Durga Temple Ceremony
Saturday, March 20, 1999

Priest Hirdaynath Sharma Harnal, left, basks in the light in the atrium of the new Durga Temple. The three-story, 22,000 square-foot building in Fairfax County will be a place of worship for about 800 families.

Article in Washington Post, March 1999

Hinduism Takes Hold
New Temple in Fairfax Reflects Growing Presence in Region
By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 1999; Page A24

It's not often a deity is "brought to life" in a new Hindu temple, but the scene has become more common with the rapid growth of the Indian community in the Washington area.

In a ceremony scheduled for 11 a.m. today, devotees of the goddess Durga will walk in procession behind a six-foot marble statue of the deity as it is placed in their new shrine at Silverbrook and Hooes roads between Lorton and Fairfax Station.

Priests will chant ancient mantras while positioning the figure on a pedestal in a central alcove and placing eight smaller Durga figures in nearby niches. Then, in a ritual that will continue through tomorrow, temple members will dress the statues in silk gowns and gold-embroidered accessories.

These religious observances are a way of "bringing life to the sculptures so that they convey the values the deity stands for," said Madan Gupta, 53, a temple trustee.

The ceremony also will complete sanctification of the $4 million Durga Temple, the first Hindu temple built in Northern Virginia and the third in the Washington area. The Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, on Cipriano Road in Lanham, was dedicated in 1990, followed in 1993 by Shri Mangal Mandir (temple) on New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring.

A fourth congregation, also in Lanham, will dedicate May 30 the new Murugan Temple of North America behind the two-story house where members have worshiped since 1983. And Rajdhani Mandir, which meets in a Masonic Temple in Springfield, expects to complete its new house of worship by summer's end. Both temples plan deity installation ceremonies.

Hinduism, which predates Christianity by 1,500 years, teaches that there is one Supreme Being, called Brahman. But because divinity is beyond human conception, Brahman began to take on forms and personalities people could understand, resulting in thousands of Hindu deities.

Temples typically feature one god or goddess but have interior shrines to other deities in alcoves or small houses. People pray at those shrines and offer flowers, fruit, money or other gifts to the deity they believe best answers their prayers.

Durga, the main deity of the Fairfax temple, is one of many manifestations of Devi, the mother goddess of Hinduism and the subject of a five-month exhibit that opens March 28 at the Sackler Gallery. She represents power and strength in the ongoing battle between Good and Evil and, as a slayer of demons, is often depicted riding a tiger, Gupta said.

The growing migration of Indians to the area has resulted in an increase in the number of Hindu congregations that are buiding temples or meeting in houses or leased public spaces, said Siva Subramanian, vice president of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.

There are an estimated 60,000 to 87,000 Indian immigrants in the area--up from 36,000 in the 1990 Census. About 90 percent are Hindu.

Subramanian, a professor of pediatrics and obstetrics at Georgetown University Hospital, came to the Washington area about 30 years ago as part of a large wave of Indian professionals. More doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists came in the 1970s and '80s--followed by their families, he said. And demand for high-tech employees this decade has attracted computer programmers and other specialists.

One of the immigrants who founded Sri Siva Vishnu in 1979, Subramanian said the community had 1,000 to 2,000 families when it consecrated its temple 11 years later. Today, 6,000 to 8,000 families worship there, with attendance spread throughout the week in daily pujas, or services.

The Durga congregation is much younger, having started nine years ago with a base of eight families, Gupta said. Now it has about 800 families that have made donations to the temple and expects some 150 families at 7 p.m. daily services in the new temple and 250 for the 11 a.m. Sunday service.

Until now, members of the Durga congregation had to find and lease space at schools or community centers and transport small shrines from place to place.

But moving into the temple means more than just having a regular place to worship, said Monica Prashad, 41, Gupta's wife and business partner. The three-level, 22,000-square-foot building offers members and the broader Hindu community a place for reviving or sustaining the culture of India.

This is especially important for Indian children, said Prashad, who came to the United States when she was 14 and grew up in a "very contemporary home" without learning or practicing centuries-old Hindu traditions.

"Now I am learning [more about Hinduism], and I think it's important for the community," she said.

The temple will house a library of Hindu material and offer classes in the Northern Indian language Hindi, yoga, meditation, dance, painting and other arts. In addition to worship, "we're trying to meet the other religious and spiritual needs" of area Hindus, said Shashi Gupta, 43, another temple member.

A multipurpose hall offers space for Hindu weddings, which can last three hours. "We have five weddings scheduled, and the temple isn't even open," she said.

Durga Temple has simple architectural lines and lacks the ornamentation of the intricately carved towers on Sri Siva Vishnu Temple near Goddard Space Center and on the interior shrines of Murugan Temple on Princess Garden Parkway, six miles south.

It's simpler--and less expensive--to build "in this country's style," Madan Gupta said. The design also fits better with the modern American housing developments going up around it.

A grand opening is scheduled for noon tomorrow, the last of four days of inaugural festivities. In coming weeks, four other deities will be installed in Durga Temple, including two in individual houses on each side of the images of Durga.

Each deity will have his own special installation ceremony: Rama, the god of righteousness and truth and hero of the Ramayana, an epic poem about the triumph of Good over Evil; Hanuman, the god of commitment and devotion who has a monkey's face and human body; Krishna, the charioteer and voice of wisdom in the Bhagavad-Gita, a major Hindu text; and Siva, the Destroyer, who with Vishnu and Brahma forms the Hindu trinity.

The temple will be open 24 hours a day to anyone who wants to pray there, Madan Gupta said. And no matter which deity a Hindu chooses to worship, the shrines are open to all believers without restriction.

In Hinduism, there is no ecclesiastical authority that dictates what to believe or how to worship.

"It is not an organized religion in the sense that it interprets all the religious values or controls the shrines," Gupta said. "Religious values and texts are subject to dynamic interpretation."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company