Temples Everywhere We Go
In every country, mandirs serve as critical centers for religious and cultural expression
ARELIGION’S PLACES OF WORSHIP REVEAL its stage of development in a region. Today, Hindu temples in Continental Europe are like those in North America 30 years ago, when North America had only a few dozen temples—the majority located in warehouses, rented rooms, former churches and homes. Most European temples today, we learned in our travels, are still situated in flats, cellars and industrial halls. But a growing number of towering, traditional edifices herald the establishment of Sanatana Dharma as a major force on the Continent.
Lisbon, Portugal, is home to three of Europe’s purpose-built temples. A 7,000-square-meter parcel of land on Alameda Mahatma Gandhi was gifted to the city’s Gujarati community by the government in the mid 1980s, according to Kirit Kumar Bachu. Here they built the Templo Hindu Radha Krishna, a massive structure inaugurated in 1998, containing an elaborate, marble-clad worship hall, an auditorium that can hold 600 and a community hall for festivals, weddings and other events.
The new Templo de Shiva is coming up in Lisbon’s suburb of Santo António dos Cavaleiros. A large cultural hall, built first, was recently finished and already serves as a gathering place for the local community. Plans are set for a traditional North Indian style mandir on the 16,000-square-meter hilltop property—another gift from the government.
Elsewhere in Lisbon, ground was broken in 2011 for a BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir which is now in full operation. This prominent Vaishnava organization also has a temple in Antwerp, Belgium.
Purohit Krishna Kripa Dasa of Spain tells us there are about 20 temples in his country. “Most are in existing buildings; only two or three were specially constructed as temples. In the future we would like to apply to the government for a plot of land. But Hindus are scattered around the country, so choosing a central place is difficult.”
Portugal & Italy
n Italy the Sanatana Dharma style mandir is common. In the northern regions of Veneto, Lombardy and Liguria and the southern island of Sicily, all but one of the five temples we visited originated as a simple hall, repurposed to honor a pantheon of Deities. In Arzignano, an hour west of Venice, the 12-year-old Sanatan Dharm Mandir is located on the rented second floor of a nondescript bodybuilding gymnasium in an industrial area. The Shree Durgiana Mandir, nestled between farm fields in bucolic Castelverde, and the tiny Doorga Maa Mandir, tucked in the ancient Sicilian city of Catania, manage in similar situations. Kumar Pradeep, president of the Arzignano temple, shared, “During festivals, we always invite the mayor, the police and the Catholic priest. They always have good things to say. We really feel that we are part of the community.”
The Shri Hari Om Mandir in Pegognaga, Italy, tells another story. Of the many shrines serving the Punjabi and Bangladeshi communities that dot the northern Italian landscape, only this, to our knowledge, is currently being built from the ground up. So far four years in construction, it is already being used for pujas and festivals, the fully furnished kitchen turning out puri bhaji meals for hundreds each weekend. But they are struggling to raise the remaining €500,000 (us$687,000) needed to finish. Ravinder Handa, the temple’s treasurer, revealed, “We have started a direct debit system with the bank. Members are signing up to make regular donations. Each month, an amount they specify—€20, €30, €50 ($25, $40, $70)—is automatically transferred from their accounts into the temple’s account.” This mandir promises to become an oasis of Hinduism in an otherwise bleak terrain of factories, warehouses, vineyards and near-empty churches.
In Switzerland, Dr. Satish Joshi told us the Sri Lankan Tamils used to meet at the Hare Krishna temple in Zurich. “Now they have 22 temples of their own.” The newest is the Sri Manonmani Ampal Alayam, a grand, Southern-style temple in Trimbach. Arriving on the last day of a festival, we were treated to a full round of aratis at the temple’s powerful shrines. Costing $3.3 million, the temple had just been inaugurated in March, 2013, after four years of construction and almost three years of Indian decoration. Backed by evergreen forest with an intercity rail line winding by, it is a charming picture of sylvan Switzerland. Mr. V. Ramalingam, the manager, shared, “Now people from all over Germany and Switzerland are coming.”
In bustling Berlin, the borough of Neukölln boasts two temples. The Sri Ganesha Tempel is located in the auspicious northeast corner of the 50-hectare Volkspark Hasenheide. Its start in 2006 is a tale of Ganesha’s grace. Mr. Krishnamurthy related, “I was a member of the borough council at the time. The mayor once asked why I had missed a meeting. I explained we all go to the Hamm temple for the big celebrations, and he asked why we couldn’t build a temple in Berlin. I said, ‘If you give us land, we will build it as soon as possible’—and he replied, ‘Then I will give you a place.’ He quickly proposed five options. This one was in the park, and the house number was 108.”
