Shantikunj is a campus able to accommodate over ten thousand people. Located on the northeastern outskirts of Haridwar, it is a short walk away from some of the city’s cleanest riverside bathing spots. Around two thousand employees live and work at Shantikunj, spread among some one hundred offices that perform work such as book sales, the oversight of regional centers, the scheduling and operation of several halls reserved for life cycle rituals, the facilitation and accommodation of foreign visitors, the maintenance of the Shantikunj campus, etc.

There are a series of moods that characterize Shantikunj. In the thin mist of an early winter morning, a somber stillness fills the grounds. Perhaps one or two gentlemen clad in saffron robes and woolen shawls will be shuffling toward the center of campus from one of the many residential buildings in the wings. It isn’t until one follows them to that central part of campus that the stillness and the mist evaporates into the steady chant of the Gayatri mantra by two women on a small dais, before whom around fifty similarly-clad people sit around eighteen fire pits. This is the morning yajña, a staple practice on campus. Although ritual sobriety is also required for yajña, it is common to hear amicable conversations immediately after the rite, when people usually head to the canteen for breakfast. There, the mood is quite lively – chai, coffee, and jalebis fuel new friendships and rekindle the old.

Shantikunj is a place where members of the organization meet one another, often after quite a long time. It is the center that people return to, and for that reason it is an everyday occurrence to witness reunions in the alleyways created by residential blocks and offices. These meetings are best viewed in the afternoon, when the high sun is reflected off of the yellow hue of nearly every building onsite, and when the hustle-bustle of a minor pilgrimage site in a major pilgrimage city is at its fullest. This is a very different mood from the early hours of the morning, and although one will surely see pilgrims seated in meditation before the memorial of the organization’s late founders, on most days that space will be shared by a wedding party’s photo shoot.

Weddings, infant naming ceremonies, first tonsures, and thirteen other life-cycle rites important to many Hindus can be arranged to take place at Shantikunj. Two halls dedicated to housing such events often echo with the chanting of several mantras germane to the occasion in question, while the less-invested relatives lounge in the sun near their entryways. Not only are Shantikunj-hosted ceremonies free of cost (although pious members will often donate a sum they deem appropriate to offset the labor involved), they come with the added benefit of the blessings of the current institutional heads, Dr. Pranav Pandya and Shailbaba Jiji. These figureheads hold daily reception hours on the west side of the campus, and anyone is welcome to drop in to visit. One has to be prepared, however; during meeting hours a long line of impatient devotees stretches down a main artery of the grounds.

Evening brings with it different moods. A campus-wide speaker system crackles to life at 6:00 p.m., calling all on campus to pause their tasks and meditate for fifteen minutes to the recorded melody of a bamboo flute. Soon after, an evening ceremony takes place at the Gayatri Goddess temple onsite: a conch will blare, bells will tinkle, and a chorus of devotees will strike up a familiar devotional while paying respects to the divine. This evening ceremony serves also as a call to the evening meal. Though far too early for many in India, dinner at Shantikunj is tailored to their ritual schedule: many wake at 3:30 a.m. to partake in the morning version of this same temple ceremony, long before certain ethnographers can escape the clutches of sleep.

This is not to say that Shantikunj residents and visitors rush off to their quarters just after dusk. For another hour at least, whoops and hollers can be heard from a volleyball court outside of the canteen. There, (mostly) men of all ages beat a very weathered ball back and forth, providing entertainment for themselves and for spectators armed with salty snacks and tea. This range of moods tied together by a sense of community marks Shantikunj as a religious center.

© 2022 Nick Tackes