'Passage from India': Bartlett Hindu temple carved by Indian craftsman

 
By Rukmini Callimachi
Updated 3/11/2017 9:51 PM
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  • Workers prepare marble near Pinwara for the construction of the Swaminarayan temple in Barlett.

    Workers prepare marble near Pinwara for the construction of the Swaminarayan temple in Barlett. M. Scott Mahaskey/Daily Herald, 2003

Editor's note: This story is republished from a 2003 series, "Passage from India," by former Daily Herald reporter Rukmini Callimachi. She traveled to the country with M. Scott Mahaskey, a former photographer for the newspaper.

PINDWARA, Rajasthan -- Just off of India's National Highway, in the middle of a desert so bald and sun-bleached that even shadows seem to dry up, the largest Hindu temple in North America is taking shape.

A continent away from the temple's eventual home along Route 59 in Bartlett, slabs of white, uncured marble line both sides of the road -- and all through the day, the sound of men chipping at stone spills onto the highway.

In one sprawling factory, strips of cloth stretch across poles blocking out the worst of the glare. Underneath, more than 450 craftsmen work in 12-hour shifts, carving the 108 marble pillars that soon will be shipped by sea to Bartlett.

Paid $1.50 a day, the men carve intricate patterns of sun and stars into the stone. Their hands are cracked. White marble dust clings to their clothes and stains the backs of their necks.

Women, covered from head to foot, bend over their work, polishing the finished product. They make $1 a day -- a standard wage for Rajasthan's marble craftsmen.

Factory workers carve marble for the Swaminarayan temple along Route 59 in Bartlett.
Factory workers carve marble for the Swaminarayan temple along Route 59 in Bartlett. - M. Scott Mahaskey/Daily Herald, 2003

In this village, the Bochasanwasi Shree Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) sect of Hindus employs 3,000 Indian craftsmen to work on all their projects -- including their soon-to-be temple in Bartlett, which they hope will win a Guinness Book of World Records listing.

The temple will cost about $30 million to build, a pittance considering its scope.

The entire complex, which will span 170,000 square feet, will consist of three structures -- two immense halls flanking a central white temple. The temple, crowned with 15 domes, will be made of Turkish limestone and white incandescent marble.

Its architecture, traditionally Indian, will include several grand balconies held up by soaring pillars and a monumental shrine room. The Burmese teak interior of the two halls will be carved with a garden of stylized flowers.

Here in Pindwara, the temple work will cost a fraction of what it would in the States. But money is not the only point.

Inside the factory, on a ledge above a fuse box, 10 paintings of Hindu deities are ornamentally displayed behind glass. Roses and fruit have been placed before them.

It is for them, that half a world away, the temple is being built.

Breakfast of the gods

At the break of day, as traffic on Route 59 is just beginning to hum, the gods have breakfast in Bartlett.

Pravin Thakar, 56, a recent immigrant from the Indian state of Gujarat, sleeps not far from the 10 idols who grace the shrine room of Bartlett's Swaminarayan Temple.

Thakar, the temple's priest, rings a brass bell at 5:30 a.m., gently waking the gods whose job it is to wake the world.

Carefully, he takes off their blankets and undresses them. Then coaxes them, one by one, to bathe with a perfumed washcloth.

He dresses them in ornamental clothes.

He offers them a glass of water and a toothbrush with a hint of Crest.

Then he places their morning meal before them. A spicy Indian oatmeal, followed by a plate of mangoes or cut apples. A glass of sweetened milk, followed by another glass of water -- this one for gargling.

"To us they are not just stone but breathing beings," said Harish Patel of Naperville, the temple's spokesperson, referring to the life-sized marble sculptures fed at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The gods represented here are among the most famous of the hundreds in the Hindu pantheon -- Shiva, Ram, Krishna and the elephant god Ganesh -- as well as Lord Swaminarayan, the 19th century saint who founded the sect.

Idol worship, which is at the core of the strand of Hinduism practiced here, is meant to bridge the gap between man and the divine.

"If we think of God as just being in the sky, then he is too infinite. It's too hard for us to understand him. Too hard to grasp. So we try to make him more like us," explained Patel.

In every way, the temple offers its gods the best. The turbans the statues wear are made of the finest silk, reserved for bridegrooms and politicians in India. The food symbolically served to them is prepared daily; nothing is refrigerated.

But in the next year and a half, the more than 1,000 Hindu devotees here are preparing to offer their gods something even more spectacular.

"If we can spend millions building houses for ourselves -- if we can build sports stadiums and multiplexes -- why not build a big house for God?" said Nayan Mehta, one of the temple's volunteers.

"Should our god be allowed to live in a hut?" added Patel.

The current temple -- which at 100,000 square feet already is one of the most impressive in the Chicago area -- is not exactly a hut. But nothing short of the largest Hindu temple on the continent will be a good enough offering.

"God has given us everything," said temple volunteer Kalpesh Patel of Streamwood. "It's wrong to say that we can even give anything back."

Stone by stone

Pindwara, seven hours from the Ahmedabad headquarters of the BAPS sect, is the center of India's marble solar system.

