Published on Friday, July 14, 2000 © 2000 Madison Newspapers, Inc. Used with permission
Byline: John-Brian Paprock
Almost two years ago, they blessed the ground in the ancient manner of their ancestors, preparing the land to receive the temples. Friday, July 7, 2000, was the auspicious day to celebrate the first Hindu temple in Wisconsin.
One of less than 50 Hindu temples in the United States, the Hindu Temple of Wisconsin is located in the Village of Pewaukee on 22 acres of land, north of Capitol Avenue on Pewaukee Road, passed the Jehovah’s Witness Temple and right next door to the very large Shepard of the Hills Lutheran Church (LCMS).
Even though some of the building details need to be filled in and the main idols won’t be officially installed until May 2001, Hindus from communities throughout Wisconsin celebrated their first temple puja. A puja is a Hindu religious ceremony that includes the offering of flowers. Nearly 200 people of all generations attended the 3-hour offering service last Friday. Many took the entire day off to travel and spend the auspicious day in prayer and devotion. Sunday was another puja that included a Jain ceremony as well.
The temple fills a tremendous need, according to Board member Manju Shah. “With the majority of Indians, like with all the religions, there is a need to have a temple, to have a local priest for ceremonies,” she said.
The $4.5 million dollar facility actually has two buildings. The Hindu Temple and the Jain Temple were, at first, going to be a shared building, but the separate needs of the Jain religious ceremonies prompted a separate temple construction. “It’s a joint effort, because they are part of the Indian community. We let the 60 or so Jain families to raise enough funds for their own designated temple. So they did,” said Shah, whose husband is Jain.
The Jain temple is one of just over 20 Jain temples in North America. The Jain religion is similar to Hindu beliefs but the methods of devotion and worship are very different.
Only seven acres are “buildable,” but that’s OK, according to Board president Kumar Iyer. Quite a few acres are DNR protected. “The temple should be in a natural place of beauty because the temple is a center of peace,” he said. He expects the building to eventually be open daily from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm at night when there is a resident priest.
Although estimates vary, Manju says there are over 1,000 Hindu families in Wisconsin. “Some would travel all the way to Chicago to go to a temple, but many would not. It’s getting harder to find and rent space for our ceremonies,” says Shah. More than half of the families are within 10 minutes of the temple. “Appleton has been very involved. Racine, Kenosha have been involved.” Madison is also involved as are many towns and cities in between. One of the major sponsors at the ceremony was the Turlapati family from Neenah.
At the center of this first temple puja in Wisconsin was the sacred fire into which the priest offered flowers, food, water, oil, and other sacred elements with prayers and songs. “In all Hindu ceremonies,” explained Shah, “fire is a part of them. Some will worship only with the fire. Some will worship with an image.”
Kalyan Sundaram was the priest from the Hindu temple in Aurora, Illinois brought up especially to conduct Friday’s inaugural ceremonies. He is a priest of the Balaji order. Balaji is one of the incarnations of Vishnu, the principal deity for Wisconsin’s Hindu Temple.
Due to the importance of occasion, a special offering called “purna anunti” was placed into the fire. The priest used a brand new golden sari (given for this purpose). Sundaram asked everyone to put some pocket change into the offering bundle. When the offerings were gathered, he placed the entire bundle into the fire. “In India, we ask for gold coins,” Sundaram said as the flames began to consume the offering.
Then a small idol of the Hindu deity Ganesh was honored, dressed in robes and flowers, anointed with yellow and red paint. Once the deity was invited and decorated appropriately, it was venerated by the faithful and the puja was completed.
Now the community has officially opened the temple for use. In fact, bookings for a wedding, a transition ceremony (called a thread ceremony), and some regular meetings of the Hindu community had already been scheduled.
Can anyone visit the temple?
“After living in this country for 30 years, I’ve met people from all walks of life. People are people.” Says Shah, “It doesn’t matter whether they are American or Indian or non-Indian, they have the same good and bad. We have a saying, ‘There are as many paths as there are human beings. They all lead to the same thing.’ We hope that whoever feels comfortable will come. We hope to see a mixture of cultures here. Anybody is most welcome.”