The moon has been growing full for some days now. It is hard for us to resist its pull and attraction when it glows so bright and inviting in the clear Spring night. But on this past Sunday evening there was another lofty brightness illuminating the darkness that caught the attention of several hundred people in a little corner of Queens NY. It is a neighborhood not unaccustomed to the large and the extraordinary. This April 13th however saw the creation and lighting of something that even this, a place where the unexpected often shows up, the World’s largest Peace Torch.
The threads of this particularly story are both very simple and yet also extraordinarily complex and profound. Ashrita Furman is the first name that comes into the mix as the driving force behind this new Guinness record, for he has more of those records than anyone else. (Something like 182) But he himself would say the real inspiration for this unique creation is his late Spiritual Teacher, Sri Chinmoy. Who first came to America 50 years ago, on April 13th 1964.
Ashrita, has always dedicated his achievements to Sri Chinmoy, and so wanted this 50th anniversary to be more than just special, that it also be historic. He, along with a team of helpers wanted to create a Guinness record that would be original, powerful, and at its heart, symbolically represent some of the deep inner values and aspirations that Sri Chinmoy himself tirelessly championed. In particular Sri Chinmoy’s Oneness-Home Peace run, in which a team of runners carry a peace torch. This event has been taking place in more than 140 countries around the world for more than 20 years.
May the flames of peace-torch
Kindle and awaken
Each and every world-citizen.
Sri Chinmoy, A Love-Bathed Heart, Agni Press, 1993
The Guinness record people informed Ashrita, when he first proposed building a giant torch that he could not simply create an original designed torch. Instead it would have to be modeled after a previous Olympic torch and be at least 10 times the size of it. After examining pictures of all possible torches Ashrita selected the 1998 Nagano winter Olympic torch to be the most beautiful. Yet now the dilemma arose. How to find blueprints or even a copy of an almost sacred object that was built 16 years earlier in far off Japan.
Ashirvad just happened to be giving meditation classes in Tokyo when the original idea happened to be formed. Setting up an appointment with the torch creator, he took a 3 hour train trip to Nagano to speak to people there to see if it would be somehow possible to get technical information on the original torch.
“A gentleman from the company received us and he was very happy to see us.” The man was Akio Haruhara who actually designed and created the torch. In order to give him some idea of what Ashrita was planning he showed him a video of some of Ashrita’s other records. “He was extremely inspired by the video.”
Mr. Haruhara then showed them the real torch. “It was really beautiful.” They were also allowed to take measurements. He then asked if they needed anything else. They asked of course for more precise diagrams of the torch and mr. Harahura apologized. He said that Olympic rules forbade that he do that. Then after taking a long look at Ashirvad he said, “Just take the torch. So he gave us a real torch.” Upon returning to New York he mentioned to Ashrita only that he had been quite successful in his search. Not revealing the full extent of his success until he delightfully handed Ashrita the actual torch last December.
“He was like a kid who receives the nicest toy at Christmas. The one he was hoping for. He wasn’t expecting to get the torch. It was a big surprise.”
When Ashirvad was originally with him, he told Mr. Haruhara, “of course if you come (when it is constructed) you will be welcomed. They don’t speak much English so I didn’t feel that he would do it. But his wife was very excited about the idea. She said, yes, you need to go to New York.” Time passes and it was only a few weeks ago that Mr. Haruhara and his wife confirmed that they would come. “It is really nice.”
“There is something about this project, and I have seen many records. That the level of commitment that was put into it that I don’t think I have seen before. Everyone is so focused on making this torch the best way we could. Every little detail was given a lot of attention. From the materials used to the finish, colors, every little thing is an exact copy of that torch. It is just amazing.”
Working on the inside
Some of the plans
A lot of people worked on the long hard process of creating the world’s largest torch. Early on I spoke with 3 members of the team, Udar, Anurakta, and Bahumanya who were part of its construction from almost the first day.
Udar has been making torches for the Peace Run since 1989. When he first started he says, “I didn’t know anything about torches.” Since then he says he has improved the construction by continually making small improvements. “No leaps and bounds, just getting better every year.”
For a torch to be good it has to be able to burn a long time he says, and also it should be safe to hold. He has over time considered and adjusted just about every possible aspect of torch construction. He believes as well that the Nagano torch was by far the most attractive. “It had classic lines. I don’t like these weird abstract art shaped ones.”
Bahumanya says, “we reckon it is finally going to weigh around 2,000 pounds. Though it very may well be heavier. That is a conservative estimate. In terms of dimension it is 11 times larger. In terms of weight it is substantially more than 11 times heavier.”
