Places that Matter

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Hindu Temple Society of North America

Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
A major center for the Hindu community
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Place Matters Profile

Intricately carved, broad and made of stone, its structure rises majestically, if surprisingly, over the small, detached houses of Bowne Street. Built in a South Indian style, the architecture of Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam - or Ganesha Temple - seeks no match or blend with its neighboring structures. Its distinctive appearance instead marks a sea-change in the history and culture of Queens, and the coming of age of one of New York's newer immigrant groups. 

The temple's gate is always open, welcoming regulars and visitors seven days a week from early morning until night. Up decorated steps, across a courtyard where shoes are neatly set aside, and through the front door, the temple opens up into a large rectangular space for devotion. In alcoves along the walls, statues of Hindu deities repose, with the most prominent shrine dedicated to Ganesha. The son of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati, Ganesha represents, with his elephant's head and human body, the "universality of creation." An important deity in Hinduism, Ganesha is the remover of obstacles. Devotees pray to him each morning upon waking to ensure that the day goes well. Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the Temple Society president, corrects a mistaken impression that the presence of multiple dieties means Hinduism reveres more than one god. "We believe in a Supreme Reality, in God as one," she explains. "By perceiving the Lord in these different forms it is possible to get better rapport with God. Before one can worship God as a formless entity, we need visual ways. I can sit across from Our Lord and cry on his shoulder."

In this spacious area for prayer and ritual, empty of the rows of seats common to other houses of worship, practitioners perform religious rites that are both individual and collective. Acts of art and beauty abount. Fresh flower garlands made by priests and devotees adorn the prayer areas. Floral rangoli designs made with brightly colored rice flour embellish floors throughout the temple, protecting its sacred spaces from evil influences. Painted scenes from Hindu cosmology convey meaning while they ornament the walls. "Spiritual hunger is fulfilled right here in this place," Dr. Mysorekar tells us. "The rituals and chants made here literally enrich the walls with spirituality, creating vibrations which devotees can feel."

Consecrated in 1977, the temple provides an important venue for the teaching of Hindu beliefs and traditions to the younger generation. Conveying this vast body of knowledge in a social milieu where, unlike in India, Hinduism is a distinct minority faith, is an enormous challenge. But the scholar Madhulika Khandelwal writes in Becoming American, Being Indian that Indians are among the immigrant groups trying most assiduously to keep their religious traditions intact, and on the whole, few Indians are questioning their faiths or converting to different religions. That said, Hinduism is also known for its internally diverse structure and for eschewing the kind of centralized dogma that characterizes some other of the world's major religions. Khandelwal explains that Hinduism has no single sacred text or clerical order, leading many to call it a culture or way of life rather than an organized religion. She describes Hinduism not as a revealed religion but as the evolution of a variety of cults and beliefs: "Throughout its history, Hinduism's response to other forms of religion has been to add new layers, and the meaning of Hinduism accordingly often lies in new adherents' perceptions of it." Ganesha Temple itself has evolved to meet the changing devotional interests and practices of its worshippers - some of whom come not from India but from Guyana, say - by adding new deities to the prayer area, for example, to appeal to different traditions. 

Yet the temple is more than a place for prayer. It is also an important cultural and community center and a magnet for Hindus from throughout the tri-state area. It's a beehive of activity, with committees of volunteers directing and managing, mediating problems, coordinating youth programs, raising funds, decorating, and so on. All week long, group activities, performances, and classes take place to entertain participants, enhance devotion, and transmit cultural traditions; language instruction in Hindi and Sanskrit; religious instruction in Hinduism, Vedas, and meditation; and classical and folk dance styles - all are offered, as are the mundane yet critical trappings of the workaday world, such as college-admission prep courses. Many classes and performances take place in the basement rooms and stage area, where the gift shop also is located. Behind the temple is the yagna kunda, a space for ritual that is reserved for priests. In the 1990s, the temple's growing prestige encouraged its leadership to add new spaces. Next door, its posh, three-floor Hindu Community Center, designed in a nondescript style more indigenous to Queens (though with granite imported from India), includes a large auditorium and stage, a canteen serving vegetarian meals whose long hours match the temple's, a dining hall and conference room, and a spacious wedding hall, the kalyana mantapam, for marriages and large events. (The temple maintains a marriage registry to help parents matchmake for their children.) And up and down the block, single-family homes have been transformed into temple offices and accommodations for priests.

Ganesha Temple's founder was Alagappa Alagappan, a United Nations civil servant from India who believed himself guided by divine instruction to build temples in the new land of Indian immigration. He also slowly built a community of fellow dreamers into the Hindu Temple Society of North America. Of all the neighborhoods in all the cities in America, the society chose to locate its first temple in Queens, because by 1970 the tri-state area was already attracting growing numbers of Indian immigrants, many of them Hindus and most of them locating in Queens. The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 had recently done away with immigration discrimintation based on national origin, bringing to the United States not only Indians but immigrants from all over the world, and profoundly changing local and national demographics. 

Pursuing their self-appointed task, Alagappan and his colleagues discovered what seemed to be a perfect site in Flushing when a Russian Orthodox congregation put up their Bowne Street building for sale in 1971. The site long had been associated with houses of faith. Not all the temple's supporters approved of the Bowne Street purchase. Many believed the new temple should be built where square footage was less expensive - somewhere in Long Island, say. But Alagappan's group had envisioned a neighborhood temple, where worshippers could come frequently, hindered by neither lack of time nor double transit fares (in the dark days before Metrocard allowed free transfers between subways and buses.)

Things really surged ahead when Tirupati Devasthanam - the largest temple in India, located in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh - decided to support the project. A work camp of about 150 artisans was established near Hyderabad to produce the key architectural elements such as the stone sanctum and the carved rãjagopuram (royal tower) that rises above the temple. Pieces of the structure were then shipped to New York and assembled here. Khandelwal writes that the "priests were selected from a pool of Brahmins who had received scriptural training in India. The temple attracted more South than North Indians, but it accommodated a range of devotees of different Indian regional subcultures, including North Indian-style arati (waving of lights to gods), devotional songs, and religious festivals. The Ganesha Temple also affirmed the unity of all religions; the logo on the front of its build and on its stationary bore the primordial Hindu symbol Om in the center and was surrounded by symbols designating Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism."

Ganesha Temple was one of the first Hindu temples built in North America, and its success helped spur the construction of a dozen or more in Queens alone. It draws worshippers from all over Hindu New York City and the tri-state area, particularly on weekends, when people come from farther afield, drawn by the culture, the commerce, the networks of friends and families. Especially for those living in relative isolation in far-flung suburbs, an excursion to Queens is a journey to the Indian American heartland.