The sun sparkled high on this specific Sunday morning in Chicago, the weather perfect for the cultural encounter that awaited me. Yet, I was hesitant to interact with a society whose values and traditions differed from mine. I had attended local mosques before, but praying at a Mandir (Temple) was a different religion altogether. I had only seen Mandirs in Bollywood movies—events where the protagonist was in a dilemma, and walked up a multitude of stairs, ringing bells to solve her problem.
My sister and I drove through the empty road to a giant gate isolated within nature. The fields were filled with lakes of blue and grass sculptures of elephants and swans. In the center of the scene stood the temple, whose exterior reflected a unique blend of white and gray.
Keenly observing the architecture surrounding us, we strolled through the entrance, a stone square arching above our heads.
“Everything was hand crafted,” a volunteer told us later.
The ceramics contained carving of Hindu Gods, and I pointed out Ganesh the elephant, and Hanuman the monkey.
We walked into the temple through the Haveli (house), whose meticulously crafted dome ceilings told ancient stories.
After removing our shoes, volunteers guided us toward the Mandir pathway. I was handed a red cloth, and told to cover my shoulders. To maintain sanctity, I complied with the rules, and took my first step inside. Instantly, the environment hushed to quiet murmur. There was purity in the air, and serenity within me. I recognized the carvings on the bronze pillars around me, and noticed every shape fit into its neighbor. There were Murtis (idols) on each side of the walls. Men sat in the front, and women in the back. I was bewildered by the segregation, but reminded myself this was not an act of inferiority, but tradition.
I pulled the red shawl tighter over my shoulders, conscious of the others staring and labeling me as an outsider. But soon, my judgments were overshadowed by the start of the service. Music filled my ears as people joined in verses, singing and clapping to call out their Bhagwan (Supreme God). Everyone had his own rhythm, but together produced a beautiful harmony full of emotion. In front of me, a lady taught her grandchild to properly fold her hands. Across, a father helped his son learn the words to the Geet (devotional song). I reflected back to my own religion; how we also participated in such congregations and upheld similar values.
After the Monks conducted the Aarti, the thaali (tray) was carried around to the attendees, and I was reminded of the mornings I’d wake up to the smell of Agarbathi (incense) in my house, my mother lighting the candle and its fume diffusing to every corner of the room. The community was then allowed to circle around the Mandir. People made offerings to the Gods and bowed their heads. As we toured the hall, I looked up, and tried to find the bells I had seen repeatedly rung. I was disappointed by their absence, but soon distracted by a volunteer who informed us about the dedication involved in building the temple, emphasizing the 10 tons of material shipped from Italy to India. He stressed no nails, hammers, or glues were used.
“Everything fits like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said.
My visit concluded with a visit to the Canteen, where I was satisfied by a delicious vegetarian meal. One short visit held so much culture. A part of me had doubted religion to be a boundary between people, but one Sunday morning opened my eyes to the interconnectedness that existed globally.
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