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The deities of Lynn Road

Amid the strip malls and highways north of Tampa, Hindu believers have staked out holy ground.

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
Published October 24, 2003

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[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Hindus celebrate Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, at the temple last November. The holiday marks the new year and a time to forget quarrels and exchange presents.

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The temple has sculptures inside and out created by Vairavan Chidambaram, who came to Tampa with a team of workers from India three years ago.

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Vairavan Chidambaram works on one of the statues that adorn the temple’s interior and exterior. The sculptures range in height from 1 to 3 feet.
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This is how the Hindu Temple of Florida, on Lynn Road near Tampa, looks today. Ten years ago, the temple was a plain stucco house near Carrollwood, a Tampa suburb.
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Workers from India perform their specialties at the Hindu Temple of Florida this month.
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TAMPA - Sunday school at the Hindu Temple of Florida starts with a story.

The teacher, Manish Kharod, gathers students around his folding chair.

Once, he tells them, a king had to decide whether to let outsiders settle in his kingdom. After pondering the question, the king emerged from his chambers and gave each of the visitors a glass of milk.

They talked it over but decided not to drink the milk. Instead, they sweetened it with sugar and returned it to the king, who made a proclamation:

He would let the outsiders in.

The teacher Kharod gazes at his students, some in demin shorts and sandals, some with gold-rimmed glasses, many born in the United States to immigrant Indian parents.

"This is what we have to do," Kharod says. "We have to add to the kingdom. Make the community sweeter."

Ten years ago, the Hindu Temple of Florida was a plain stucco house near the Tampa suburb of Carrollwood. There was no Sunday school, no Hindu priest. Vijaya Shankar, a local Indian grocer, led services in the living room. Only a handful of families came to worship, among them Archana Kalra, her two young boys in tow.

"We hardly had anything," Kalra says.

Then came the architects, followed by the builders and finally, the sculptors.

Today, five domes cap a two-story palace adorned with stone carvings of elephants, peacocks and lotus flowers. Two priests live on premises. Membership has climbed to 2,000 families.

This weekend, the temple becomes a backdrop for dancing, worship and fireworks as Hindus celebrate Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights.

But on any given Sunday, it bustles like a New Delhi market. By the shaded picnic tables, women chat in a mixture of Hindi and English, their ankle-length saris fluttering in the breeze.

A little girl with pigtails and a black dot between her eyebrows prances up the long, outdoor staircase - two sets of 18 steps for the 18 chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu holy book.

She slides off her pink jelly sandals near the sign "No shoes beyond this point," and walks barefoot, ankle bracelet jingling, toward the double doors.

Inside the sanctuary, a Hindu priest, draped in white linen, sits cross-legged on the carpet and feeds rice and carnation petals into a small flame in a brass bowl.

"Swaha," he chants. "Swaha. Peace."

* * *

The scenes are now familiar across America.

Domes of the Golden Palace flank a winding Appalachian road in West Virginia. The Hindu Society of Nevada nests near a Las Vegas golf course and master-planned community.

Hindu temples have popped up in Nashville, Tenn.; Hollywood and Malibu, Calif.; Fairborn, Ohio; Middletown, Conn.; and the Florida cities of Davie and Orlando.

The Hindu Temple of Florida rises from a rural stretch of Lynn Road, not far from homes and movie theaters off the Veterans Expressway.

Hindu temples are becoming a "permanent and prominent part of the American landscape," says Mahalingum Kolapen, an Orlando resident who spent four years researching temples for his book, Hindu Temples in North America: A Celebration of Life.

Temples give Indian communities a sense of identity, he says. They surround the children of immigrants with vestiges of a homeland.

Early temples didn't mirror those found in India. The one in San Francisco resembles a Victorian manse. Then came 1965, relaxed immigration laws and waves of immigrants, who wanted a place for children to worship and to connect with their culture.

So began the building surge, first in large cities such as Pittsburgh, already home to Indian businesses, and then in midsized communities such as Tampa.

* * *

He is a small, thin man with white hair. He speaks softly. Others call him "uncle."

Dr. A.N.V. Rao came to the United States from Uttar Pradesh, India, 44 years ago. He moved to Tampa in the mid 1970s to teach mathematics at the University of South Florida.

He recognized, among his students, the faces of young Indian-Americans. When he mentioned Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, some stared blankly.

Disappointed, he would tell a tale that most Indian children know long before college:

Once, the Hindu god Lord Rama conquered evil by killing the tyrant Ravan. He returned to the village, Ayodhya, at night. The people heralded his arrival with lamps.

The story is an essential ingredient of Hinduism, the dominant religion of India.

"I want the younger generations to know," Rao says.

He started a school called Gurukulam at the Egypt Lake community center in the mid 1980s. Volunteers taught religious studies and prepared students for college entrance exams.

The school grew and eventually moved to Cooper Hall at USF.

Meanwhile, an even grander idea took shape.

In 1983, Rao and other Indian leaders - including New Port Richey pediatricians G.M. Ramappa and his wife, Renuka - began collecting money to build a temple.

Rao asked parents to donate what they could - $10, $100, $1,000.

"He planted the seed," says Kalra, who contributed.

Fundraising took several years. Finally, the leaders had enough money to buy land.

Ancient guidelines - called the Vastu Shastra - dictate that a Hindu temple should be built where two rivers meet, on a mountain or hilltop, and where the eastern, morning light can enter.

Or, if not, then anywhere else.

Temple leaders chose the latter.

