apparent, Hertsmere council demanded the Hindus apply for planning permission for a change of use.

On 16 March this year, the council obtained an exclusion order banning worshippers from the manor. Tonight it will decide whether to apply to have the manor authorities fined for ignoring the order on 30 August, when 20,000 people turned up to celebrate Krishna's birthday.

The authorities claim that they did not advertise the festival, but they cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of devout Hindus and had they locked the gates, the pilgrims would have gathered on the village green.

The council must also decide whether to approve the application for a change of use, if the temple builds its own access road to the A41, thus keeping traffic out of the village. The final decision on this will be taken by the Secretary of State for the Environment after a public inquiry in January.

The temple is confident that it can raise up to pounds 1.5m to buy the land for a new access road, build the road, and fuel its legal campaign. For the Hindus, it has become one of principle, and of freedom of religion. They say their plan takes account of all the legitimate interests of the villagers; and that any further resistance can only be fuelled by a mixture of racism and religious prejudice.

However, Michael Colne, who leads the small Liberal group on the council, opposes the road plan because it would 'transfer the traffic from Letchmore Heath to a different area; one which I happen to represent. It would seem that in any church or mosque or synagogue there has to be a limit on how many people can attend. It just seems . . . unreasonable that there should be an open-ended capacity at the manor. I think that the Krishans have got to give. In return for the right to worship, they must indicate that they can control their own affairs.'

(Photograph omitted)