Getting the opportunity to be a part of building a traditional Krishna temple does not come even once in a lifetime. It did not appear in my wildest dreams!
In 1999, when I first heard about the idea of constructing a replica of the Guruvayurappan kshetram [temple] in N. America, it stirred up a lot of memories… It took me back to my childhood days in Trichur… The late night kathakali performance in Sankarankulangara Bhagavathy kshetram, of which I mostly slept through… The morning ritual of walking to Poonkunnam Siva kshetram, when a snake slid past between my legs… The daily walks with my grandfather around Vadakkunathan kshetram watching the boisterous card players. Once we were outside the temple when an elephant ran amok inside. We stood and watched police clambering up the massive walls and positioning themselves on top trying to shoot the tusker! Another time during Trissur pooram an elephant in front of Paramekkavu kshetram turned around and caused a minor stampede!
For whom the bell tolls
My idea of a kshetram was deep-rooted in such memories. The Poonkunnam Siva kshetram was usually deserted in the mornings; the pambumkavu gave me the chills. The constantly flickering leaves of the giant aalmaram sent shivers up my spine. But everything came together at night, on days when lamps were lit around the chuttambalam, which cooled my soul.
Could I get the attention of the gods by ringing the bells? There’s a designated ringer of bells in schools. Did temples have such a person? I had always wondered what the thread-wearing god-men did inside the sreekovil with the doors shut!
Glimmer of an idea
Building any temple from the glimmer of an idea takes superhuman effort, tons of resources, and a few miracles! It requires dogged persistence, undying passion, razor-sharp focus, and incredible commitment over a long stretch of time. Trying to pitch this temple to a community so small, at the time where everyone knew each other, was a gargantuan task.
Perhaps the actual foundation behind the idea was laid when a few devoted elders of the community purchased a parcel of land in Brampton, north of Torbram and Countryside. A place so far away at the time that I wondered if the investment itself would appreciate in 10 years.
Then came a phone call one night from the one of elders. “We are having the first public meeting to discuss the Guruvayurappan temple. You should come.” The open session generated more questions in my mind than there were answers.
To get answers for some of these concerns I went to the source. I approached the spokesman of a core group of people who volunteered a good part of their time and money to keep this vision burning in people’s minds. In nautical terms one can liken Dr. P. Karunakaran Kutty to a captain. The ship he steered along with the core group, the able guidance of Thirumeni, and dedicated volunteers at the oars went through many a stormy sea of strong emotions. And on 3 July 2019, one can say that the ship reached the promised land!
This interview with Dr. Karunakaran Kutty was conducted a few weeks before the Prathishta ceremony [3-16 July 2019] at the Guruvayurappan Temple of Brampton.
What prompted you to embark on this journey to build a temple and how did the idea begin to take shape?
A bunch of us from Kerala when we got together would go to different temples. But we felt that we were missing something. It was not the traditional experience of what we were used to in Kerala, something that closely resembled a Guruvayurappan, Sivan, or Ayyappan temple in Kerala. The more we talked the more we got frustrated; finally we decided to do something about it.
But we did not know how to start the process. There were no elders to advise us. All we knew was that we needed land. We also wanted it to be within the city [Brampton] limits. The options were to buy land and build or get an old building and convert it. But any thantri[priest] from Kerala will not allow the conversion; we knew that they would insist on building a traditional Hindu temple from the ground up.
The search for suitable land took us to many places. Either land was not available or it was too costly. Then we came across a 10.4 acre [current location at Torbram and Countryside Road, Brampton] land with agricultural zoning that was up for sale. It had a provision that in the future this could be used for institutional development including place of worship. We bought it and allowed a Sardar gentleman to farm there on a temporary basis. Later we applied for a zone change which took a long time. By then the secondary planning came into effect.
When we [the core group with 24 others from communities including Gujarati, Tamil, and Kannada] bought it, the asking price was $650,000. After registration and other expenses it came to $741,000. We gave the deposit [our own money and some borrowed to facilitate the deal], and purchased the land. We then divided it into 140 odd shares of $5000 each with each shareholder holding 3-6 shares. We also agreed that we will give two acres of land free of cost to the temple. All shareholders put up the money so there was no need to borrow capital.
Why Guruvayurappan temple…?
Everyone who went to Kerala, especially from Malabar and Cochin, goes to Guruvayur. We knew that there was a Guruvayur temple in New Delhi and Bombay [Mumbai] and thought that would work here.