They wound up on Lynn Road, where a fellow Hindu, Dr. Kiran Patel, owned several acres. In 1991, Patel, who operated Well Care HMO, had hoped to build an Indian cultural center. Patel sold them 2 acres and a small house and agreed that a third acre could be shared by the temple and cultural center for parking. Temple founders paid $66,000.

For three years, the little white house on Lynn Road sufficed. Rao was the temple's first president.

But the need was apparent.

"Muslim children have a mosque," Rao remembers saying. "Christian children have a church and Jewish children have a synagogue. But our kids, where do they go?"

* * *

If the bay area's Indian community had stayed small, the challenge might have been too great.

But Indian professionals seemed to gravitate to Tampa, some drawn by USF and Tampa General Hospital.

In 1992, the Hindu community began constructing a two-story, $770,000 temple with a simple brick facade.

Hindus believe it is disrespectful to tread on sacred ground - the site had long since been blessed - and so they asked God's forgiveness to build their temple. Please accept our feet to come and walk on the earth, they prayed.

In the spring of 1996, the deities arrived in granite.

Hindus believe in one God but a God that takes thousands of forms. In India, individual deities occupy temples of their own. In America, the deities must share. The Hindu Temple of Florida has five: Ganesha, the remover of obstacles; Shiva, god of destruction; Lakshmi, goddess of virtue; Subramanya, eliminator of lust, anger and ego; and Satyanarayana , a form of Lord Vishnu, preserver of the universe.

Statues came by crate from India and, in a special ceremony, were gently placed on pedestals in the sanctuary.

Flower garlands adorned their necks. Their eyes were painted open.

In the winter of 1997, vandals set a small blaze in the temple and left a trail of graffiti. Temple officials did not pursue charges. No one had been hurt, and they hoped for harmony with neighbors.

* * *

For years, the temple stood on Lynn Road looking like a concrete fortress, a crown with no jewels.

It hardly seemed Indian.

That would be a job for the temple sculptors, called silpis, who specialize in an art form called Indianization.

They came from Tamil Nadu, in southern India, their minds and fingers rich with history, their craft taught by fathers and honed at school. From American city to American city, they travel, following the work.

Three years ago, a team of 10 landed in Tampa.

They live in a small red house near the temple and wear donated clothes. They speak Tamil, the language of southern India, eat rice for breakfast and work hard, scaling scaffolding, pushing wheelbarrows, mixing concrete and creating beautiful molds of peacocks, elephants and lotus flowers beneath a blue tent.

Their leader, Vairavancq Chidambaram, 48, creates the sculptures, which range in height from 1 to 3 feet, that cling to temple walls, inside and out.

Lord Rama with a bow and arrow.

Shiva with a conch shell.

Baby Krishna dancing on the evil serpent.

Sitting on a board elevated by red bricks, he holds a plastic bowl of concrete, the palette of his trade. He dips a dull knife into the mixture and dabs designs onto a wire skeleton. It takes about a week to finish one piece.

Chidambaram and the other sculptors follow the direction of temple architect Muthiah Sthapathi, who is also from Tamil Nadu. Sthapathi, from a long line of architects, has designed some of the largest temples in India and is responsible for many in America.

He flies into Tampa every few months to oversee the $3-million temple project. "Once this temple is complete, it will be a landmark," he said on a visit last summer.

Before that happens, the silpis must finish adorning the five domes, which should take several months. Inside, the ceiling will be refinished and surrounded by crown molding.

The biggest job is left for last: creating the pyramidlike main entrance, the Rajagopuram, which will make the temple visible from the nearby movie theaters.

Ancient rules require a height of 70 feet.

Hillsborough County zoning allows 50 feet.

And so pediatrician G.M. Ramappa, now the temple president, and engineer Ramanuja C. Kannan of Largo made their plea to the zoning board, which allowed the higher entryway. Construction will start this year.

Next door, the 18,000-square-foot India Cultural Center and Lotus Gallery has opened. A second group of local Hindus, many from the Caribbean and South America, with slightly different customs, have bought a little white house of their own, with hopes of someday building a temple. Followers of Jain, a separate Indian sect, are also looking at the area.

"It's going to be a religious Lynn Road," said Ramappa.

* * *

This weekend, Diwali will be celebrated by children who know its meaning.

They come to the temple for classes in Indian dance and tabla, the Indian two-sided drum.

"It's more than a building," says Kalra, the longtime member.

Three years ago, she took her two boys, Rajiv and Roshan, to India to visit temples. They saw stone temples, glass temples, temples with diamonds in the walls, temples that were "crowded like crazy," Roshan, 11, said.

None compared to their temple in Carrollwood.

"I've grown up with it," Rajiv, 14, says.

Kalra, too, marvels.

A tree has been planted, she says.

"Now, we share the fruit."

- Babita Persaud can be reached at 813 226-3322 or persaud@sptimes.com

Diwali: a primer

Diwali (pronounced D'vah-lee) is the Indian Festival of Lights. Candles and oil lamps flicker in homes, and fireworks illuminate the sky. The Hindu holiday marks the new year, a time to end disputes, forget quarrels, make new friends and exchange presents.

Worldwide, many Diwali celebrations begin today, finding India at a time of harvest, with mango leaves and marigolds on doorways.

The Hindu Temple of Florida opens its Diwali festival at 7 tonight with a $100-a-plate dinner and concert at the nearby India Cultural Center, 5511 Lynn Road.

Sunday's activities at the temple, free and open to the public, include a 4 p.m. cultural program and a 6 p.m. prayer service, followed by fireworks. The temple is at 5509 Lynn Road.

For more information, call 813 962-6890 or visit: www.hindutempleofflorida.org

- BABITA PERSAUD


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