Every temple and marbled mosque in north India has its roots in this region, so it would make sense that the Swaminarayans would tap into the area's vast marble mines.

But they don't.

Instead, they go 3,700 miles farther to Carrara, Italy, for marble that is the best money can buy.

"It's much softer," said sculptor Ida Ram Khimaji, 60, comparing Italian marble with the native variety. As he spoke, Khimaji was bent over a slab destined for Bartlett carved with a disc-like sun, emanating marble rays.

"It's more than just the softness," said Bharat Patel of Hanover Park, the chief engineer of the Bartlett temple. Indian marble, he said, does not have a uniform hue.

"Carrara marble is famous, the coloring is perfect," he said.

The Swaminarayan sect was introduced to Carrara marble in 1997 by a British architect working on their London temple -- one of the grandest Swaminarayan temples and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest Hindu temple outside India. All the sect's temples built since have used the Italian stone.

From Rome, containers of the fine white marble are shipped by sea to Kandla, a port in Gujarat. It arrives in Pindwara on the backs of trucks.

BAPS is one of three Swaminarayan groups, all tracing their lineage back to Lord Swaminarayan and headquartered in Gujarat, the saint's home. All three have temples in the Chicago suburbs -- the other two are in Wheeling and Itasca. But BAPS, whose largest U.S. following is in Bartlett, is by far the most affluent.

In the foreman's office in Pindwara, a sketch of the future Bartlett temple shows each piece of the immense jigsaw puzzle of marble.

Each beam and sculpted pillar is carved and polished, then packed in foam and trucked back across the desert to Kandla. The pieces then travel by ship to New York, by rail to Chicago and by truck to Bartlett, where the temple is being assembled stone-by-stone in a 30-acre field just off of Route 59.

The men who do the carving are paid 70 rupees a day, the women, slightly less.

This is the great secret of the BAPS sect, which in less than a century has built more than 450 temples in 45 countries.

They use the best marble money can buy, but they also rely on a voluntary workforce of thousands. Some, like Bharat Patel, are highly skilled and yet, for more than a decade, Patel has overseen construction of the sect's major monuments free of charge.

"How can you put a dollar figure on that?" asked Harish Patel.

But mostly, they use the exquisite craftsmanship of traditional carvers to create monuments of soaring beauty.

Even at $30 million, the Bartlett temple is a bargain for its size and grandeur. It is half the cost of the new Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, for example.

These temples serve to publicly announce the faith -to potential devotees as well as to the world at large.

The approach has worked -- the Swaminarayan faith is the fastest growing sect of Hinduism in America, said Nathan Katz, chair of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami.

Its success, he said, has grown hand-in-hand with the Gujarati community here. "The Swaminarayan faith is very ethnically-rooted in Gujarat -- and Gujaratis are disproportionately represented in America," he said.

The population in Gujarat is only 4 percent, but Katz estimates that nearly 50 percent of the United States' Indian immigrants are from that state.

'A serious gesture'

Open the Schaumburg phone book and scroll to page 165, where the Patels start with Abhas C. and continue for 427 names -- a full-page of razor-fine print later. There are more Patels here than Smiths, who number 395.

Patel is the most common last name in Gujarat, the home of Lord Swaminarayan. Born in 1781, he preached the reformed Hinduism that bears his name. It stresses the importance of chastity, resurrected special dietary laws and created a strict code of conduct for the faith's monks, called "saints." Once they join the order, saints are forbidden from contact with women, including their mothers.

A community of affluent businessmen, Gujaratis came to America in waves after 1965, the year the quota of Indians allowed into the United States changed from 100 to 20,000 per year.

Hemant Brahmbhatt, editor of Sandesh, a Gujarati-language newspaper here, estimates more than half the Indians in the Chicago area are Gujarati -- mirroring the trend Katz found in the country as a whole.

At the Bartlett temple, there are so many Patels that the switchboard operator will ask for help in narrowing down the possibilities, as in, "Are you looking for engineer Bharat Patel?"

One of the greatest factors contributing to the growth of the Swaminarayan faith, said religion scholar Raymond Williams of Wabash College, is the building of monuments.

"It becomes a showplace for their message," said Williams, who has followed the Bartlett sect since its inception in a rented VFW hall in Glen Ellyn.

The temple in Bartlett, which began with six families in 1971, has more than 1,000 regular devotees now. That number is fluid, said the temple's Kalpesh Patel, and can jump to 5,000 on festival days and to more than 10,000 when Pramukh Swami Maharaj flies in for an appearance. The saffron-robed "pope" of the sect, Pramukh Swami leads the temple's daily activities by phone and faxes from India.

"This is a very affluent community and they want to make a serious gesture," said University of Chicago's religion expert Wendy Doniger. Referring to the cathedrals of the Christian faith, she added, "They want to show they're equal partners."

Miracle on Route 59

Every morning, as she rushes to ready for her job as a nurse at Alexian Brothers Medical Center, 26-year-old Anila Patel takes a moment to speak softly to the painting of Lord Swaminarayan.

"Get up, get up. It's time to get up," the Streamwood woman urges him.

