No, not Las Vegas again! I’m not letting my family gamble, it’s a sin!” declared my mother. The family was gathered around the dining table awaiting the first snow and pondering options for a trip. The chill had set in. The cold breeze caused shivers as the summer warmth had evaporated. So the question lingered, where do we go in this weather? Long trips were arduous and unpredictable. Flying was plagued with delays, yet none of us wanted to stay cooped up in the house. We were all game to brave the cold and the road. But where do we go?
Museums do not entice my husband and skiing does not excite me. My parents do not mind the snow as long as they view it from the confines of warm fires and hot chocolates. It had to be indoors yet had to satisfy the entire family. As we racked our brains for new venues, my father came up with an intriguing proposal. Why not explore the temples that dot the East Coast? Most of them border big cities like New York, Boston and Washington, so it would meet all our limitations. The temple hours were accommodating, sure, but what sealed the deal was the food. As my husband recited the dishes: puliyodharai (tamarind rice), pongal (rice and lentils), ladoos (dessert) and bholis (dessert), all our heads nodded approvingly.
This was going to be a different experience. Worship laced with wanderlust, devotion blending with discovery, heritage mingled with a holiday. And that was how we set off on the temple trail from Massachusetts to Maryland.
A. Ashtalakshmi Temple
The Ashtalakshmi temple in Ashland, Mass. is of special significance to us. My mother is an ardent devotee of Goddess Mahalakshmi and on every trip to the United States she carries a brand new Kanjeevaram silk sari to donate to the temple. Although she has presented several saris till date, my mother never once got to see her favorite deity wear it. So when we visited the Ashtalakshmi temple, there was a special abhishekam being performed and the temple authorities were more than willing to deck the Goddess Lakshmi with the sari we had with us. This was a pleasant surprise and sent my mother into a spiral of joy. We joined the Tulsi Ramayana rendition and awaited the silk-sari clad goddess’ darshan.
Like most temples in South India that are known for their architectural splendor, this temple structure is also steeped in traditional elements. Vedas and Upanishads refer to a temple not just as a prayer hall or a place of congregation but as the human body where the soul resides in peace with the body. The central sanctum (tower) where the main god/goddess resides is compared to the head, the mahamandapam(courtyard) to the body and the rajagopuram(entrance) to the feet.
In Ashland, this rajagopuram is a sight to behold. Carved intricately and embellished with impressive figurines, it took nearly two years to complete. On Kumbhabhishekam day, when the temple powers are synergized, the priest rode to the top of the tower to pour the holy water. The temple acquires a festive spirit during the Navaratri season. It is a pivotal place for fostering Indian culture and heritage in the New England area. Cultural activities such as classical music and dance concerts and discourses have further transformed the temple into the focal point of the Hindu community.
As we waited for the divine sight of Goddess Lakshmi, we were enthralled by the magnificence of the temple. The screen withdrew and Goddess Ashtalakshmi bestowed her gaze on us in all her grandeur. It was mesmerizing and humbling. The temple also offered prasadam (food). As we set off to explore the city of Boston and Harvard University afterward, the bejeweled image of the Devi stayed in our sights.
B. The Sathyanarayana Temple
The Sathyanarayana Temple in Middletown, Conn. sports a deserted look on weekdays. As we entered the temple, the divine smell of incense and camphor greeted us.
We offered the customary greeting to Lord Ganesha seated in the entrance and moved ahead. In the center was Lord Venkateshwara with his consorts Sridevi and Bhoodevi on either side. The temple also has the idols of Krishna and Radha, Ram Parivar, Sathyanarayana, Shiva, Durga, Aiyappan and Lord Muruga. The Lord Sathyanarayana is the benevolent form of Lord Vishnu and, true to his essence, the temple comforts our mind and slackens our pace. There is no cafeteria but Udipi restaurant is a stone’s throw away. Hartford is the nearest city and if you are planning a trip in summer, Mystic Country (New London county) is a great place to soak in the sun by the sea shore.
C. Sri Ranganathar Temple
The drive to Sri Ranganathar temple in Pomona, New York was extremely picturesque. Since it is nestled in the Bear Mountain state park, the breeze was filled with the scents of pine cones and fresh snow. The temple is one of the selected few that houses Sri Ranganayaki and Sri Ranganatha in North America. The prana pratishtha of the Utsava Vigrahas were performed in the holy shrine of Srirangam and were air lifted to New York. The temple also follows the Yatha Sakthi philosophy where no fees or tickets are collected for the archanas, abhishekams, Satyanarayana poojas or the mouth watering prasadams.
