Turkish devotees and newcomers gathered at the Ashaka Yoga Retreat Center on Büyükada, one of the beautiful Princes’ Islands off the coast of Istanbul for Bhakti Fest, an immersive “temple experience” of Krishna consciousness from September 12th to 15th.
Twenty-seven devotees including some visitors from Cyprus and Hungary stayed for the full duration of the event, while daily guests brought attendance to forty-five by Sunday.
Although that may have been a small group for many ISKCON communities, it was a crowd for Turkey, an Islamic country with very few devotees and no official ISKCON presence.
“In the beginning I was the only devotee here,” says Nrsimha Krishna Das, who organized the event along with his wife Krishna-Mala Dasi and Shri Ram Das. “Now there are about twenty devotees living in Turkey. But there is no temple. So we wanted to gather all the devotees in one place and create an atmosphere that would give them the experience of living in a temple.”
Quiet, secluded, full of beautiful natural vistas, and home to several ancient Christian churches, Büyükada island was the perfect location for the retreat.
For participants, the day started early and was packed with Krishna conscious experiences. Rising at 4:00am, they attended the traditional ISKCON temple program of mangala arati at 4:30am, followed by japa meditation and Guru Puja.
Every day from 7:45 to 9:00, in place of the standard Srimad Bhagavatam lecture, was a seminar by ISKCON guru and GBC Sivarama Swami, who was visiting from Hungary.
Speaking about The Three Modes of Material Nature and how to live unaffected by them, Sivarama Swami emphasized the importance of rising early and executing one’s spiritual practices to start the day off in the mode of goodness, among other practical tips.
After breakfast, served “Vaishnava style” with diners sitting on mats on the floor and servers going from person to person, there was half an hour of free time.
From 10:30am to 1:30pm, retreat participants could choose between music or cooking classes. Jitendriya Das taught traditional kirtan instruments such as mridanga, harmonium and kartals. With senior devotee Manjuali Dasi from Hungary, meanwhile, devotees learned how to cook delicious vegetarian dishes for Lord Krishna.
They then sat together for lunch, tucking into the food they themselves had just prepared. After more free time, they attended a second seminar at 4:00pm. Given by Radha-Krishna Das, temple director at Hungary’s New Vraja Dhama community, it was entitled “How to Live a Better Life.”
“He brought up scientific points on how to live peacefully with a high quality lifestyle, how to behave with each other, and how to connect all this with Krishna consciousness,” says Nrsimha Krishna. “It was a very nice and interactive seminar.”
The last day of Radha Krishna’s seminar featured six short sketches by Hungary’s Vallabhi Kantha Dasi and Turkey’s Bhaktin Elvan, including a piece on the four legs of Dharma – Mercy, Austerity, Truthfulness and Cleanliness – and one on the saint Haridas Thakur.
Every day after Radha Krishna’s seminar were questions and answers with Sivarama Swami, followed by some free time, Gaura Arati kirtan, a light dinner at 8:30pm, and then bed time.
“It was a very tight schedule, almost full from 4:30am to 9:00pm,” Nrsimha Krishna says. “But devotees were very satisfied and happy. And newcomers enjoyed the association of devotees and learned many new things about Bhakti. They also got the chance to purchase devotional clothes, books, and other spiritual items, which is unique in Turkey because we can only sell books at such events, not outside on the street.”
For Nrismha Krishna and his wife, the experience was a very fulfilling one. Looking to the future, he hopes to establish Bhakti Fest as an annual event, and to improve the facilities and organization for devotees based on feedback.
“We had some issues with neighbors at nearby holiday homes complaining about noise, so next year we’re going to find a location where we can have kirtans as loud as we want!” he says. “We also hope to add more elements to the festival – more spice!”
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