On a hot Sunday, I drive past pastures of waist-high weeds and clusters of bushy trees along Dickerson Street toward the east side’s Fisher Mansion, once a palace of lush decadence and now home to the Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center, where Michigan Hare Krishnas meet to worship ancient Vedic scriptures and the god Krishna in her and his bi-gender glory.
Passing ornate iron gates and over a lush lawn, I enter the mansion and remove my shoes. The home was built in 1927 for $2 million by an auto aristocrat, Lawrence Fisher, president of Cadillac Motors and party bachelor extraordinaire. The place doesn’t disappoint. Lore has it that Elvis and Jean Harlow reveled in the gilded estate. An orange sculpted tile of Neptune’s face greets visitors, though I’m saddened it doesn’t still spew champagne from the mouth, once a flirting hint at the delights to come in Fisher’s elaborate edifice, where bowling, golfing and indoor swimming could be enjoyed and parties went on for days.
As I enter, people chant and pray. A man drops to the floor. He bows to a disturbingly lifelike statue of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Indian who brought Hare Krishna to the West, via New York City, in 1965.
As the service begins, people crowd into what was once the Grand Ballroom. Chanting amplifies. Five flames are lit in an old lantern; a man tosses flowers from the altar.
Hare Krishnas say chanting cleanses dust from the mirror of the soul. I now stand in a room with 70 people who chant before opulent renditions of ancient deities. Black children run and play with Indian and Bangladeshi kids in saris. Shoeless white hippies dance in flowing garb. As the ringing of sung words fills the room, it comes to me that this mantra may be true. Is my soul dirty? I don’t know. My eyes tear. I think, if people could be this happy all the time, the world would be a wonderful place. But this is a Hare Krishna temple, an oasis foreign to the outside world.
The dancing and music quicken. Four black men lead. One calls out while the others play drums and cymbals. They give the Indian chant an African tinge. The men drum faster and faster. Middle-aged fathers kick up their heels. Everyone is clapping and dancing and I’m euphoric, catching a buzz from these happy people. I glance at two attractive young women who have not missed the fashion potential of saris, and wonder if they are from Grosse Pointe.
As a teenage boy leaves, I follow him. Outside, a shy Brandon Brown tells me he’s been raised worshiping here. “I like it. The food is good. It’s a good time; it’s fun singing and dancing, and really nice people come here.” He tells me his peers at Denby High School tease him for being vegetarian. “They say my parents don’t feed me and stuff. They say I’m skinny, that all I eat is salads. It don’t really bother me. I’ve dealt with it all my life, so I learned to live with it.”
As I head back in, the caretaker for a decade, Giri Govardhana Das, greets me. The cheery, portly fellow looks every bit the monk, wearing a long orange smock accented by a shaved head and signature hair lock in back.
Govardhana guides a tour, showing me tiles pillaged from Spain, pillars from Italy, a chalet ceiling from Switzerland, a pink velour couch facing a hand-sculpted marble fireplace and carved wood columns from Germany.
It’s an odd setting for the monks, who give up material possessions. Five other monks live here, two of them female. Unfortunately, Govardhana says, a restaurant and tours of the mansion ended in fall 2001 when a wealthy benefactor’s contributions ceased.
As Govardhana walks, he gives poetic explanations of Krishna’s life and teaching, interspersing his tales with song. He explains that Prabhupada came to the United States penniless to spread Hare Krishna among Westerners, and his first followers were New York hippies. He sent some of them to San Francisco to start a temple. Others were sent to London. There, they met George Harrison and stayed with John Lennon, catapulting the Indian religion into modern consciousness. Since then, it’s been tough to shed their reputation as aggressive hippies looking for money. “A fundamental of hippie philosophy is fighting the establishment. If you’re doing that for God, it’s even better,” says Govardhana, his eyebrows arching high to frame a mischievous giggle. “We got a bad rep that way.” Since the ’70s, the following has grown and matured, says Govardhana.
Visiting Detroit shortly before his death, Prabhupada instructed followers to purchase the Fisher Mansion for $300,000 cash. (Half was paid by Alfred Ford, Henry’s great-grandson, half by Elisabeth Dickmeyer, daughter of Walter Reuther, longtime head of the UAW. Both were Hare Krishnas). At the time, the mansion was dilapidated and the neighborhood was ravaged by poverty. Prabhupada wanted the mansion to serve as a temple and ensure that people living near it would not go hungry. Ford spent millions to renovate the structure and install his collection of religious artifacts.
The neighborhood has improved immensely. Families are fixing up homes and new condominiums have sprung up on the island created by a U-shaped canal that Fisher convinced Detroit to build so boats could float from the river to his home.
Back outside, the sun continues its rule. Women, men and children cluster on the lawn, eating, playing, talking. Two blue-and-purple peacocks break the solitude with crows. Their shimmering tails add to the exotic feel. It’s tranquil. I grab my plate of vegetarian delights and dig in. It’s delicious. I sit with the men who led the musical worship.
Oba Byyo, 52, a friend of the musicians, says he’s been coming on and off for 25 years. Decked in traditional African clothing, the downtown Detroit resident and son of a Baptist minister says he’s tried all the religions.
“I was from the streets,” he says. “A lot of my friends got into drugs, jail, mental institutions, crime. I feel like I’m a chosen person. I didn’t come here by chance. I was drawn here. And here, nobody’s breaking windows. There’s no gunshots. You eat spiritual foods. I hate to leave ’cause I know there’s madness out there. Right here, I have a little piece of heaven.”
Hare Krishna culture, music and food will be on display at the Festival of Chariots, July 21 on Belle Isle. Call 313-331-6740.Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]