A Blessing From the East

DAVID BLUMENKRANTZ  Los Angeles Times, April 1995

A rainbow of flower petals showers down upon the bride and groom. Three priests, clad only in ornate cotton wraps and face paint, lead 300 witnesses in rhythmic chanting. Baskets of fresh fruit choke the altar. Sitar music and the ringing of bells fill the air, mingling with the fragrance of incense and camphor.

The new couple show no outward response--they are a pair of miniature deities--and the wedding is symbolic. It is the annual celebration of Rama Navami, one of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu, and a major event in the Hindu calendar.

There are about 15,000 Hindus living in Southern California, mostly families who have emigrated from India. The Sri Venkateswara Temple, nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains along Las Virgenes Canyon Road in Calabasas, offers them the chance to practice their religion and pass it on to their children in an authentic environment. A large number drive in each week from Orange County, while some make pilgrimages from as far away as San Francisco.

The temple, which opened in 1987, was built over five years by Indian craftsmen known as silpis . At a cost of more than $3 million, they created a replica of the ancient Chola Dynasty style of temple architecture. Replete with hundreds of intricately detailed carvings representing the many-faceted Hindu philosophy, it remains one of the largest Hindu shrines in the Western Hemisphere and one of the few of its size in the United States.

More than 1,500 visitors come to the temple each week, according to its president, P. Mahadevan. All but 10% are Hindu devotees, he adds. Many of the non-Hindus, mainly curiosity seekers, seem awed by the temple's grandeur, idyllic setting and sensual rituals. Joining the Hindus, they walk reverently around the whitewashed, marble and black stone compound. Shoes are removed to draw energy from the Earth.

Hinduism's complex rituals date back more than 4,000 years. Among them are fire ceremonies, enlisting a cornucopia of ingredients such as coconuts, incense, rice and colored powders ground from roots.

"Fire is the messenger, like the postman," laughs priest Seetha Raman, "used to send very specific messages to God." Adherents worship a variety of deities to help them meet life's challenges in love, prosperity, truth and health.

Worshipers bestow endless offerings of fruits, beans, milk and other foods. They pray and chant in Sanskrit, one of the world's oldest languages.

" Lokah samasthah sukhino bhavanthu, " invokes R. Narayanaswami, a temple member. "May people all over the world have happiness and prosperity."

Narayanaswami of Northridge, the president of an Agoura Hills software company, elaborates: "You must have contentment and inner happiness--by slowing down your mind, through meditation and worship."

Narasimha Bhattar is the temple's chief priest. Eleven years removed from his village in southern India, his faith remains unconditional. "If you have faith," he says, pressing his palms together in the classic Hindu manner, "God will protect you everywhere you go."