When the Hindu Center of Virginia was founded 30 years ago, it served a cluster of two dozen families who met for worship in a West End community center about twice a month and were little known in the larger community. Three decades later, there are 1,000 families on the center's mailing list, and a dramatic symbol of the Hindu community's expansion is taking shape.
Along Springfield Road in Glen Allen, the Hindu Center is building an authentic Indian temple that will be unlike anything in the area. "When it's completed, it will be a spectacular thing to look at," says Inder Midha, head of the temple's construction committee and co-chairman of fundraising along with Dr. M.G. Kurup, one of the founders of the Hindu Center, and Gopi Jadhav.
The temple will include an ornate, 55-foot-tall tower, or rajagopuram, with smaller towers (gopuram) at entrances and, rising above each altar, a series of sikharas — dome-like structures intended to symbolize reaching upward toward God.
The local Hindu population had always planned to build such a temple, says Vijay Ramnarain, secretary of the Hindu Center and member of the temple-construction committee. Now, after the community has grown and matured for three decades, it is finally happening.
The Hindu Center's current home, built in 1990 on the Springfield Road property, is a plain-looking, all-purpose building with an auditorium that serves as a prayer hall, dining room and performance space. Without the sign out front, passersby likely wouldn't recognize it as a house of worship. Now that home is getting crowded, particularly on special occasions such as October's Diwali celebration of the Hindu new year, also known as the festival of lights, when 500 people might filter in and out of the main hall. Last year, the 6,000-square-foot center added a second priest to serve the growing community.
Ramnarain and others estimate the Richmond area's Indian population at 3,000 families, or about 5,000 to 6,000 people. About 200 attend the puja, or worship service, on a regular Sunday. The center is open for prayer several hours on weekday mornings and evenings, and morning services are also held on Saturdays. The need to increase the number of hours the temple is open for worship has crowded out other activities, such as dance and yoga classes and instruction in languages such as Hindu, Tamil and Telugu, which need to be held off-site.
Basic construction of the new 20,000-square-foot structure, estimated to cost nearly $6 million, is expected to be completed by the end of this month, but it still will lack the finishing touches. Those include building the towers and decorating each altar with bricks and plaster moldings and carvings. In the next few months, artisans from India will complete the work, and Hindu Center leaders expect to begin worshipping there in June or July.
But while it is traditionally Indian in style, the temple is unusual in that it will include prayer altars for nine deities rather than just one, in an effort to serve the various groups that the Hindu Center brings together. In the current center, multiple statues of the deities share space on one altar, while a separate shrine houses a deity worshipped by members of the Jain faith.
"In Hinduism, we believe there is one God," Ramnarain explains, but, he adds, God is worshipped in various forms.
Neil Bhatt, an architect and director of education for the Hindu Center, says Hindus use different names for the supreme God: Brahma (creator), Vishnu (sustainer) and Shiva (destroyer) — also known as the Hindu Trinity. But there are many other deities, each of whom "is basically a personification of one aspect of how we relate to God. In other words, if I'm seeking knowledge, I see him as knowledge giver; a person seeking wealth will see him as a wealth giver." Deities are depicted in male and female forms. Bhatt adds, "I jokingly tell people that in Hinduism, the power lies with the women," such as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge; and Durga, who represents power.
Some deities have exotic appearances; Ganesha, for example, has a human form with an elephant's head. "In any venture, you first pray to him so nothing goes wrong," says Jayesh Kapadia, chairman of the Hindu Center board. "In the Middle East, people know Ganesha even if they aren't Hindu. Traders would pray that when they brought goods from the Middle East to India, everything would go smoothly."
During the Diwali ceremony, Lakshmi is the focus of activity, as people chant prayers to the deity, offer her apples and bananas, and line up to take turns pouring milk — a symbol of plenty — over her statue while a harmonium player and a drummer provide music. "Everything we eat, we usually offer" to the deities, Ramnarain says. Afterward, the Hindu Center's president, Rambabu Chirumamilla, notes during his remarks that next year's Diwali celebration will take place in the new temple.
In the new temple, following Indian tradition, most statues of the deities will face east — so that when the sun rises, its rays will fall on their faces, and people will enter the building from the eastern side.
Throughout the building process, Bhatt, who is president of nbj Architecture in Glen Allen and the primary temple architect, consulted with a sthapati, an architect from India who is versed in ancient temple-building traditions.
But though built according to traditional principles, the new temple was also constructed using modern green-building techniques: a heat-recovery system that transfers air from one side of the building to the other, energy-efficient light fixtures, occupancy sensors, water-saving restrooms, and landscaping that doesn't require watering. Bhatt says materials used in the building came from within a 500-mile radius, and most have recycled content, including the steel. Windows in a clear story, a raised section of the roof over the prayer hall, will let in natural, indirect light, and the roof over the lobby contains a large, tinted skylight. The Hindu Center plans to buy power that is produced by wind or solar energy.
"It costs a little more, but we are willing to pay for that," Midha says.
The concern for the environment in planning the new temple fits in with Hinduism's belief that plant, animal and human life are linked together, with God being present in all things, and that the earth should be treated with reverence.
"We felt it was the responsible thing to do in this community," Ramnarain says.
The temple is also high-tech, with an audiovisual room, cameras at every altar and a flat screen in the lobby so people outside the prayer hall can watch what's taking place.
Jadhav says funding for the new temple comes from the local community — through donations, pledges and from the sale of bricks inscribed with contributors' names. The annual Festival of India also generates funds for the new temple; Jadhav says it usually raises $100,000 to $150,000 per year. The two-day event, which the Hindu Center started in 1981 in an elementary school, is a showcase for Indian culture that attracts as many as 20,000 people to the Greater Richmond Convention Center each year.
In addition to the prayer hall and lobby upstairs, the new temple also has a basement with five rooms for classes. After the temple is completed, the current Hindu Center will be used as a cultural hall for wedding receptions, performances and other events.
"We wanted a place for worship only," says Yash Mehra, past president of the Hindu Center. "This will bring the Indian community together."
In the new temple, the prayer hall won't double as a dining room.
"In traditional Hindu faith, you cannot eat where you pray," Ramnarain explains.
Kapadia says he hopes the temple will give the Hindu and Jain communities — and Eastern culture — increased visibility in the Richmond area. He also hopes it will attract more people, including some who now travel to temples in Northern Virginia, where the Indian community is larger. Richmond "had been more regionalized," he says. "This will make it more cosmopolitan [and] better known to other traditions."
Ramnarain's wife, Veena, says that growing up in the Hindu faith here is "a challenging situation for children because they want to be like everybody else, but they are not like everybody else." But she says her 13-year-old son, Vikram, is becoming more confident about his beliefs and traditions. "He used to feel very shy about his culture. But on a day like [Diwali], he'll wear traditional clothing to school and explain why he's wearing it — because it's like Christmas for us. It's the festival of lights." She says she believes society in general is becoming more open-minded about other cultures. Perhaps a sign of that could be seen this year in President Barack Obama's lighting of a ceremonial lamp, or diya, in the White House in recognition of Diwali — the first time a president participated in the event.
Dr. Shantaram Talegaonkar, an opthalmologist who has lived in the Richmond area for 34 years, remembers when the Hindu community was so small that people met for prayer groups in homes. But preserving faith traditions in a much larger community presents its own challenges. He sees the new temple's main purpose as providing a place dedicated to worship and space for educating children.
"As the community is expanding in numbers, those goals are more relevant," he says. Children "are being brought up in a different land and culture. Unless they understand the meaning [behind the religious practices] they will eventually turn away."