Not far away, the Sri Mayurapathy Murugan Tempel operated for 22 years out of a humble cellar on Urbanstrasse before a new building was erected in the nearby neighborhood of Britz. The committee took us to see the new temple, where the plaster work was nearly finished and the painting was just beginning (see its brilliantly painted vimanam on our gatefold). This temple’s kumbhabhishekam was held September 7, just two months after our visit.
The Sri Lankan Tamil community has at least two dozen more temples in Germany, most spread across North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most populous state. Of these, Hamm’s Sithivinayagar Tempel is a modest place sandwiched between office buildings near the train station. In 1994 it was gifted its murti and initial donation by HINDUISM TODAY founder Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami.
Just off the autobahn in Hamm’s industrial Uentrop district, a white gopuram competes with the cooling towers of a defunct nuclear reactor. Signs direct cars toward the parking for the Sri Kamadchi Ampal Tempel, the most famous temple in the northern part of the Continent. Over 25,000 pilgrims from all over Europe descend on this magical little citadel for its annual festival in May/June. Sri Paskara Gurukkal, the unassuming yet charismatic priest, came to Germany in 1985 and started the temple four years later. He insists all credit for its success is owed to the Goddess, not to himself.
The three-story Hari Om Mandir is a stone’s throw from the Rhine in the Mülheim district of Cologne. The newest of seven Afghan Hindu temples in Germany, it was still just a concrete shell when we visited. The topmost story will be the temple hall. Below that will be a full-size auditorium; the ground floor will be classrooms. Representatives told us, “When it is finished, we will have music, Bharatanatyam, German, Hindi and religion classes.”
Germany & Switzerland
The Balinese community have built their own temples in this region. Luh Gede Juli Wirahmini Bisterfeld works for the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg. “First the museum asked me to build a Balinese house,” she began. “When we celebrated the opening with our traditional dancing and music, the head of the museum was really happy. He asked what they could do for our community, and we said, ‘Why not build a temple?’ Such a question only ever comes once!” After a year of permitting and planning, permission was given to build the temple in the garden right in front of the museum. Now priests brought from Bali perform the customary purification ceremonies on the lunar cycle and the festivals, such as Saraswati and Pagerwesi, that are so central to Balinese Hindu culture.
Made Sukasta told us the biggest Balinese temple outside the home country is in a 55-acre jungle theme park called Paira Daiza in Brugelette, near Brussels. Like the Iraivan Temple that was carved in Bengaluru and shipped to Kauai, this structure was carved in Bali and shipped to Belgium. Inaugurated in 2009, the traditional stone and wood Pura Agung Santi Bhuwana looks right at home surrounded by a landscape of tropical plants brought in from Bali.
The Shree Raam Mandir in Wijchen, in the remote eastern part of the Netherlands, is one of many temples serving that country’s large Surinamese Hindu community. A representative explained, “We have three services every day, and we sing bhajan kirtans each evening after the pandit teaches from the Ramayan or Bhagavad Gita.” On Tuesdays the Hanuman Chalisa is sung 11 times in place of the usual discourse and bhajans.
In the town of Den Helder on the North Holland peninsula, the Sri Lankan refugee community has built Holland’s first Ganesha temple. Begun in 1991, it was re-opened in September 2013 with the dedication of its new 18-meter gopuram. Clive Roberts, who lives in nearby Kolhorn, observed, “I have seen many temples, but to approach this one in Holland—not India or Sri Lanka—is very touching. You could stand and study the detail of all the figures for ages, and never encompass the whole. The colors are striking and beautifully bright; it almost overwhelms the senses.” In 2000, when the temple was just a room loaned by the local civic council, Clive and his wife Puvaneswary met with Chandran, one of the temple committee members. “He showed us the plans for the temple. It seemed impossibly ambitious, but they had faith that it would manifest.”
France has only a handful of temples; we visited two of these in Paris. Just outside the city in the quiet suburb of Gretz-Armainvilliers is the Centre Védantique, an old country mansion turned teaching facility for the Ramakrishna Mission (see here). It also serves as a temple for the local Hindu community, particularly during major festivals, such as Mahasivaratri.