He describes that there was a practical reason to limit the dimensions of the torch to 11 times as anything greater and the weight of the aluminum would then become unmanageable. “This is as big as we would dare to go.” He says that in some ways the plans have been flexible as the reality of working with the staggering dimensions become practical issues. A few days ago he says they decided against reconstructing it at the eventual site horizontally and lifting it up with a crane. “Now we are going to reconstruct it vertically, using scaffolding.”
Anurakta has worked on a number of these big projects. He says he was invited to come from his home in New Zealand a few months ago to help. “I normally help out when I am in town. It is probably the 5th or 6th big project I have worked on with Ashrita. When I first visit with Anurakta on the job site he is shaping some of the heavy aluminum pieces. Though not overly familiar working with metal, he says that the techniques are similar to working with timber, which he is more trained in. “You just have to take it slower and be more careful.”
“It has been in the planning phase since August last year. That was when I was first invited to come. I have been here for 2 weeks now and the design work has been going on for more than a month.”
Bahumanya describes the overall mass of the project as, “awe inspiring. Once you put all this aluminum together it is really unbelievable. It is quite challenging.”
Interview Part 1
Yuyudhan on the project
Things heating up
“One of the things that has really surprised us,” says Bahumanya, “is the ability of Bishwas to visualize and put down on paper something which we are now seeing in the physical, it is remarkable. On those pieces of paper we have every measurement, every angle, every possible thing we need.” The information is technically all there he says, “but the actual how to’s have to be discovered along the way, it is something that evolves.”
One of the things that intrigues me is whether or not the flame coming out of the torch will be also big like the torch itself. Udar tells me, “we have experience with eternal flames. Using that knowledge we applied it to this. We just use more gas. We have another gas source that is dumping raw propane right into the pilot flame. The flame will definitely make it dramatic. The whole thing is going to be dramatic.”
The construction at this time takes up the better part of 2 rooms of a basement nearby. Bahumanya describes how, “we have to make sure it works and fits. It is a ship in a bottle.” But one clearly that is going to be able to get out and come together later. When asked exactly when this reconstruction will occur there is some laughter and confusion as no one seems to be exactly sure what day it is now, after so many long hard hours of work.
All who have been working on this project were aware from the start of how long and hard the job would be. Sometimes though it took some small painful reminders of just how much care and caution were needed when working with so much weight and mass. When it moves you simply have to get out of the way. Bahumanya laughs as he recalls a particular incident, “it was shocking. The natural response was that it happened so quick. You want to try and stop it.” Udar adds, “you want to try and stop it and your realize at some point that that is not going to happen.”
I ask them then what they each get out of working on something like this. Anurakta says, “it is definitely a lot of hard work, but it is somehow satisfying because we achieve something in the end. It gives a sense of satisfaction and happiness. It is an offering that I am proud to be part of. It is Ashrita’s baby but it is nice to work on something that is significant. That symbolizes our offering to our teacher.”
“It is cool. It is a learning experience.” Udar
“These projects are surprising,” says Bahumanya. “I have never failed to have a trans-formative experience from being involved. I love the fact that you simply have no idea when working what the next hour is going to hold. I was very grateful to be invited to be involved. It is undoubtedly hard work but it is all done in a spirit of self giving. There is a lot of joy.”
Interview Part 2
Some pieces have just arrived and Ashrita checks them out.
Still lots to do
Ambarish working outside
Taking off the sharp edges.
Things getting blasted.
The big picture
Papaha on the job
Silver paint being readied
“Most of these records that we have done over the years have fallen into that category.” It is a day before the torch has to be finished and Bishwas has just used the term, ‘cutting it close.’
“All the details that need to be sorted out. The finishing of the project is pretty close. Usually there are a lot of late nights the last few days leading up to the day of the record. There are a lot of pieces all over the neighborhood that are being worked on.” Bishwas adds a not too insignificant detail, “we haven’t actually put the whole torch together, including the base. There is always a little uncertainty if everything will all fit together as it is supposed to.”
I ask him simply how he took the original torch and was some how able to come up with such detailed plans. “From that we meticulously measured all of the parts to the thousandth of an inch. From that we scaled everything up 11 times. From that I was able to make these pages and pages of drawings. Each part has to be explained on paper and with notation.” The process as he explains it out is incredibly detailed and complex. “It takes a lot of time.”
