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Rising Shrines : Hindus in Southern California Join to Build a Spiritual Home Away From Home in Calabasas

September 24, 1987|MICHELE LINGRE | Lingre is a Woodland Hills free-lance writer.

Venkataraman Sambasivan of Northridge, his wife, Uma, and their two daughters requested a special ceremony to be performed in honor of Lord Siva, one of the main deities worshipped at the Venkateswara Hindu temple. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the family and 10 other devotees gathered in front of the black granite idols: An elipsoid symbolized Siva, and a statue of a human body with an elephant's head represented Siva's son, Ganesha.

The priest, girded from the waist down in a white cloth, chanted, scooped some water with a sea shell, poured it onto the idols and splashed it over the small congregation. Next, he anointed the idols with oil and powder, offered flowers to Siva, then a paste made of brown sugar, bananas and honey. Women wore their best saris of bright-colored silks and gold lame.

Was this India, or the United States?

Chitra Sambasivan, 10, had it figured out. "It's both," she said. "I see my friends, I know it's the U.S. But I've been to temples in India several times, and it's also just like this."

The Venkateswara temple in Calabasas is the only Hindu temple in Southern California. It was built by the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California, a nonprofit organization formed in 1976 to build the religious edifice in the ancient Chola architectural style typical of southern India.

After nearly $2 million in construction costs and 11 years of effort--the temple is two years behind schedule--the Society's members are putting the finishing touches on their project. The 26,000-square-foot temple has been open to visitors since the first shrine was erected, and will be officially completed Oct. 11. On that day, the priests will symbolically purify the building. And from then on, the Society hopes the high towers rising white and ornate above the oak trees of Las Virgenes Road will be a magnet for the 10,000 Hindu families who live in the greater Los Angeles area.

"We come here every week for at least two or three hours," said Venkataraman Sambasivan, 39, a cardiologist who came to California in 1979 from the Madras province of southern India. "The temple is an important part of life in India. You could say Hinduism is a way of life; it brings spirituality and peace. Life has ups and downs, and when the downs come, you can pray and meditate here, it's like getting charged."

Word about the temple is spreading. Parveen Kakar, 21, who arrived from northern India last month to complete his engineering studies at California State University, Northridge is delighted that there is a temple nearby. "I haven't seen the temple yet," he said, "because I just got my driver's license. But I will go as soon as I have a car and whenever I have time, to be with other Indian people. Also, southern Indian temples are said to be the architectural splendor of India, so I'm real curious to see that place."

The temple stands on 4.5 acres of land that 30 members of the Hindu Temple Society bought in 1977. Another group arranged for $1.3 million in loans from the State Bank of India to cover the construction costs.

The structure consists of nine shrines on two levels, including the main sanctum for Lord Venkateswara. The society's members dedicated the temple to Venkateswara, a manifestation of Vishnu, because he blesses people with all their material desires, said Vasan Srinivasan, the Temple Society's secretary.

All shrines face east, as dictated by the rules of temple architecture, and all buildings are covered with small columns, niches filled by statues of Hindu deities, convoluted animal shapes, swans, lions with bulging eyes and cheeks, luxuriant leaf and floral patterns.

Each part of the temple symbolizes a part of God's body. "The main sanctum upstairs," R. Parthasarathy, the temple manager, explained, "represents the head; the open prayer hall in front of it is the stomach, the entrance tower is the feet. At home, there are many other corridors representing the neck, the heart, and so on, but here we don't have space."

This temple might not be as grand as the ones in India, but it was built with the same Old World craftsmanship. S.M. Muthiah, an architect--or sthapathi from Madras, did the original design and selected the Indian craftsmen to come here and do the artwork. Ravi Varma, a Los Angeles architect, revised the designs to suit American building regulations.

At one point 20 craftsmen--or silpis-- from India were on the construction site, sharing a trailer for living quarters and working to fashion the myriad statues and figurines that decorate the temple. As the work nears completion, 13 silpis remain, ready to move on to the next job.

Madhavan Achary, 52, is one of the silpis. He has been working in this country for four years at similar temple sites in New York, Houston and San Francisco. This is the last stop for him, and he looks forward to heading home to his small village near Madurai in the Madras province.

A Pupil at 12

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