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A festive opening of Jain Center

A colorful procession carries marble idols to the $6-million temple, spiritual home to 1,000 families.

October 05, 2008|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

Wedged between the Buena Park Hi Tire Center and a brown box of a post office soon to be demolished, a massive, amber-colored temple rises.

Indian block tiles line the walls. Fifteen dried mango leaves dangle at the entrance for good luck. Inside, on this day last week, white marble figurines representing 24 liberated souls sit in lotus position in a white room. Soon they will be taken out for a celebratory procession through the streets before returning to the stately new Jain Center of Southern California, the second such temple in the state.

The center's opening Saturday was a triumph for the local Jain community, most of whose members have come to the United States from India in the last three decades.

In India, Jains are a small but influential religious minority. They believe in reincarnation in pursuit of a supreme state of happiness. Salvation, they say, comes through leading simple, nonviolent lives. Followers are strict vegetarians.

The $6-million temple, just up the street from Knott's Berry Farm, is home to "a community and a belief system people have carried on for thousands of years," said Ashok Savla, president of the Jain Center of Southern California.

Thirty years ago, dozens of worshipers from cities around the Southland would pack a tiny house in Cerritos for prayer. Today, the community has thousands of members, a massive new temple and a position of prominence in an adopted land.

Like many of his fellow Jains, Manibhai Mehta, 79, came decades ago to the U.S. for education and decided to stay. In Southern California, Jains occupy the ranks of the highly educated and well-off. They are doctors, engineers and diamond dealers.

Mehta, a retired urologist and member of the Jain Center's board of directors, is originally from Palanpur, in the Indian state of Gujarat.

There, ancient and elaborate Jain temples dot the landscape, giving majestic shelter to dozens of idols -- known as tirthankaras -- that are adorned with painted eyes and, sometimes, with gold and silver baubles.

The foundation of Jainism is respect for living things, said Mehta, who came to the U.S. in the early 1970s, having left India to study for a year in New York and Philadelphia.

He bought a home in Cerritos and immediately began reaching out to Jain families, inviting them to his home for prayer. In those days, he said, about 30 families worshiped at the home on the weekends.

Today, the Jain Center has about 1,000 families. Many live within a few miles of Buena Park, but others come from as far away as Bakersfield to attend prayers on the weekends.

Jain leaders began planning the center more than a decade ago. City officials were quick to accommodate the multimillion-dollar proposal, approving the project in 2000. Construction started one year later and the first phase, a cultural center, opened in 2004.

Inside, bright white marble tiles cover everything -- the walls, steps, ceiling and floors. Spaces carved in the walls provide a place for the tirthankaras. "Marble is considered a sacred stone that provides you with peace," said Nilesh Shah, who helped organize the celebration.

The community celebrated the completion of the temple with 11 days of festivities.

Scholars and religious leaders traveled from across the U.S. and India to give lectures. In India, Jain monks are prohibited by discipline from traveling in vehicles or planes; they must travel by foot wherever they go.

As the faith has spread to countries beyond India, some have broken with discipline to join communities abroad. On Saturday, a dozen monks were on hand for the celebration.

On Saturday morning, the marble tirthankaras -- each about the size of a double-drawer file cabinet -- were taken to the Buena Park Metrolink station and paraded in new Ford Mustangs to the temple. The first one rode in the passenger seat of a bright-red Ferrari.

The cars passed palm trees, a strip mall, a Korean noodle restaurant and a Salvadoran panaderia, and finally the idols were placed in their new home.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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