The 18th arrondissement of Paris, just north of two of the city’s six major train stations, is home to the Sri Manika Vinayakar Alayam, known locally and by the sign above its unassuming entry as “Temple Ganesh.” Though it had to move twice since its beginning in 1958, this unexpectedly small fixture of the Parisian Hindu community hasn’t lost steam. For the past 18 years it has conducted a massive Ganesha festival such as is seldom seen outside India and Sri Lanka. Replete with kavadi bearers, temple drummers, dancers and mountains of broken coconuts, the elaborate chariot parade wends through the Paris streets every September on Ganesha Chaturthi.
This temple was founded by V. Sanderasekaram, who passed away in April 2013. Mr. Jeyaratnam, the manager, described the need: “He found that most of the people who had left Sri Lanka because of the problems there were displaced and didn’t have somewhere to gather. Here they could come in for meditation, and they could be advised as to how they should conduct themselves in this foreign country.”
For most Hindus, temples offer a palpable connection to the Divine. They are the abode of God, the arena for festivals and rites of passage, the chalice of culture and nexus of worship. Therefore, we build temples wherever we live—temples of all sizes and shapes, temples of modern as well as traditional architectural style, temples for Vinayaga, Durga, Murugan, Vishnu, Siva, Rama and more, with joyous festivals and colorful parades for all—attracting many from the local European community back to their ancient roots. Historians tell us the mystical tribes of early Europe had much in common with Hinduism, and the Celts, Hellenes and Druids worshiped Lingam-shaped stones. Though their own temples now lie in ruins, the ancients would feel quite at home in the Hindu temples coming up on the same lands where they once worshiped.
Three European Monasteries
In Italy, Switzerland and France, three ascetic orders hold firmly to their holy heritage
MONASTERIES HAVE HISTORICALLY preserved Hindu dharma through their steadfast discipline and institutional longevity. Ashrams come and go, but monasteries persevere; so it is heartening to find strong, traditional monasteries far from India.
Italy’s Gitananda Ashram lies twelve kilometers inland from Savona on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a remote retreat, a surprising location for such a major Hindu center. Founded in 1984 by Sri Svami Yogananda Giri and named after his spiritual master, the renowned Dr. Svami Gitananda Giri of Ananda Ashram in South India [1907–1993], the monastery is profoundly grounded in spiritual sadhana, temple worship, sannyas and service to the guru, whose prowess might be overlooked given his unpretentious and placid nature, until you encounter his creation.
The center lies on 20 acres, surrounded by dense forests of chestnut trees and accessible only by a one-way, unpaved path that winds five kilometers to the nearest road. This is not an easy place to reach, but it is well worth the effort.
A cluster of two-story buildings provide accommodation for the sannyasins and for retreatants who come for seminars on yoga and Hinduism. The grounds are a lavish display of colorfully painted shrines and murtis—Ganesha, Murugan, Siva and His other half, the merciful Mother Goddess—singing a song of South Indian art and architecture.
Some years ago this Italian monastery brought a team of sthapatis and silpis from Tamil Nadu to build an Agamic, Chola-style temple for the Divine Mother, Sri Lalita Tripurasundari, the main Deity worshiped in the Sri Vidya tradition. Built of concrete and plaster, the temple captures the South Indian tradition in brightly painted splendor. Winters are cold here, with one to three meters of snow—which the monks must sometimes tunnel through, igloo-style, to get from building to building—so this temple is fully enclosed and amply heated.
The temple is the central focus of worship and sadhana. Svami Yogananda Giri himself performs the noon puja each day. From morning to near midnight the holy sanctum is visited, pujas performed by the monks, offerings of fragrant flowers made (they grow 5,000 rose bushes just for offerings), musical praises proffered, inner quiet discovered.
Twice daily, without fail, they gather to sing the entire Sri Lalita Sahasranama. This began years back when the guru was in the hospital and the community gathered to implore divine intervention on his behalf. When he recovered, they expected this difficult daily discipline would cease, but he urged them to continue—observing that devotees can’t go to the Goddess only when in need. They should always fall at Her feet, whatever life’s circumstances may be. Obediently, they have continued, and the power of their persistent devotion is palpable.
Sri Yogananda Giri has become Italy’s foremost Hindu spiritual figure, and today his temple is a pilgrimage place for all Europeans. As the monastery has almost no parking, thousands of devotees walk the five-kilometer trail on Ganesha Chaturthi, children in tow, singing and carrying offerings of fruit and flowers for the Lord of Obstacles.
Guided by Svami, the sannyasins have recently changed the status of Hinduism under Italian law. For centuries Italy only recognized the Abrahamic religions, treating members of Eastern faiths as second-class citizens. In 1996 Swami set out to change this, and on February 2, 2013, an agreement between the Italian State and the Italian Hindu Union became law, an historic accomplishment that celebrates a pluralistic nation.
