Construction in Progress at ISKCON Salem, Tamil Nadu
By Basu Ghosh Das ACBSP (Baroda – IN)
Salem is a town in Tamil Nadu with almost a million (“ten lakhs”) residents and is a reputed business center, with a large retail market in gold ornaments and jewelry. The anglicized word “Salem” comes from the Samskrita word “Shailam”, or “hill.” There is a well-known “hill station” that was popularized during the days of British rule, Yercaud, located twenty-five kilometers from Salem at a height of just under four thousand feet. It remains a popular place for summer visitors.
Located two hundred kilometers southeast of Bangalore, Salem is home to a very enthusiastic group of ISKCON devotees, mostly young brahmacharis, who have recently relocated to a new property, a three-acre plot of land, just a half kilometer from Periyaar University and the Government Engineering college (which is part of the reason they purchased land in this area). Gokul Chandra Prabhu, a towering six-foot, five-inch tall Croatian brahmachari, who’s been residing in India for the past thirteen years, is the temple manager. These devotees have been inspired by H.H. Bhakti Vikas Swami Maharaj, and are working under his guidance and with his blessings.
The new land is located just three kilometers outside Salem, off the main highway to Bangalore, well known as the Bangalore-Madurai highway, which is in the process of being upgraded to a four-lane highway. There’s tremendous economic development going on along both sides of the highway and land prices are “shooting through the ceiling”. It’s a great boon to ISKCON to have been able to acquire this large piece of private land “timely.”
One of the most interesting aspects of this new construction is that Gokul Chandra Prabhu has been inspired to use “traditional” building materials — for the most part, but with a few exceptions — to construct the “ashram” buildings, including a few residential huts, a temporary temple, a library and a kitchen.
The foundations of these buildings were made with large, cut stones cemented with “natural” limestone mortar — unmixed with modern cements. The limestone mortar is prepared by mixing limestone powder with fermented sugar cane juice. This limestone mortar seems to be very sandy and porous after it dries. However, after the initial setting, water is poured on the mixture daily for three weeks as a part of a curing process, and thereafter it bonds fully and becomes as hard as a rock.
On top of these foundations, “sun-dried” bricks are employed to construct the walls. All these bricks are made by hand, and all just by one “skilled working couple” — who work on a commission basis — they are paid for the number of bricks they manufacture. The bricks are a combination of local earth, red clay that’s brought in from outside, and some straw. The bricks are harder, heavier, and stronger than the usual “fired” bricks used in modern construction. Walls made with these bricks need to be fully plastered before it rains; otherwise, yes, they will “melt away.” Therefore, these walls must be quickly plastered, again with the same combination of powered limestone and fermented sugar cane juice! This mixture bonds the limestone powder. Once this limestone mortar is plastered onto the walls, and then cured by watering, daily for three weeks, the limestone mortar becomes as hard as a rock. Water just doesn’t penetrate the plastered wall thereafter for years. And no modern cement is required in the process.
In two of the huts, on top of the stone foundation, mud walls were also constructed that are three feet wide. Then on top of these mud walls, sun dried brick walls were laid up to the ceiling height. The labor to construct the mud walls was done by the brahmacharis themselves and was exhausting work. The reason it was exhausting is that large quantities of mud are put on top of the foundation, by manual labor. After applying about a foot of mud, there is a waiting period for the mud to dry, before more mud is applied. Totally, the mud wall, which becomes much stronger than the sun-dried brick wall, goes up about three feet high, and thereafter, sun dried bricks are used. However, since it was a very difficult task to perform, only two of the huts were constructed using these type of mud walls. The rest were constructed using the sun dried bricks from the foundation upwards.
One of the special points in using these traditional materials for construction, besides their being totally natural, is that they keep the interior of the buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter, unlike modern construction methods that uses various types of cement and cement plaster, in place of this old method that uses powdered limestone. It’s seen that the modern constructions built with modern materials absorb heat in the summer and reflect heat in the winter. In the hot climate found throughout India’s plains regions, this is an important consideration that was employed exclusively in the past. It’s sad that’s it’s being forgotten nowadays.
Another interesting aspect of the construction of these buildings is that wooden-roof framing was used, upon which ceramic tiles, brought from nearby Kerala State, were fitted. These types of traditional roofing were very common in many parts of South India, and they can be made totally waterproof, which is very important in view of the annual monsoon season. Salem is unique in that it gets heavy rain in both the “Southwest monsoon,” like most of the rest of India (the Southwest monsoon season has already started in much of India as I write this) and the “Northeast monsoon” that specifically visits most of Tamil Nadu — to the exclusion of most of the rest of India — from October to December, annually.
Gokul Chandra Prabhu envisions constructing a large temple on the property after finishing the present “ashram” buildings, which are almost half completed at the time of this writing. The “Math” foundation work, ashram huts, temporary temple, kitchen, library and guest-room huts were works in progress when I visited Salem in May.
One aspect of preaching in Salem is a weekly television show entitled “The Science of Self Realization”, where a lecture on Bhagavad-gita is presented, either in Tamil or if the speaker (like myself) doesn’t know Tamil, then it’s translated into Tamil. This program has been broadcast regularly, each Friday at one p.m. — and it is seen by thousands of local residents of Salem — for the past seven years! The show has done much to spread ISKCON’s message locally. Viewers are given a chance to telephone the television station and ask pertinent questions to the devotee speaker or guest speaker — I was recently on the show — live, each week.
There are regular programs for the university and college students, plus regular satsangas at the famous “Salem Steel Factory,” which is the largest stainless-steel manufacturing unit in India.
Anyone interested in any aspect of the project can contact Gokul Chandra Prabhu via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: +91-94421-51492 or visit ISKCON Salem directly.
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