Last year, when the Shandaken planning board was told about the statue of deceased guru Sri Chinmoy that a Woodland Valley resident plans to erect on private land, the town building inspector said there’s no law addressing monuments in the town code, stating, “We have no statute against statues.” With erection of the memorial imminent, the Woodland Community Association (WCA) gathered at their annual meeting on July 14 to question the owner, Sanjay Rawal, about his plans.
He assured members the statue — 33 feet high, with a six-foot base — will be difficult to access, will not be visible from the road or another property, and will not attract busloads of disciples, coming to pay homage to their guru. Despite his willingness to make a written agreement with the association, specifying rules for visitation that allow only small groups of his friends by specific invitation, neighbors expressed fears that such a document would not prevent what they see as an invasion of the quiet, rural valley.
Rawal, who was born in Africa and grew up in California, gave an overview of his career as a civilian contractor on humanitarian projects run by the U.S. government and a maker of activist documentaries. Because of the success of one of his films, which secured rights for workers in Florida, he is being sued by a corporation. Therefore, Rawal has put his assets, including property he purchased on Woodland Valley Road in 2014, into a trust under the name of Illumine Services.
Attendees interrupted his detailed resumé to urge Rawal to get to the point, one demanding he explain “what is your intention, and how will it affect us?” Rawal said the statue is being fabricated in hollow bronze at a foundry in China. It has been designed by a fellow Sri Chinmoy devotee and is modeled after a Japanese statue of the seated Buddha. He expects the sculptor to sign off on the project by the end of July, when it will be shipped to a foundry near Beacon. It will be conveyed in pieces by pick-up truck, in one or two trips per week, to his land across from Fawn Hill Road, about halfway down the dead-end valley.
Last year, Rawal had a one-kilometer-long road cut and surfaced, leading up to the site where the statue will be reassembled and erected. The road, he said, is steep and accessible only by vigorous walkers or a 4×4 truck, so he does not expect many visitors.
Gail Margulis, a part-time resident of the valley, said she lives in Jamaica Hills, Queens, where many Sri Chinmoy devotees have homes and businesses. “I have heard from his followers that people are excited to come here to the statue,” she said. “I have pictures of thousands of people who come to Jamaica Hills in August.” The Sri Chinmoy Poetry Festival is held each August at the Aspiration-Ground Meditation Garden in Jamaica Hills.
“I don’t want that here,” Rawal responded. “I’m expecting five to ten people at a time, only when I’m here, about once a month — some friends, some followers, some not.”
One member said efforts to place the statue in Iceland had failed and asked why it had been rejected. “It would’ve cost $2 million,” Rawal said, adding that the current project, including construction of the road, is costing him $489,000.
Another member suggested Rawal enter into a written agreement with the WCA, specifying how he sees the property being used and what access will be permitted. “I’m fine with that,” Rawal said. “I don’t want hundreds of people coming here, and that document will create ground rules.”
“What about parking along the road?” asked WCA president Carol Neu. “If you’re not here, can you deputize someone to keep an eye on it?”
In the ensuing discussion, which involved members trying to shout each other down, Rawal did not respond to the question, but after the meeting, he said he has already put up motion-activated security cameras. There is a gate across the driveway, no trespassing signs are posted, and he is considering adding a security fence.
When the arguing died down, Margulis said, “Disciples want a place they can come to. I know how they feel about their guru — they’re completely devoted. How can we prevent Woodland Valley from becoming a center for Sri Chinmoy? There were dubious things about him. If I were hiking and saw his face, I’d be very upset.” Claims made against the guru, who died in 2007, include sexual molestation of several disciples.
“What is the point of the statue if people are not allowed to see it?” someone asked. “If you’re bringing hundreds of people, it will change the dynamics of the stream we just heard about.” A preceding presentation on the recently completed Woodland Creek Stream Management Plan had indicated the sensitivity of the stream that runs through the valley.
Pressed about his intentions, Rawal said, “I want something I can leave as a legacy. It’s a piece of art.”
“Why can’t your documentaries be your legacy?” someone asked.
Attorney and WCA member Nathan Dershowitz told his neighbors, “I find this disturbing. He has a right to do something on his own property. You are confusing that which impacts you with the substance of what’s going on.”
Neu wrapped up the meeting by inviting volunteers to work on a written agreement with Rawal. She also suggested asking the town to place a provision about statues in the zoning code to prevent future problems of this kind.