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Religion Today

May 7, 1998

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. (AP) _ Hindu temples are as common in India as churches are in the United States, but Indian immigrants to New England in the 1970s often had to improvise a place to worship.

Many set aside a room at home, praying daily before photographs of their gods, and a handful of families took turns opening their homes for ceremonies, says Prema Manohar, an Indian who moved to Connecticut 21 years ago. But it was tough to maintain religious ties and to pass on to their children customs of the ancient religion.

That is changing with the completion of Sri Satyanarayana Temple. The state’s first Hindu temple, citrus yellow and distinctly Art Deco in style, sits atop a hill in central Connecticut.

At the temple, Hindus practice a religion dating back more than 5,000 years and take part in cultural festivals, yoga classes and lessons in classical music and dance. ``I think it’s good for our children,″ Manohar says, recently preparing the cultural hall for a weekend event. ``The temple is somewhere they can come together and learn.″

The project, funded by nearly $2 million in donations, is taking shape on 7.5 acres across the from Middlesex Community College. The Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society bought the land in 1984, and a cultural hall and priest’s living quarters opened in 1989.

The 4,500-square-foot worship hall may also open this spring. The society’s president, Rao Singamsetti, says a consecration ceremony, planned for June, has been postponed by delays in the arrival from India of workers and granite deities.

The society has already obtained visas for eight temple architects who can build sanctums for the gods based on carvings described in ancient scriptures. The temple’s main deity will be Satyanarayana, a ``true god″ in Sanskrit, a statue likely to stand 6 feet tall and weigh 7 tons.

Statuary will also include two five-foot Hindu gods and seven smaller gods from various sects. Since Connecticut’s Hindu community of about 2,000 families is so small, Singamsetti says, it made sense to include the other deities.

Across the country, the growing Hindu presence _ estimated in the 1990 census at 227,000 nationwide _ explains the construction of nearly 100 temples in recent years. At least 24 states have a Hindu place of worship.

Middletown draws worshippers from nearby states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, where many Hindu temples have a different main deity. ``The Hindu religion is a culture,″ says Singamsetti, an economics professor at the University of Hartford. ``There are variations of this like there are different cultures.″

Satyanarayana, the namesake deity in Middletown, is a gracious god who readily forgives. ``We treat the god as we treat our best friend. We give food, worship with flowers,″ Singamsetti says. ``We make our wishes known to him and seek his help in fulfilling them.″

Depending on the occasion, Hindus pray to different gods, chanting mantras in Sanskrit to invoke the spirit of a god into his statue. Until statues arrive from India, Connecticut’s worshippers pray to smaller copper gods off the temple’s entrance way.

At weekend services, Ramachandra Bhattar is the liaison between gods and worshippers, who number as many as a hundred families. He is a fifth-generation priest who trained in India for 12 years and has served in the United States for 11. Calling the god’s spirit, he still walks barefoot, with white cloth wrapped around his legs. As a concession to winter, he wears a white T-shirt.

For those believers guided by Bhattar, the new temple means community and a way to pass on culture. ``This is a gift,″ says the society’s Singamsetti, ``of the current generation to the future generation.″

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