The aroma of cumin, turmeric, fennel and cloves grows stronger as we walk through the crowded parking lot towards the ISKCON of Houston in Oak Forest, its towering temple domes glowing overhead like beacons in the night. Sounds of chatter, chanting, bells and drums join the fragrance drifting from the entrance of the temple’s multicultural center.
Inside, a line has formed for the Sunday Love Feast, which begins promptly at 7:30 p.m. The completely vegetarian, South Asian–style meal is always open to the public—along with the meditation and Bhagavad Gita class that precedes it—and tonight’s queue is filled with Krishna followers and visitors alike.
For Hare Krishnas, food is as much an expression of faith as the prayers they chant in their well-known, 16-word mantra: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” Food prepared with love and devotion is said to inspire the same in those who consume it—as long as it’s offered to Krishna first in acknowledgement of the cerulean-skinned deity’s omnipotence.
Dinner is served cafeteria-style, and volunteers greet us with a friendly “Hare Krishna” before spooning food onto our plastic plates. Inside a great hall, we find a spot on the floor where white-and-purple-striped running cloths are laid out in place of tables. Adults catch up over dinner, while youngsters run through the hall and teenagers sit poring over homework.
We’re nibbling on parathas between bites of spicy dal, white rice, rajma chawal and cinnamon couscous when a man wearing a simple grey beanie and linen robes sits down in front of us, introducing himself as Krishna Kripa. Before long, the 58-year-old priest, who formerly worked in marketing, has covered an array of topics: Oak Forest property values, the purpose of the pouch of wooden beads around his neck (for praying), the ISKCON’s mission, even the meaning of life itself (progression towards a higher spiritual plain).
After dinner, Kripa and his wife lead us across a manicured lawn into the heart of the 24,000-square-foot temple. “We have to go pick up my uncle from the airport, but please come to our son’s wedding this Saturday,” says Kripa’s wife, who has also invited several other people during our brief walk. Once inside the dazzling structure, its ivory ceiling carved into a massive, three-dimensional lotus flower and its walls decorated with paintings of azure-hued Krishna, we watch the night’s worship service come to a rousing close.
We sit near a group of young Krishna devotees, Kripa’s son among them, singing elegantly in time with a pulsing mridangam drum and wheezy harmonium. Their chants echo warmly while devotees come and go, laying prostrate in front of the altar that houses a human-sized statue of Krishna—here, painted the dark blue of a night sky—and his female manifestation, the golden-toned Radha, to say their nightly prayers.
Finally, a priest in saffron robes wafts incense around the statues as he sends them to bed for the evening (ceremonially, at least), and then trumpets into a large, heavy conch shell to end the worship service. Thick, green velvet curtains close across the altar, and everyone files out for the evening. For the first time, the temple is silent.