The idea to start the temple was a collective one. But someone had to take the first steps. Bhasi [Bhaskaran Menon] was our guide and had great knowledge in the local administration, finances, and legalities which helped us greatly in charting our constitution and bylaws. We registered Guruvayur Corporation to purchase the land and later registered Guruvayurappan temple of Brampton and got its charitable status.
There were a lot of hurdles in getting the project through, but there was also a lot of support from other communities. Then slowly we began to spread the word and started adding chapters in the USA and Canada. To finance the project we came up with the idea of raising money by way of medallions, life-time Pooja, donations, etc.
At any point did you think this may be an impossible task?
Lots of times… Probably the first time was when we realised that the land was not enough. By then shareholders had already agreed on the two acres of land as donation.
In a temple design there is a concept called the mathilakamor the distance from the prathistain all directions. This area should be kept sacred and has no place for washrooms, etc. Since this distance extends all the way to the perimeter we had to build the washrooms underground. We had also thought about building a small conference room and kitchen downstairs but additional capital was hard to procure. Now we have difficulty in accommodating a large number of devotees. We have to use neighbouring schools for [additional] parking and meeting facilities.
Besides the two acres donated to the temple, the city took almost an acre for constructing the road. About seven odd acres were sold by the shareholders; the investors got their money back and made a decent profit. While nobody lost any money, Guruvayurappan and the devotees gained a temple. Now the land itself has gained in value to $2.5 million per acre.
Financing was always an issue. The board asked the community for deposits for which we were ready to pay 4% interest but the response was low. Some of us had to advance money using our personal credit line and a few of us put up $50,000. Devotee loans started to come in and eventually we had about $3 million. Along with that we borrowed from a private lender at more than 8% interest. That’s how we were able to finish construction of Phase 1 and 2.
How would you compare the timeline it took to build this temple with the temples in Dallas and Houston?
Land is much cheaper there and regulations are less strict in the US. Plus there is a larger community of devotees and professionals.
We knew that there was a group of people in Chicago who were interested in building a Guruvayurappan temple in Chicago. Then about 10 years ago we went for a KHNA [Kerala Hindus of North America] conference in Ontario, California. There we met groups from Dallas and Houston who were also interested in building a Guruvayurappan temple.
By then we had brought Thirumeni [Kariannur Divakaran Namboothiri who later became their thantrias well] here. We collaborated with them and they learned a lot from our journey to build the temple with Vezheparamban as the vasthu expert. When we started planning we had a Vietnamese contractor who was also an architect. To familiarise him with the architecture we took him to some of the Hindu temples in New Jersey and other places.
Since we were constructing the temple from scratch it took a much longer time. Finding the best course of action between the local building regulations and adhering to the strict codes of building a traditional Kerala temple was a long process.
The weather was another big factor. In Dallas and Houston the actual temple is exposed, but here we had to have a structure on top of the temple to protect it from the harsh weather and contain the actual temple inside. We followed the guidelines of Kerala temple construction starting from the preparation of the soil called ‘bhooparigraham’ [asking the permission of the land], and many other processes including soil testing, archaeological excavations. Each traditional process was guided by Vezheparamban and Thirumeni.
We had three ‘karishanams’! Each ‘karishanam’ has a validity of three years and the actual temple had to be built within that time. Since the timeline got stretched we had to do it three times waiting for the city permissions and site plan! All these factors added to the overall timeline.
The temporary temple in Caledon and the shifting of the temple to Father Tobin Road … What was the reason to have it in Caledon in the first place? Why was it shifted to Brampton?
One of the reasons we thought of Caledon was … the farmhouse was there and originally the City of Caledon was willing to give us permission to build the temple. But then the ministry declared that area as a green belt and the city backed out on the decision. But they gave us permission to conduct religious activities in a low key.
[The request for changing locations] was a demand from the community. It was a long way for some of the devotees to travel. Traffic was a problem. Attendance was very low.
The City of Brampton knew about all these issues and gave us permission to relocate to a strip plaza in Father Tobin Road till the new temple was constructed.
What was the reason to get Divakaran Namboothiri from India?
He is a pious, simple, and dedicated gentleman highly knowledgeable and educated in thantramand he was teaching in the thantraminstitutes. He was the youngest melshanthiin Guruvayur. And he was a leading figure in conducting poojas in Kerala and had a great reputation. Besides he was in Washington, US for sometime.
