Indian-American group plans area's first Hindu temple Single-story building would seat 250


Sushma Swani's son was raised in a Hindu family in Roland Park. But it was not until he went to Princeton and took a course in Hinduism that he truly discovered his Indian roots.

Now Mrs. Swani hopes to make that discovery easier for other Indian-American children. She is among a group of Hindus -- largely prosperous, middle-aged professionals whose children are coming of age -- who want to build the Baltimore area's first Hindu temple.

"We need to turn to our gods in times of birth, death and marriage," said Mrs. Swani, a middle school teacher. "There's a big vacuum there. We desperately need to fill that."

Building a $1.3 million temple would be a major step for the Indian community, which numbers nearly 8,000 in the Baltimore area but has generally kept a low profile.

The group, Greater Baltimore Temple, Inc., has chosen a 10-acre site on a rural stretch of Hanover Pike in Upperco in northwestern Baltimore County. The single-story temple would seat 250 people under a 45-foot-high "shikhara," a small dome. An assembly hall is planned later.

The Hindus view the site as auspicious. The temple would sit on a hilltop, face east and be near water (a country stream), all traditional prerequi sites.

The nearest landmark is the Baltimore County Baptist Church across the pike, where the sign in front urges: "Stretch Your Faith and Rest in the Lord."

Of course, not all Upperco residents are sure their rural area needs a Hindu temple. About 40 neighbors attended a "community input" session Wednesday night at the nearby Boring fire hall. They sat at bingo tables and quizzed the temple developers.

For purposes of their discussion, the temple was referred to as a church and the shikhara as a steeple.

"This is kind of culture shock, I'll be honest with you," Glenn Elseroad, whose family farms in the area, told the Hindus. "It's kind of like a Walton [Wal-Mart] store moving in."

Residents wanted to know whether a gilded steeple and a 200-space temple parking lot were necessary. They envisioned the Hindu faithful arriving in Upperco by the bus load.

"I'm probably affected most by the building," said William A. Lofgren, whose home overlooks the site.

"When I get up every morning, that's what I'm going to be looking at. If that's going to stick out and shine like a beacon in the sky, it doesn't fit with this community," Mr. Lofgren said.

Dr. Mukund S. Didolkar, president of Greater Baltimore Temple Inc., replied that the shikhara was indispensable. It stands as a crown over the representations of Hindu deities at the core of the temple. But he said it need not be golden, the parking lot

could be scaled back and no bus loads would travel Hanover Pike.

The meeting broke up after two hours of polite discussion. The temple builders still must submit a detailed plan, go through a public hearing and await a zoning commissioner's decision on their request for a special exception to build on agriculturally zoned land. Even if all goes smoothly, construction would not begin until 1993.

L The Upperco residents' main question seemed to be: Why here?

With Indian-Americans scattered over the Baltimore area, from Glen Burnie to Westminster, the Hindus said the former Baltimore County cornfield was actually quite a central location -- or at least as central as the group could afford.

More than 28,000 Asian Indians live in Maryland, two-thirds of them in the Washington suburbs. More than 18,000 are Indian-born, according to the 1990 census. That makes them the second-largest group of foreign-born Asians in thestate behind Koreans.

L Roughly 900 new Indian immigrants arrive in Maryland a year.

About 7,700 Asian Indians live in the Baltimore area.

They are dispersed widely, with the largest Indian populations in the Centennial area of Ellicott City, in western Baltimore County off Rolling Road, and in Charles Village near the Johns Hopkins University. Significant numbers also live in Columbia, Glyndon and Perry Hall.

Indians gather on weekends at one another's homes or in rented school cafeterias for special events. India Forum, a cultural group whose newsletter reaches 510 families, sponsors weekly classes in the Hindi language and Indian music and dance.

The annual Indian Festival will be held August 16 at Festival Hall. The community also celebrates Holi, a raucous spring festival in which revelers throw colored water on each other, and Diwali, the New Year festival of lights held in the autumn.

But the Indian community has no gathering place to call its own. Hindus trek to suburban Washington, Harrisburg and even Pittsburgh for temple observances.

Unlike Christians, Jews or Muslims, Hindus have no regular day of worship. The temple is used for occasional worship and meditation, as well as for religious festivals.

"One of the greatest things about Hinduism is its tolerance," said Dr. Prem Bhatt, president of India Forum. "Buddha was asked what is good and what is bad. His reply was that which hurts another's feelings, that alone is bad."

Hindus neither reject the validity of other religions nor seek converts.

Some are vegetarians, some not. Marriage within the faith isn't mandatory. Some Baltimore area Hindus have married other Hindus in traditional marriages arranged by their parents. Others have married Americans of other ethnic backgrounds in hybrid ceremonies.

Hindus worship a multiplicity of gods. The proposed temple would have a sanctuary housing seven to nine deities, plus two adjoining prayer rooms for worship of personal gods.

Like many Hindus, Jyoti Kumta practices her religion at home. But Mrs. Kumta, a lawyer and mother of two children, feels the need for a "place we can say is ours, where everyone can worship together rather than individually."

"The second-generation children are all growing up," Mrs. Kumta said. "My children are particularly inclined to adopt the American way of life, and I don't blame them for that. But it is very important they know who they are and where they come from."

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