BY PETER SMITH
PENN HILLS, Pennsylvania (AP) – As crowds gathered to rededicate the oldest major Hindu temple in the United States, there was disenchantment – prayers for continued recovery from the pandemic that has afflicted many loved ones in India – and the joy of coming together after more than a year of restrictions.
And there was joy.
Shouts of the divine name “Govinda!” Rose from the crowd of believers in Sri Venkateswara Temple on a steep hill east of Pittsburgh on Sunday. Dressed in festive saris and other traditional robes, they looked up at a gopuram – an ornate temple tower whose white, freshly restored facade gleamed brilliantly in the midday sun.
High above, priests stood on scaffolding, lifting ceremonial urns and pouring holy water on golden towers on the gopuram.
They repeated the ritual on three smaller towers in the middle of the temple. There were drumbeats and the horn-like fanfares of a nathaswaram, a traditional Indian reed instrument, and petals were soon blowing from a helicopter over the believer at the believer.
Known as Maha Kumbhabhishekam, a reference to the sprinkling of holy water from ceremonial urns, the festival is traditionally held in Hindu temples every 12 years to reharmonize and strengthen the spiritual energies of the temple and its deities.
Hundreds of believers from the surrounding states arrived throughout Sunday, culminating in prayers, chants, and other rituals at outdoor fire altars for five days. More than 20 priests attended, wearing yellow or saffron robes around their waists; most came from other North American temples.
The Sri Venkateswara Temple is much smaller than its massive prototype, a temple of the same name in the southern Indian city of Tirupati. Still, this suburb of Pittsburgh has become a pilgrimage destination for Hindus across North America and a landmark in the growing Hinduism landscape in America. There are now hundreds of temples across the country, and about 1 percent of American adults now identify as Hindus, according to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center.
Kalathur Raghu, one of the temple’s founding members, recalled a much smaller ceremony on a cool November day in 1976 to inaugurate the new temple. “I don’t think either of us expected us to reach that level when we started,” he said.
The temple is dedicated to Venkateswara, who is considered to be the incarnation of Vishnu, a deity associated with protection and preservation, also known from Govinda. The stone murti or statue of Venkateswara stands in the most sacred place of the temple. Images of other deities are nearby, such as those of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, and Bhoodevi, the goddess of the earth.
Believers flocked to the temple on Sunday afternoon to pay devotion to the deities in their newly consecrated shrines. There, the priests sang and bathed the statues in water, milk, honey, and other traditional offerings while believers put their hands in their hands and received the priests’ blessings.
A Maha Kumbhabishekam has both practical and spiritual meaning.
The ceremony usually takes place every 12 years as it is believed that the spiritual energies in a temple must be ceremonially re-harmonized over time. (In the earlier years of the Sri Venkateswara Temple, the intervals between the ceremonies were longer than 12 years.)
On a practical level, the temple is temporarily desecrated in the weeks leading up to the ceremony to allow repairs in areas normally prohibited to all but priests. At the Sri Venkateswara Temple, contractors renovated everything from ventilation to weathered ornaments.
Volunteers have also been preparing for months. In the days leading up to the festival, women in saris wove garlands of thousands of mango leaves and carnations to decorate the tent and other festival areas.
“We were miserable for a year and a half,” said Nagamani Kasi, the temple’s joint treasurer. “We got nothing to do. … It’s like going back to normal and enjoying it. It’s good timing. “
The festival also included a large distribution of food to a nearby health center, followed by several other donations for pandemic relief locally and to India.
The ceremonies officially began last Wednesday in a tent in the temple parking lot.
The priests took turns singing the Vedas, four ancient scriptures, and tending sacred fires at seven altars. Smaller idols of Venkateswara and other deities stood in front of it.
The scent of incense and wood smoke mingled with the damp summer air as the amplified voices of the priests rang out for hours each day. The priests sometimes sang in unison, sometimes in a call-and-answer chant, led by the Clarion voice of Samudrala Venkatacharyulu, the chief priest of Sri Venkateswara Temple.
At various points, priests led the faithful in processions around the tent.
Hundreds of worshipers gathered at the Sri Venkateswara Temple near Pittsburgh to celebrate Maha Kumbhabhishekam, the five-day Hindu dedication ceremony for the country’s oldest major Hindu temple. (AP video)
The prayers are not only on behalf of the believers, but that “the whole universe is healthy and happy” and that the coronavirus “will soon go away,” said Venkatacharyulu. He came here from the Mother Temple in India in 1982 at the age of 21 for a two-year assignment that spanned almost 40 years in what he calls “America Tirupati”.
Historically, Hinduism had a small following in the United States, but its American profile grew after a 1965 Congressional bill that opened the doors to more immigrants from Asia and elsewhere.
Pittsburgh attracted Indian immigrants to engineering, medical, and educational careers, and the Hindu community began to grow together in the early 1970s when a small group of children met in a theater basement to study Indian classical dance. “We went and prayed a little and then started the dance class,” said teacher Mani Manoharan.
Church leaders concluded that “we need a temple” and mobilized funds and other volunteer efforts, Raghu recalled. The Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati contributed money and sent artisans and priests to help.
The Indian population of the Pittsburgh area was “not a large community at the time,” said Raghu, “but we had the passion.”
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the Lilly Foundation through The Conversation US. AP is solely responsible for this content.