The Krishna Temple Thriving in Mormon Country
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sometimes religion attracts religion — even if it’s different.
By Laura Siciliano-Rosen
The ornate Hindu temple complex is perched on a hill next to a llama farm, rugged mountains rising in the distance. Inside, a group of us on a tour remove our shoes. A Krishna devotee leads us up the stairs to a large metal bell at the temple’s entrance and rings it once as if announcing dinner. “That’s the sound of om,” he says, noting that many Hindu temples in India have such a bell. Only we aren’t in India: We’re in Utah.
In Spanish Fork — part of Utah County, which is 82 percent Mormon — the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple is a surreal sight. Believed to be the only example of Rajasthani architecture in the U.S., the temple, which opened in 2001, looks straight out of India, with scalloped archways, soaring domes and a hand-carved teak altar. A place of worship for Hare Krishnas — devotees of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism — in the middle of Mormon country, the temple runs religious services but largely functions as a tourist destination. Visitors will find tours, a llama farm and bird sanctuary, yoga classes, a vegetarian Indian buffet and huge festival celebrations. It’s been so well received that in August the owners opened a second temple in Salt Lake City, the more religiously diverse state capital.
The adorable llamas, which visitors can pet and feed, are another big draw.
According to Caru Das, the Pennsylvania native who founded the temple with his wife, Vaibhavi Devi, after years of world travel, it was a small AM radio station for sale that brought them to rural Spanish Fork in 1982. Its location, on five scenic acres just south of Brigham Young University, had already proven fertile religious ground. As Caru recounts, it was routine practice for Krishna devotees to visit college libraries to sell sets of spiritual masters books, and whereas most U.S. colleges bought one to three sets, in 1978 BYU bought 18. “It impressed me that the people in Utah were six times more pious, or more interested in God, than elsewhere,” he says with a laugh.
Indeed, when he and Vai built the temple years later — a five-year, $1.2 million project — the LDS Foundation, the charitable arm of the LDS Church, gave them a $25,000 grant. Hundreds of BYU students volunteered unskilled labor to help build the temple.
“We like to think they wrapped their arm around our shoulders like a big brother would to a smaller brother, and they kind of look out for us,” Caru says.
The actual Hare Krishna community remains small in the Utah Valley, with about 60 families being regular members, Caru estimates. Rather than try to build a large congregation in Mormon territory — “We’re not trying to convert anyone,” he says — the owners focused on making the temple a destination for tourists and school groups, and a festival venue. Some 20,000 people come just for the annual springtime Holi festival, or Festival of Colors, a celebration they’ve expanded to nine U.S. cities.
Utah Valley resident Joann Lundbeck has visited several times, for the delicious inexpensive buffet, the palm readings and the Festival of Colors, which she calls a fun “check the box” activity. “The increase in popularity brings heavy traffic, lack of parking and long lines,” she says, adding that the additional Holi festival at the new Salt Lake City temple may help alleviate that.
There’s plenty on offer here for the average guest, regardless of denomination. “It’s unexpected but very cool! I enjoyed the food they prepared and the experience of doing yoga in a real temple,” says Jess Newman, who visited from Florida this summer. The adorable llamas, which visitors can pet and feed, are another big draw. And, of course, the unique opportunity to be temporarily immersed in a world apart from the surrounding Wasatch Mountains.
Go There: Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple
- Location: The original Spanish Fork temple, about an hour’s drive south of Salt Lake City International Airport, is located at 311 W. 8500 S. (map). Find the new Salt Lake City temple at 965 E. 3370 S., in Millcreek (map). Both temples are open daily from 10 am to 8 pm.
- Cost: The temple is free to enter, but donations are suggested for any tours, classes or meals.
- Pro tip: Time your visit to Spanish Fork with a meal at Govinda’s Vegetarian Buffet (daily, 11 am–7 pm), located on the ground floor — it’s blessed daily by Lord Krishna and is absolutely legit. For a suggested donation of $6 per adult, you can fill up on various curries and rice dishes, spicy samosas and crispy papadums. Try the delicate semolina halwa, if available. (For the spice averse, there’s usually a pasta dish, plus plenty of salad and fruit options.)
- Laura Siciliano-Rosen, OZY Author Contact Laura Siciliano-Rosen