LEADING ARTICLE: Hindus to the manor borne

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The appearance of 20,000 robed and painted pilgrims at a Hindu shrine in the middle of an English hamlet (population 247 plus blacksmith) would make a magnificent comedy film if anyone could be found to believe it. As true life, it is rather messi er. But the planning inquiry gathering evidence in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, so that the Secretary of State for the Environment can make a final decision on the future of Bakhtivedanta Manor, is dealing with real questions, however surreal they may app ear.

Thousands of pilgrims have in fact been turning up in the tiny village of Letchmore Heath, in the heart of the green belt just to the north of London, six times a year for the last decade.

The villagers' resentment is easy to understand. Planning permission was originally granted for what was rather disingenuously described as a theological college when George Harrison gave the manor to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1973. No one seemed to realise then that an important part of the duty of these trainee priests would be the care and attendance of the resident deities.

These statues grew in holiness the more they were tended, and so became objects of mass pilgrimage. This development, natural and pleasing to the Hindus, was a matter of horror to many of the local residents. The pious might find merit in queuing in their cars for hours along country lanes in order to spend 20 seconds in a room full of deities; the merit was less obvious to those who live along the lanes, and have paid well for the privilege.

After many attempts at compromise, the temple authorities have responded with an imaginative scheme to build their own road to the manor from the nearby A41, which ought to keep all the traffic away from the village. This the local council opposes, because it is quite clear that many of the villagers no longer trust any compromise. They fear that the temple plans to attract pilgrims without limit.

Planning law is an exceptionally obtuse instrument with which to decide questions of religious freedom. But this very obtuseness also suits it to the English tradition of compromise (and the Hindu tradition of syncretism). If the temple's proposals are rejected by Mr Gummer, the only alternative would be to attempt to enforce the present ban on festivals, which is honoured by both manor and council with carefully calculated breaches. Attempting to enforce the ban might well lead to violence and would certainly do more harm than any number of festivals. But in the temple's expected triumph should lie a warning to other villages. They are unlikely to be as tolerant as Letchmore Heath once was.