Thanks to sixteen years of effort by many—especially Jayendranatha, Svamini Ma Uma Sakti Giri and Svamini Hamsananda Giri—Hinduism and Buddhism are now officially recognized religions with all rights and protections, including acceptance of marriage ceremonies, protection of temples, more support for schools and limited state funding.
There is profound emphasis here on sannyas and the strict spirit of renunciation. Each initiated monk is required to surrender the world, to serve obediently, to seek the Self within daily and to live with yogic detachment freed of concerns for “me and mine.” The monks do virtually everything themselves, from carpentry to plumbing, from growing food to splitting wood for the life-sustaining winter fires (100,000 kg are cut and stacked each year).
They teach yoga to hundreds of visitors, hold the major annual festivals, guide the spiritual lives of thousands and still have time to raise a breed of large spaniels and cook fresh pizza twice a month in a wood-fired oven. At Lakshmi, their publishing arm, the monks do their own design and editing, in several languages, on Apple computers. This is a well-honed team guided by an awakened guru, humble as individuals but amazingly adept as an order.
Their self-sufficiency is beautifully expressed in dozens of ornate shrines proudly lining the pathways. While the Indian silpis were here for ten months building the temple, the monks took pains to learn the craft. After the silpis left, the monks designed, built, sculpted and painted these delightful Chola-style monuments, each enshrining a Hindu Deity. There are ten forms of the Goddess Sri Lalita Tripurasundari as well as Siva, Ganesha, Valli-Devayanai-Shanmukha, Panchamukha Ganapati, Durga Mahadevi, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Sheshanaga Narayanar, Sri Akara-Ukara-Makara (three murtis representing Pranava Aum). There is even a rare series of 51 enshrined murtis representing the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.
Any Hindu visiting Italy will be blessed to visit the Svami Gitananda Ashram, and doubly blessed to meet the good souls who have given their life to build this spiritual citadel for Europe’s growing Hindu community.
Omkarananda Ashram in Switzerland
Winterthur lies 1,400 feet above sea level in northern Switzerland, not far from Zurich. A hilly residential suburb is home to the Omkarananda Ashram and Divine Light Center, a loose cluster of ten unassuming buildings. Here live some 25 monks and nuns, led by initiated renunciates in saffron robes.
To understand the Swiss ashram, one must understand its gifted founder, Paramahamsa Omkarananda Saraswati. Born in 1930 in South India, he was initiated into sannyas by Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh when he was just seventeen. His accomplishments and institutions are legendary in India. From his high-tech ashram on the Ganges, followers run 26 schools and two dance and music academies. (See our full story of his life and work here: bit.ly/OmkaranandaAshram).
In 1966 the young swami was inwardly directed to teach seekers in Europe. He founded his first European center in Switzerland; later he established a major ashram in Austria, with centers in Germany, England and France. Ultimately he initiated nearly 200 sannyasins and sannyasinis, who have faithfully run his centers since his mahasamadhi in Austria in 2000.
The heart of the community is a three-story edifice containing the multi-room temple where Swami’s shrine is honored. This powerful chamber is filled day and night with the compelling voice of Swami Omkarananda chanting the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra. Puja is a central sadhana for the monastics—long, elaborate, devotionally charged rites to Lord Siva, to the Mother Goddess and to Swami. Room after room is filled with murtis, each space devoted to a different divine energy. Sri Rudram is chanted in one shrine while a homa is performed simultaneously in another. Devotional music and dance are offered to God and guru.
In a special glass-enclosed shrine on an upper floor, the monks have kept a remarkable peace vigil. Since 1974 they have taken turns performing an Akhanda-Sarva-Devata havan (fire ceremony). Seated at the havan, the orange-clad renunciates chant and offer wood, ghee and prayers into the holy fire, prayers for “the peace, progress and prosperity of all mankind.” For decades this shanti homa was perpetual, 24 hours a day, but now it is tended during the day as staff permits.
Outlying buildings hold the computer publishing offices, auditorium, kitchens, residences and classrooms. The ashram runs a dynamic publishing program, which includes two newsletters drawing from a vast archive of Sri Swami Omkarananda’s philosophical discourses. He was a true orator, witty, incisive, poetic, a master at moving the spiritual forces of all in his presence. The lecture hall, library and reading rooms serve a steady stream of seekers and pilgrims who come to learn of yoga and Hinduism as taught by the founder. While most of the monastics are European, visitors to this religious sanctuary are mostly Hindus who have immigrated to the country.
