Subway trains rumbled underfoot and cars honked outside the ISKCON Center on Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn, but inside the dimly lit hall, all attention was focused on the man with the conch shell. A priest, draped in simple white cloth with a red border, blew the conch to signal the start of the evening’s gaura arati ceremony.

The conch sound is an essential aspect of the ritual; the sound is said to purify the air of evil spirits, and its high-pitched timbre creates high-energy vibrations that are thought to encourage a more enlightened state of mind. The shell’s trumpet-like buzz drew participants closer to the pitha platform even as the priest himself withdrew behind a gilded curtain to make his preparations.

The crowd clustered around the assistant priest, a tall man who wore a wool sweater and socks in addition to his thin white robes. With a mridangam (a wooden double-headed drum) slung on his shoulder, he began a slow a capella chant. The he began to beat a simple rhythm on one end of the drum, while complicating it with tonal pitch variation on the other drumhead. Participants joined in the song, picking up finger cymbals and raising their voices in the call-and-response pattern.

The music swelled, and the peacock-feather-patterned curtain was pulled back to reveal statues of the deities in elaborately decorated robes. Krishna, flautist and lord of the dance, is the supreme god of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) followers. He and his consort Radha represent the unity of male and female energy, and offer unconditional love to their devotees.

As the mridangam continued its syncopated patterns, the deities were offered incense, fire, water, cloth, and a pink rose. Once all offerings had been made, the assistant priest laid down his drum and settled himself in front of a small harmonium. A relative newcomer to Indian classical music, the harmonium, a small pipe organ, is now used in bhajans around the world. One hand played the melody, while the other worked the bellows to produce a constant reedy drone. Hari das began singing a plaintive tune, and participants quickly picked up the melody. A chorus of voices crooned, “Namaste narasingaya,” before everyone sank to the floor in a yogic child’s pose.

For the Zopey family, visiting from Los Angeles, the evening gaura arati ceremony was a chance to connect to the oldest ISKCON community in the US. While the first ISKCON temple was established in the East Village in 1966, the Brooklyn location opened in 1968 and has remained the heart of the New York ISKCON movement.

“We wanted to be here, at this temple,” said Lena Zopey. “It’s like a pilgrimage.”

During the ceremony, Lena, still dressed in her peacoat, raised her arms, and swayed as she sang. Her husband Ashok clinked small metal cymbals between his thumb and forefinger, as did several other participants.

“It kind of resonates in your soul, because you become part of the Lord as you chant,” said Lena. “I love the whole process, the process of devotion.”

Ashok especially loved the evening’s music, a Bengali song performed only at the penultimate arati of the night. “Namaste narasingaya” is a song about the half-man, half-lion form that Vishnu once assumed to vanquish a demon, a rakshasa.

The Zopeys’ son Mohan was preparing for a medical school interview the next morning. Visiting the temple to sing “clears my head and makes me feel less stressed,” he said. Though he admits he hasn’t always been observant, the music has drawn him back in. “I’m starting to see that good things happen from this singing.”

Hari das, the evening’s musician, encouraged Mohan to continue his practice. A Nigerian-born saxophone player, Hari das is now content to use his musical talent in his role as assistant temple president.

“It’s like another wind instrument,” he said of his resonant singing voice. He converted in the 1970s after hearing a devotee named Agni dev singing for two hours at a stretch. “I was transfixed,” he recalled.

As Hari das related this story, Lena started in recognition. She, too, converted after hearing Agni dev sing. Both said they were delighted to find that the devotional music is what had brought them to their ISKCON practice.

“There must be something in that, that attracts people,” Lena said.