"In my mind, I get him ready -- I wash him, I feed him," she said. "I try to remember what he was wearing at the temple."

In the temple, the priest literally washes the marbled gods, dresses them and places food before them. But in homes around the suburbs, families also have small idols or paintings. They perform the same gestures in a mental form.

They, too, are trying to close the gap between god and man.

"If an elephant tries to speak to an ant, there is the problem of size. They cannot communicate, because their mouths are different sizes," said Carol Stream resident Kalpana Patel, one of the temple's volunteers.

"So the ant tries to make the elephant more like itself," she said. "It pretends that the elephant is the same size as the ant. That's what we are trying to do."

Caring for gods as humans is hardly different from placing a doll in a creche and adoring it as the baby Jesus, said Doniger. Thinking of statues as the embodiment of the divine is not as foreign as it might seem. In the Christian communion service, the wafer becomes the body of Christ; wine becomes his blood.

In 1995, thousands of people in Delhi began spoon-feeding statues of the elephant god, Ganesh, after rumors spread that milk placed before the idol in a temple had disappeared.

Scientists on TV showed that the capillary action on the milk's surface caused drops to cling to the trunk, making it look like Ganesh was drinking.

Still, the "milk miracle" created a frenzy, spreading from Delhi to Calcutta to Bombay and causing the price of a liter of milk to jump from 6 rupees to 100 rupees -- or from 12 cents to $2.

Miracles are commonplace in India, where the dividing line between the material and the spiritual is much less defined than here, said Williams.

But when miracles start happening in American temples, it also becomes a way of creating sacred ground. That is exactly what happened in Bartlett last November on the occasion of annakut, a ceremony during which women cooked more than 2,500 dishes to offer the deities.

A newcomer to the faith, Anila Patel does not consider herself a devoted volunteer. But she took the time to cook sev, a kind of Indian noodle made with wheat flour.

"There are people who have been going for years," she said. "I don't understand why God chose me."

Temple authorities say Lord Swaminarayan manifested himself before her eyes, reaching out and taking a bite -- then a second and a third -- from a plate of round Indian sweets, called ladoos.

"I saw him pick it up and take a bite," said Anila Patel. "Then he smiled at me," she said.

She was sitting at the far back of the temple's shrine room, in the section designated for women, which is out of sight of the Lord Swaminarayan statue she saw in her vision. She had no way of knowing, said Harish Patel, that there was a plate of ladoos before the idol. As soon as her vision was over, she told others about it.

When they went to inspect the plate of sweets, they found several of the ladoos missing -- and the plate had been disturbed.

That same week, a young woman at the BAPS Swaminarayan temple in Atlanta reported seeing the god drink grape juice. This time, temple workers found a crushed straw and a half-empty glass.

"In Gujarat," said Harish Patel, "there are several temples that are known for being places where God comes and eats during annakut. But this is the first time it's happened here."

Anila Patel said she visited Gujarat soon after her vision and was surprised to find the news preceded her.

"I was sitting in a temple in Nadiad waiting for my husband," she said. "I overheard two women saying, 'Did you know that in Chicago a girl saw Lord Swaminarayan eating ladoos?'"

Embarrassed, she let them walk away without telling them she was that girl.

India's future here

The mandir in Bartlett was built with tons of Italian Carrara marble, hand-carved in India.
  The mandir in Bartlett was built with tons of Italian Carrara marble, hand-carved in India. - John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2015

The Swaminarayan temple in Bartlett will be the biggest in North America.

It is a metaphor, perhaps, for the impact Indian immigrants are having on the suburbs. There are 125,000 living here now.

More than any other ethnic group in the Chicago area, they make the suburbs their home. But, as evidenced by the many houses of worship here now, they can never leave India entirely behind.

"Just as on every street corner there's a different type of church, Indians also have different types of temples," said Subrahmanyam Vemuri, president of the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago. Located in Lemont, that temple's attendees finished a $4.5 million community center in 2001.

There are 17 Hindu temples in the greater Chicago area. All of them are built primarily with donations from Indian immigrants. Many are expanding, which underscores both the growth of the Indian community as well as its growing wealth.

The Balaji Temple in Aurora added 50 acres to its 20-acre site last October and is in the midst of a $4 million expansion, said temple manager Tulsi Das Kakarala.

Other Indian faiths are growing, too. The Sikhs are finishing a new $2 million temple in Palatine. Elsewhere, a $1.5 million mosque is coming to Schaumburg to serve the Indian Muslim community. It is being designed so that one of its walls can easily be knocked down to accommodate growth.

Devotees of the Jain Temple, just up Route 59 from the Swaminarayans, are waiting for a permit to begin a $5 million expansion, said temple president Niranjan Shah.

"We are all trying to recreate India here," Vemuri said.

For all of them, it's a labor of love. A way of making a mark in new ground. Most of all, it's a way to ensure they never forget who they are.

When Harish Patel walks inside the nascent Bartlett temple, he closes his eyes and lets the sandalwood incense wash over him.

"Am I in India?" he thinks. "Or am I here?"

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