We visited the temple on a full moon day so there were many folks who had gathered to perform the Satyanarayana pooja. The authorities handled the overflowing crowd deftly and never once uttered the word “Jaragandi” (move faster). We worshipped Ranganatha Swamy to our heart’s content and gobbled up the pongal lusting for more.
D. Maha Vallabha Ganapthi Temple
If you are on the East Coast, you cannot miss the Maha Vallabha Ganapthi temple in Flushing, NY. Fondly referred to as “Flushing Pillayar” by our family, the temple celebrated its Kumbhabhishekam recently. It is holds pride of place as the first Hindu Temple in North America and has its own choir. The impressive archway is sculpted with various forms (Siddhi, Buddhi, Riddhi and Lakshmi Ganapati) of Lord Vinayaka. Inside the temple, Lord Ganesha is seated in the center and we go around him to soak in the beauty of the environs. The aesthetic ambience coupled with the divine presence of various gods misted our eyes. It seemed to us that if God wanted to make his presence felt it would be here. The temple has vigrahas of various deities including Gayathri, Agasthiyar and Lopamudra, Sri Ramanujar and Bhairavar. There was one deity Lord Chakratalwar, where Sri Sudarshana and Yoga Narasimha are fused together. My mother narrated the story behind the image.
Sri Sudarshana represents the cosmic mind and Vishnu’s infinite power to create and destroy the universe. He has sixteen arms holding different weapons. Narasimha is the 4th incarnation of Sri Vishnu. This form of half lion and half human was to rescue his child devotee Sri Prahlada from the hands of his demonic father Hiranya Kasipu. Since both illustrate powerful forces conjoined with the noble grace of the Lord, they are fused to be worshipped together.
The food was delicious and satiated both the serious south Indian palate and anybody looking to indulge in the delicacies of India. This temple is strategically situated close to Manhattan, Long Island and New Jersey.
E. The Bridgewater Perumal Temple
The Bridgewater Perumal in New Jersey dominates the view and is a treat to the eyes. From the dwajasthambham(flag staff) to the rajagopuram, the temple is built following the Chola style architecture. The Utsava murthis are made up of Panchalokas (five metals) and the moola murthis are fused permanently in granite. Each god is guarded by his vehicle of choice-Murugan Sannidhi has the peacock; Pillayar (Ganapati) has the mouse and so on. Of special significance is the Sri Anjaneya Sannidhi which is depicted as carrying the Sanjeevi parvatham (mountain) that he brought down from the Himalayas. Strength and courage oozes from the deity and pierces our hearts forever. The Bridgewater temple is in close proximity to the Poconos mountain resorts and other temples like Guruvayoorappan, ISKCON and Swamy Narayanan Mandir.
F. The Maryland Murugan Temple
It is to be stated here that I share a special affinity for Lord Subramanya. Not only is he our family deity but it was to this God I prayed fervently when I was an expectant mother. Since this temple is in close proximity to Washington, D.C., we also visited the presidential monuments and Smithsonian museums. But none of them filled our senses quite like how Lord Karthikeya did. This is one of the few temples dedicated to Lord Muruga in North America and is also affiliated to the world renowned Pazhani temple in India. It was during the abhishekam of Lord Muruga that our ears tuned to the wonderful recitation of “Sri Skanda Guru Kavacham,” which extols the divinity of love. It is through love that we can conquer our fears and destroy our arrogance. Love is God and God is love. Holding this as the mantra we made our way home.
“Travel is more than seeing the sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living,” says Miriam Berd. Temples and worship; religion and god; divinity and devotion are deeply satisflying. As we started off, I had my doubts as to whether this trip would be deemed different enough to entice us. We were neither spiritual nor fanatically religious, so were temples the right choice? But as we headed home, all these doubts were laid to rest. Travel need not be fixated on tourist spots or holiday jaunts. Instead if we expand our vistas, we will be rewarded with an experience that lingers forever.
Meera Ramanathan is a columnist focusing on her dual passions-food and travel. A voracious reader, she also writes about immigration melodramas, cinema and parenting woes. She tweets at @meeraramanathan and blogs at Lost in Thought.(http://dreamzwild.wordpress.com)