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Chris Thompson: A visit to the northernmost Hindu temple in the world

  • Author: Chris Thompson
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 15, 2015

Recently, I attended a service at the Sri Ganesha Hindu temple in West Anchorage. I received a warmer welcome than in many Anchorage churches I've visited. The service was very interesting, giving me an insight into this major worldwide religious group.

Hinduism's status among world religions

Numbering over 1 billion adherents, Hinduism is still growing. The four major religions according to the Pew Forum are Christianity (31 percent), Islam (23 percent), Hinduism (15 percent), and Buddhism (7 percent). The two nations where Hinduism is the majority religion are India and Nepal. A recent Pew Forum study of world religions, predicting that Hinduism will decline slightly by 2050. The Pew Forum also documents Hinduism as a minor player in North America with 0. 7 percent of the population -- though that figure's expected to virtually double to 1.3 percent by 2050.

The Sri Ganesha mandir, or temple, started in 1995. Initially meeting in downtown Anchorage, they moved to a new location rented from the Church of Religion Science on Old Seward in 1999. This coincided with the donation of a Sri Ganesha idol donated by Sat Guru Shri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami of the Kauai Aadheenam in Hawaii. In 2002, the temple moved to a location on Blueberry Road, where it stayed for nine years. Temple trustee Neil Bhargava said, "In 2003, I had in my mind to find a permanent place, because it's hard to get a rental place for temples. One day I found a property for sale on Raspberry Road. With the help of the Indian community and a matching donation from Jerry Neeser, we were able to buy the property. We did major structural renovations to create space appropriate to the Hindu worship and culture. The arctic entry was added to the original structure to provide a place to leave shoes. All of this was done through generous donations from local construction companies and Jerry Neeser. Inside we created a space for our deities located on the south wall with glass doors separating them from the rest of the temple."

The end result, through personal observation, is worthy of any church that expects to be in the same location for many years. It's quality construction. It's simple, clean, carpeted, and affords seating for worshipers, both on the carpet and on chairs.

Hindu worship services

In India, most Hindus will go to the temple at least once a day for a service that can last 15-30 minutes and is led by a priest. Additionally, they will worship their deities at home. At this temple, the services are held only on Sunday and last about one hour. Bhargava said many local Hindus also practice the custom of worshiping at home. The day I attended, the service started at 11 a.m., lasted about an hour, and was followed by a meal brought by those attending. I was told that 25-30 people attend these prayer services on a regular basis but that up to 60 people can attend during Hindu festivals. Entering the building I was instructed to leave my street shoes in the arctic entry.

The front of the temple displays three groupings of Hindu deities, idols as they say. In the center is Ganesha, the elephant deity, carved out of black marble. Flanking him on the right were four deities:

Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, and Hanuman (Ram Durbar), carved out of white marble and clothed. On the far left was Durga, also clothed out of white marble, riding a lion.

Trustees of the temple are responsible for providing worship leaders, either themselves or someone familiar with the rites. Worship guides with the service components, both in Sanskrit or Hindi, are provided to participants. The worship leader that day was Neil Bhargava, a trustee. He recited every portion of the service from memory, a significant feat in my opinion, taking about a half hour to do so.

In brief, the service focused primarily on Ganesh, starting with lighting of the Diya. Mantras were chanted inviting the lord to accept the prayers being held in Anchorage. Respect was shown by washing Ganesh's feet and hands with water. He was also given a shower by sprinkling of water. Sandal paste and vermilion were then applied to the forehead of Lord Ganesha. Sixteen mantras were then recited, followed by chanting or singing the 108 names of Ganesh describing his various attributes. Incense and lamps were then lit in order, followed by offerings of food and water. Water was offered to worshipers to cleanse their hands, followed by flowers to offer to the gods. Devotees circled around Ganesh three times in honor of his residing in them. A final goodbye was said to Ganesh, followed by two minutes of meditation.

After the completion of the recitations and ceremonies, there was a period of sung praises, Bjans (religious songs). Before offering the Prasadam (food offered to Lord Ganesha, sometimes shortened to Prasad) to the devotees, the templewide glass doors separating Ganesh and the other deities were closed in respect.

After service meal

I was invited to share a bountiful meal served after the service, but declined as I had a previous engagement. There was a wide array of delightful vegetarian food laid out. Bhargava noted "The meal is strictly vegetarian. We don't allow foods that have meat, onion, garlic, and eggs. After prayer on every Sunday, the food brought by the devotees is offered to the gods, and then people share it as Prasad."

A number of children attended that day, and participated in the services. Bhargava noted they used to have a children's school, Bal Vikas, but they had to close it down due to the small community and lack of volunteers. Some of the children brought children's versions of the Bhagavad Gita, a holy Hindu scripture.

Anchorage has great diversity in religious cultures. Hinduism is just one of them. I was warmly accepted by this community and am glad I attended.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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