Omkarananda Ashram in Austria
Sri Swami Omkarananda’s Austrian monastery was established in 1985 in the foothills of the Alps, surrounded by forest. Boasting Europe’s largest Meru Sri Chakra and a library of over 40,000 spiritual books, it has 25 sannyasins and brahmacharinis in residence. Pujas and havans are regularly performed in the temple shrines, and Vedic mantras and slokas are recited. As in Winterthur, the sadhakas follow a strict Sri Vidya tradition toward achieving life’s highest goal: Self Realization.
Swami Omkarananda was boldly Hindu. Unlike many, he was unafraid of using the H-word in public. His was a mystical path, strongly founded on mantra yoga, meditation and worship of the Divine. His emphasis on the guru-shishya relationship sustains those who fell at his feet during life. A central teaching was: “Practice the yoga of synthesis. Be a karma yogi, bhakti yogi, raja yogi, mantra yogi, jnana yogi. Love the all-pervading, all-knowing God with all your heart and soul. Experience Him here and now, and distribute the fruits of that experience to all mankind.”
The Vedanta Center in France
Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Vedanta Centers have come up throughout the world and have been known for over a hundred years as enclaves of pure Advaita Vedanta. Their monks receive instruction at any of their facilities around the world, serving three years as a pre-probationer and then two more years as a probationer living at Belur Math in India. If qualified, they take vows of chastity, renunciation and service. A brahmachari who passes the next four years of rigorous training is ordained into sannyas at Belur Math and given the saffron robes of a swami.
Europe has Vedanta centers in Germany, France, Netherlands, England, Switzerland and Russia. Most also serve as small monasteries, headed by one of the order’s 800-plus sannyasins who oversees the religious life of residents and provides teachings and outreach into the local community.
The Centre Védantique monastery in Gretz-Armainvilliers, France, a rural town twenty miles southeast of Paris, was founded in 1948. Since 1990 it has been under the spiritual leadership of Swami Veetamohananda, the resident administrator and primary teacher. Originally from Bengal, Swami was initiated as a monk in 1971 following ten years of training in Chennai and Kolkata. He is a gifted musician, both vocal and instrumental, and a key member of the interfaith movement in France. He writes prolifically and travels often to perform pujas and to speak on Vedanta, especially the Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which he believes encompass the entire Indian religious tradition.
Nearly all of Swami’s followers are French. He notes, “Europeans admire the Hindu ideals of tolerance and calmness and therefore accept Hinduism readily.” The Hindus in and around Paris are mostly from the French Colony of Pondicherry, with a growing Sri Lankan presence, but visitors come from all over Europe for the ceremonies and feasts, for lectures and interfaith gatherings, to see Swami or participate in the Hindu form of communal life.
A three-story mansion houses the monastery’s temple, bookstore, Swami’s quarters, classrooms, kitchen and dining facilities. Newer facilities house residents and guests. The 13-acre property also has cow pastures and four beehives.
Three monks live at the center along with nine spiritual aspirants, five men and four women. Residents share the myriad duties of every spiritual community—the reception of visitors, building and grounds maintenance, housework, cooking, etc. All are committed to a simple life of pujas, meditation, spiritual discourse, daily service and special events for the public. Up to 150 visitors come for major festivals, like Mahasivaratri. The center has little other engagement with the local community, though it responds to calls for assistance.
The day here begins at 6am with fifteen minutes of mantras and 45 minutes of silence. This is followed by sacred singing and readings from the Bhagavad Gita and the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. Breakfast is at 8:00, followed by the day’s karma yoga. From 11am to noon there is puja, which is optional. A veggie lunch at noon is followed by a short siesta and then afternoon seva. Tea is served at 4:30. An evening meditation and prayer is held from 6:30 to 7:15; dinner is at 7:30. After dinner is a scriptural reading, and by 9:30 all residents are free to retire.
In addition to this daily routine are regular weekly pujas, satsangs and classes. The monastery also offers monthly and seasonal residential learning programs.
This system of community-scaled monasteries, networked together and reaching into major cities around the globe, has proven immensely effective and enduring, all due to the training, sadhana and dedication of the swamis of the Ramakrishna Order.
One rightly expects to find Hindu temples, institutions and ashrams in Europe, and they are there in abundance as our feature stories reveal. That there are also serious monasteries in these Western nations, headed by well-schooled, well-trained spiritual leaders and run by cenobites from many nations is both a surprise and a delight.
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today and Articles writers for the collection)
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