From cow shed to a $2 million temple, the lovable monkey god gets a new Taos home

Hindu deity's new space is a divine blend of sacred architecture and the Southwest

By Amy Boaz
forum@taosnews.com
Posted 7/3/19

A beloved monkey deity in Hinduism, Hanuman is cunning and mighty, known as the reliever of suffering as well as the perfect servant to Ram--God. Even in India, where he …

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From cow shed to a $2 million temple, the lovable monkey god gets a new Taos home

Hindu deity's new space is a divine blend of sacred architecture and the Southwest

Posted

A beloved monkey deity in Hinduism, Hanuman is cunning and mighty, known as the reliever of suffering as well as the perfect servant to Ram--God. Even in India, where he originates, Hanuman has rarely taken on such an appealing form as the statue that embodies him here in Taos - housed in what once was a cow shed off Geronimo Lane, for the last 38 years.

His humble adobe and viga-lined temple room is visited by droves of people from around the country and the world. They bring offerings of bananas and other fruit and sweets to lay in front of the 1,647-pound statue, stroke his marble limbs and pray, sing and ring bells. He has been patiently waiting for a permanent home.

Soon he will be moved into his new mandir, or temple, a wondrous round construction joined to the current ashram by an elegant covered walkway - and crowned by an elliptical dome painted a dreamy blue evoking the sky. Hanuman's new temple will see its inauguration in a three-day celebration beginning July 13 at 4 a.m.

The statue, or murti, depicting the monkey god as flying across the seas wearing Ram's ring, found its way here eventually in 1981 by devotees of Neem Karoli Baba (or "Maharaji-ji"), who had inspired many temples built to Hanuman back in India - and died in 1973. The Taos farmland belonged to Vishnu Magee, a former devotee who offered to house the Hanuman statue temporarily in his cow barn. Gradually the site was transformed into the serenely rambling 11-acre Neem Karoli Baba Ashram, as it is known today.

Garnering the "will and the money" to build a proper mandir to Hanuman took longer than anyone could imagine. "We made a lot of tries over the years," explained the man who has been instrumental in making that new mandir materialize --John Kane, the vice president of the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram's board of directors. He is generally revered around the place as Hanuman-Das, or "servant to the servant."

With short white hair, glasses, wearing a polo shirt and jeans, Kane stands out like a friendly emeritus professor from the parade of grizzled, somewhat colorful, hirsute local devotees and curious out-of-towners who lined up June 30 for the habitual Sunday lunch served in the ashram's open-air canteen. The periodic shrieks of peacocks and chants of children punctuated the warm summer day. The ashram's mission is a kind of all-inclusive loving community of selfless service (seva) - with an emphasis on feeding everyone.

'The magic formula'

Part of the group of devotees that originally brought the Hanuman murti to Taos, Kane has been trying since 1986 to get the Hanuman temple project off the ground but didn't have both the "will and the money."

Originally from California, Kane moved around a lot as a kid because his dad was in the Air Force. He first encountered the Hindu monkey deity Hanuman on a poster in a head shop in Chicago ­-­ "I was transfixed," he recounted, and went home with the poster and did some research on the work of Neem Karoli Baba.

What was the magic formula to getting the temple finally built?

"A lot of pieces came together," Kane explained. "Finally the board was 100% behind it. Some of the issues had to do with getting a permit from the county - not the town of Taos." And when they narrowed down an architect's designs in 2012, by California architect Robb Simonson, the "guestimate" was $800,000. Kane suggested that if he could raise 30% of that, they could start construction--and indeed, a $100,000 windfall was received from an anonymous donor who had a "spiritual experience."

Subsequently, since the construction started in 2016, contractor Scott MacHardy of Pumice-Crete Building Systems of New Mexico acknowledged that the money appears in dribs and drabs. MacHardy had some experience in sacred architecture, having built a mosque here in Taos, and he noted, "I was also was willing to reduce my business profit and overhead charge some for the opportunity and privilege to work on such a cool project."

A 'wonderful challenge' for a builder

Indeed, the temple - nearing completion in one week - is a marvelous blending of Southwest construction - in terms of local sources and skilled craftspeople - and materials from India, such as rare 200-year-old carved teak logs forming the shrine's columns and marble. The walls themselves are not adobe but an energy-efficient volcanic aggregate from the Jemez Mountains, pumice-crete, which is mixed with cement and water (a soft mandarin pigment is added, not paint - thanks to the skill of a local craftswoman) and then coated with two coats of fine gypsum and burnished to be "as soft as a baby's butt," as Kane described. This was confirmed on touch.

MacHardy had the "wonderful challenge" of adhering both to traditional and modern construction. For example, on the one hand, everything had to be calculated to the measurement of "sacred geometry," i.e., divisible by nine (the 18 ribs in the elliptical dome) and adhering to "Vastu shastra," or the Hindu version of feng shui; and on the other hand, in terms of radiant heat, LED lighting, breathable walls, everything needed to be energy efficient and low-maintenance.

Over the two-plus years of construction, when MacHardy would ask Kane what materials he should use, Kane would reply: "What will last 300 years?"

Along with the help of his two able-bodied sons, Evan and Wes, MacHardy was able to draw from the wealth of local craftspeople such as stone cutters and plasterers. "There are a lot of local artists and builders," added MacHardy, "harkening back to the Pueblo."

'People come for refuge'

Kane acknowledged that the reception by the neighbors over the years - including a former mayor and retired sheriff - of the influx of non-Hispanic alternative ("hippie") types ran warm and cold. "Some individuals could be hostile, but also very welcoming," Kane said. "Some people can't quite make that leap, and that's OK." Neighbors have been worried about the increase in traffic among the tiny lanes of the La Loma neighborhood.

However, Kane did emphasize that the ashram's devotees win supporters by their peaceable conduct - and alcohol and drugs are forbidden.

"People come here for refuge," said Kane. "To relax and pray."

Ultimately, the cost of Hanuman's mandir will be over $2 million--including the landscaping and solar panels. Kane maintained that the ashram is close to paying it off.

"Our guru said never to ask for money," said Kane. "I can only say what it is that we are doing and I can't say, 'Please give.' But only 'Thank you.' "

When asked why Taos was chosen as the perfect spot for Hanuman, Kane answered thoughtfully: "It has a similar feeling to many places in India. The terrain has a vibrational quality."

Is Hanuman happy here?

"He is certainly being well cared for," interjected Mac- Hardy.

The celebrations will begin at 4 a.m. on Saturday, July 13, and will go through Wednesday, July 17. Visit the ashram's website at nkbashram.org.

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