His name came up many times during our initial discussions and was highly recommended. When we met him we realised his depth of knowledge and his vision was matching what we were looking for. His acceptance was a blessing in disguise and he continues to be a role model for all of us. Many temples in the US also seek his advice on various rituals.
How close were the specifications to the final structure as prescribed by Vezheparamban Namboothiri?
Throughout the process of building the temple Thirumeni had consulted Vezheparamban and together they have adapted the design to suit the city’s regulations. I can safely say that this is one of the few temples outside Kerala that has been constructed according to the agama shastramand temple construction guidelines. Except for the chuttambalamand valiyambalamwe have followed all the other specifications including the dimension of the doors. The sprinkler system is new to the design that was added. In some of the areas where wood would be used we had used concrete [same designs as in a Kerala temple] which was a second option and this helped with the fire regulation.
The city also has compromised and allowed us to build the temple according to our specifications without breaking any of the codes and laws. They also wanted the institution to be one of a kind architecturally so that it would be an attraction as well. Susan Fennell, Brampton mayor at the time, welcomed the unique features of the temple and said that this would be a landmark building which would be the talk of the city for a long time.
Gopi Menon adds, “John Sprovieri, former councillor of Brampton, has helped us quite a lot manoeuvring things through the city council, getting our first public hearing in the council chambers and subsequent hearings at various stages. He also wanted to know more about Hinduism and karma although he could not quite get the karma part of it… He even went to Kerala as part of the city delegation touring various cities in India including Cochin.”
What was the budget projection in the initial stages and how much did it actually cost at this point of completion?
Without taking the land into consideration, as it’s an asset, we have spent about $6 million. The prathistha ceremony will be another $500,000. Of this we have borrowed around $3 million from the bank. The devotee loans are pending, all other amounts we have paid back. We want to pay back the loans within five years and make it debt free for generations to come.
Initially we were given permission to raise $5 million; at that time we did not know [how much it would take to build]. If we go to the minutes of the meetings we will find projections from $1.5 million! At one point it reached $7 million; it was the time when the BAPS temple had come into being.
Monthly generation of $20,000 from poojas would help in running the temple. To pay back and service the loans we need $20,000 a month. In the future if we can generate about $1 million every year, it would be a good revenue for the temple.
At what point did you feel that this would finally be a reality?
Every day was a surprise! When devotees started to give loans things started to look up. When we [shareholders] sold the rest of the property many of them allowed the board to take the money as a loan. That gave us the confidence. At the time we started the process it was a big risk. There was criticism about the rest of the land being sold at a profit. But this is how a venture is financed and some of us took the risk at that time to put our own money into the venture and kept it for nine years without any interest.
In retrospect I can say He [Guruvayurappan] gave us the courage to run ahead with the idea. Now that there is something tangible the community has realised that the dream is actually taking shape before their eyes!
What words of wisdom would you give the younger generation of our community to get them to visit the temple on a consistent basis?
There has to be a focus, there has to be hope. Parents have to tell their children and children themselves… I want the children to get involved. And we want to make this an institution for social gatherings, counselling, respect, providing backup support for the elderly, caring for each other, human relationships, food kitchen, etc. Also, on a larger scale, as a community we want to be a part of the social fabric by contributing to larger institutions like parks and hospitals. Our children should be our guide on what we should do for the community and support them in their journey to make it a better place.
Has this experience made you a stronger person emotionally and in faith?
Yes and no! I do get emotional talking about it. That’s my passion. At the same time I am confident. We did not think we would be able to build this temple. When we bought the land we were confident. I was in India when Bhasi called me about the land. We immediately gave an advance of $50,000 and secured it. He took the leadership. I was the emotional strength for him. Ram and Gopi, even if they are not very vocal, along with the energy powerhouse Vishwam …. The five of us worked together well all these years. Now we want to take a back seat as trustee board and let the younger generation take over.
Are there any plans for expansion like a hall or multi-storeyed parking?
That’s another dream we have. Once we pay the loans and mortgage we will raise money for a multi-storey parking, community hall, and banquet hall. We will look into securing another mortgage for this at the time.
Are you satisfied with the way things have progressed? If someone asked for your leadership in building another temple, what would you say?
Ha, ha! I will tell you what we will not go through… the land has to be sufficiently large. That’s one mistake we made as we did not know then. Then there should be a good support group. Once these are there then it’s not that difficult.