There are going to be a lot of tears and smiles in Christchurch, New Zealand from March 3rd to 5th.
During what’s set to be an emotional three-day festival, devotees will see their brand new temple open after their old one was destroyed in a devastating 2011 earthquake. And they’ll see their beloved deities, Nitai Gaurachandra, reappear after being smashed to pieces in the disaster.
Devotees first purchased Bealy Manor in 1983, and opened it as a temple in January 1986. Five minutes’ drive from the center of Christchurch, the largest city in New Zealand’s South Island, Bealy Manor was a 100-year-old stately home.
On September 4th, 2010, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch, weakening the structure of the by now 130-year-old building.
Three thousand continual aftershocks followed for the next five-and-a-half months, leaving temple and city residents shaken. Then on February 22nd, 2011, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake came. Although smaller, it hit much closer to the center of Christchurch and was at a shallower depth, so the damage was much worse – 185 people were killed, mostly by collapsing buildings.
The original Sri Sri Nitai Gauracandra
In the temple, pujari Sevananda Das had just finished offering midday arati, and several devotees were singing kirtan when intense tremors began shaking the three-foot marble deities of Sri Sri Nitai Gaurachandra violently.
Sevananda held tightly onto Them to protect Them, but Their Lordships were flung off the altar, taking Sevananda with Them. The heavy wooden altar followed, flying through the air and crashing on the ground, barely missing Sevananda.
“Lying there, dazed, I looked around,” Sevananda told ISKCON News back then. “The Deities had completely shattered, and there was an arm lying here, a foot there, a hand there. In the background, I could hear a devotee wailing, just crying out, ‘No!’ It was the most devastating experience ever.”
Although everyone hoped for a long time that Nitai Gaurachandra could be repaired, it was eventually deemed impossible, and according to custom they were placed in the sea in May 2011.
Regional secretary and former Temple President Kalasamvara Das places Nitai Gaurachandra in the ocean
Meanwhile whole sections of the temple were reduced to rubble, leaving the old building beyond repair.
No devotees were seriously injured, and no one lost their homes. But many had to move out of their houses for months while they were repaired.
“The experience was extremely psychologically traumatic for everyone,” says Mandira Mani, a university lecturer who moved to the Christchurch Hare Krishna community thirty-five years ago when she was six years old and grew up calling it home. “As well as losing our temple and Deities, the tremors continued for years after – to this day in fact – and each time we’d think another earthquake was coming. Everybody was living on edge for years.”
The temple was destroyed beyond repair in the February 2011 earthquake
Still, the Christchurch devotees – a grihasta community balancing families and jobs with their volunteer work – soldiered on. They maintained programs in people’s homes, welcoming visiting sannyasis and other senior devotees, and held Sunday Feasts every week at the local Ferrymeade community hall.
Meanwhile, they worked hard to build a new temple. With the insurance company in dire straits after the earthquake, it took years to get the insurance payout. Then they had to navigate building permissions red-tape, designs, and liasing with engineers and architects.
“Specifically it’s all down to the efforts of our temple president Ramanuja Prabhu,” says Mandira Mani. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have a new temple. He saved us thousands of dollars by doing the research and finding cost-effective ways of doing things. And he’s been on the building site for twelve hours every day for the past year-and-a-half.”
Mandira Mani, who grew up in the Hare Krishna community in Christchurch, with her children Nadia Caitanya and Nila Madhava
Mandira Mani also got involved, helping to raise money for the shortfall through a Facebook campaign. A GBC construction grant helped, too.
The old temple was demolished, and a groundbreaking ceremony for the new temple was held in January 2015. Construction began later that year, with the new temple rising on the same ideally located site as the beloved old temple.
The new temple is modern and spacious, with a large prasadam hall, an industrial kitchen, a huge, beautiful temple room with a wrap-around balcony, big windows, deity kitchen and service areas, and offices.
Temple president Ramanuja Das shows visiting devotees around the new temple’s building site in April 2016
In contrast to the old temple, it is ecologically built to save money on heating and cooling – a very important feature in New Zealand’s always fluctuating island weather. It is also, of course, designed to withstand any future earthquakes.
The new temple will open with a grand festival from Friday March 3rd to Sunday March 5th. Around 400 devotees are expected.
On the first day, Sri Sri Nitai Gaurachandra will reappear in a wonderful installation ceremony. The story behind Their reappearance is astonishing.
The new temple will be ecologically designed and earthquake resistant
“Our original Deities, installed in 1986, were three feet tall marble Gaura Nitai Deities,” says Mandira Mani. “At the same time as They were purchased for our temple, an identical set of Deities was purchased for the temple in Auckland, on the North Island. They planned to replace their small brass Gaura Nitai with large marble Deities to match their marble Radha Krishna.”
But when the Auckland devotees decided they didn’t want to replace their brass Gaura Nitai after all because Srila Prabhupada had installed Them, the new Deities remained in storage in a devotee’s cupboard for 31 years.
“…Until now,” says Mandira Mani. “They are the exact same size as our original Nitai Gaurachandra, fit all Their old clothes, have identical features and were carved by the same craftsman! It’s some kind of mystical arrangement.”
The new temple is spacious and modern
After the installation ceremony, various devotees who were present at the Christchurch temple’s original opening in 1986 will share their memories. They include former temple presidents Kalasamvara Das and Alalanath Das, and Mandira Mani’s mother Karunika Dasi, who sewed the installation outfit for the original Deities and will sew the new Deities’ installation outfit too.
On Saturday, the building will be officially opened with local government representatives attending, and there will be a Harinama in the city center. On Sunday, and throughout, there will be much chanting and feasting.
The new temple and its facilities represent a chance for the community – which has shrunk down over the past few years – to expand and have a presence in Christchurch again.
Devotees help onsite at the new temple
But most of all, it will be an emotional rebirth for the Christchurch devotees.
“The old temple was the site of all my happiest memories as a child and young adult,” says Mandira Mani. “So for me, and many others, this new temple is like our new home. And now that I have my own children, I’m so glad that they’ll have a temple they can be a part of too. After everything the devotees here have been through, we’re all so excited!”