The Southern Illinois Hindu community gathered Sunday on an open field in Carbondale for a joyous occasion - a groundbreaking ceremony for a planned Hindu Temple and Community Center.
For decades, the hundreds of Hindu worshippers in the region would either worship in their homes, or travel to St. Louis or Nashville, Tenn., the nearest communities with temples, for rituals.
"There is always a ritual," said Dr. G.V. Naidu, a board member of the St. Louis Temple who attended the groundbreaking, "when a child is born, when it eats solid food for the first time, when a family enters a house for the first time" and countless other occasions. The rituals, he said, are "seeking the blessings of the Lord."
A priest from the St. Louis temple, Shri Vedantha Sharma, and his son, Teja, performed the ceremony Sunday invoking blessings of the deities upon the site and the congregation.
The temple will be built on a 3-plus-acre tract at 1209 E. Walnut St., across from University Mall. The land was donated by Dr. Pradeep Reddy of Herrin, president of the nonprofit group, Hindu Temple and Cultural Society of Southern Illinois. Vice president of the group is Naresh Patel of Harrisburg; he and his wife supported the groundbreaking ceremony. Other board members, all from Carbondale, are Padma Chandrasekar, secretary; Vardendra Panchamukhi, cultural secretary; Arjun Sadahalli, a Ph.D. student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, student representative; Subhash Sharma, treasurer; and Dr. Sushil Tibrewala, member at-large.
Tibrewala said having a Hindu temple in Carbondale "should help with the recruitment of students to SIUC and professionals to the area." He and board treasurer Sharma said at present, 10 or 15 families will gather in someone's home to mark religious days because there is no temple nearby. Having such a religious and cultural center in Carbondale, they said, would be an inducement for Hindus to make Southern Illinois their home.
The site will be convenient for SIUC students, Tibrewala said, because Saluki Express buses stop at University Mall, just across Walnut Street.
Some in the crowd Sunday were casually dressed; others in elaborately embroidered saris and other Indian garments.
Most brought gifts of flowers and food, placed on a designated area under a big white tent. Those entering that area were required to remove their shoes.
Welcoming the group, Reddy said plans for the temple are tentative and suggestions still are welcomed. The first structure likely will seat around 200 worshippers, but plans call for a future cultural center addition. Construction of the temple is expected to cost around $400,000.
Unlike many groundbreakings, the Hindu ceremony didn't involve a couple of people wielding gold shovels. Rather, each member of the community was invited to take part in digging a hole. Members of the committee also participated by laying embellished bricks that were blessed during the ceremony and will be used when the temple is built.
An altar in the center of the tent had both pictures and statues of some of the deities worshipped by Hindus.
Most temples in the United States have multiple deities, while some in India and in larger cities are devoted to just one or two dei-ties, said Ramesh Gupta, who has lived in Carbondale since 1984 and heads the biochemistry department at the SIU School of Medicine.
"Hinduism is extremely diverse," Gupta said, with "many deities but one almighty God."
The two priests chanted in Sanskrit as they anointed some worshippers, shared water with others, lighted incense and placed money under some of the fruit and flowers on the altar.
Dr. Sandhya Grandhi said the ceremony involves "separate blessings for each god - but they always start with the Elephant God to remove all obstacles so you can pray to the other gods." There were separate blessings for each of the nine planets.
As the ceremony drew to a close, the entire group sang and clapped in unison and prepared to share traditional refreshments.
More details on the project are available on the group's website, sitemple.com, or by calling 618-889-5954.