“It is in my head and in the computer but you have to get it on the paper so that everyone who is sawing cutting and drilling knows exactly where to saw and cut and drill.” He describes that the whole thing could have been done without the use of computers but the technology simply helps with all the intricate details and angles. “So far I have spent about 150 hours on it.”
“When I actually do the layouts and print them out and hand them to the guys that section of the process is my favorite. There is something about having all on paper. Before it was just in my head and in the computer.”
“This torch is probably one of our most challenging projects. Just given the wide range of skills and materials and resources that we need for it and man hours. I think it is the toughest one. I think that is very fitting for Sri Chinmoy’s 50th anniversary of arriving in America. It fits well and it ties in nicely with the Peace run that Sri Chinmoy founded many years ago. It is all happening for a reason.”
I suggest that Sri Chinmoy certainly tried to inspire his students to transcend themselves. “I think this is probably one of my most challenging designs that I have ever done. The original design already existed but to actually scale it up and figure out to make it all come together and work I think this is the most challenging.”
There is about 24 hours to go. “I think we are going to see the flame erupting out of the top of the torch. I think it is going to be fantastic.”
Early on the morning of the 13th the assembly of all the torch pieces begins. The ship does come out of the bottle.
This is just the base
With little breaks now and then
When Mr Akio Haruhara arrives at the site to inspect the construction he is very surprised.
When he built the original he said it took him 3 months. He then went on to make 1,700 more of them that were used in the relay run leading up to the winter Olympics in 1998. He describes his concept for his torch as being that of a traditional Japanese bonfire. Prior to this torch he had never built one before. In the time since then he has seen many other torch designs but still is inspired most by his own design.
“I am extremely happy that the torch I made and thought was beautiful is accepted by many people who also appreciate its beauty as well.”
“When I heard about this project I felt that it was about peace. We all need more peace. I am extremely happy that so many people from around the world have gathered here for the cause of peace. And I am grateful that even after 16 years my torch is still being appreciated by the cause for peace.”
The steel base
Putting up the steel
It takes a lot of combined strength
Some have been part of this from the beginning
Being always careful
Being always precise
The rings go up
The top goes on
The cord is wrapped around the base
Time to measure
Precision in every detail
Official recorder Sanjaya takes the measurements.
6.02 meters in length, 19 3/4 feet
Diameter at top 1.31 meters
Time for a ceremony
“Sri Chinmoy promoted peace in a way that was a little different from most of the world leaders. His way was to show people how to find peace within themselves. He spent his entire life giving Peace concerts, and writing books, and doing art. Promoting Inner Peace. His philosophy was that if each person felt peace within their own heart’s, then we would have peace around the world. Many world leaders recognized his efforts for world peace so we decided we wanted to do something really special for his 50th anniversary. So we decided we were going to build the World’s largest Peace Torch.”
“It is officially the world’s largest replica of an Olympic relay torch. We are calling it the World’s largest Peace torch and we are dedicating it to all of Sri Chinmoy’s dedicated work in his entire lifetime to promote world peace.”
“It was really a beautiful journey, because it was unlikely that it would succeed you might say. There are so many different pieces and parts. We had a big crew helping and they sometimes worked around the clock. It was a huge effort by a lot of people. It was great team work and it was very very fulfilling. In the end it all came out beautifully.”
“I think it is the most beautiful object that we have created. We have created the world’s largest pencil which was 76 feet long. It was magnificent and a bunch of other real beautiful things, but there is nothing to compare to this. This is really spectacular. We chose this torch out of, lets say 50 other Olympic relay torches, because it is the most beautiful. We multiplied it by 11 times and it is 11 times more beautiful than the original. It is just so magnificent.”
“I feel that Sri Chinmoy is with us all the time and I feel that he is here celebrating with us. We are continuing his mission of spreading the idea that each person has tremendous inner peace. That through mediation we can find that inner peace and share it with others around us. That way we can create around us a world of harmony and peace.”
“I think it is a beautiful object by itself and it also represents something beautiful. Our hope is that it will inspire people around the world to be peaceful and to try and feel peace within their own hearts. Just looking at it you get that special feeling of inner peace.”
When asked if he thought it would all work out so well. “It is hard to imagine because I was so taken by the original torch when I saw it. It is a work of art. I am going to be very sad when it is taken down. Yet we are hoping to find a beautiful home for it. Someplace where it can continue to inspire other people.”
Burning at night
Will have peace
He self-givingly passes on
The torch of peace.
Sri Chinmoy, Peace-Blossom-Fragrance, Part 1, Agni Press, 1994