Done deed: Some of the thousands of devotees attending the temple’s inaugural ceremonies line up for darshan following the murti pratishtha
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California’s First Quake-Ready Stone Temple
Modern technology, community outreach and volunteerism turned the dream of building a traditional Swaminarayan mandir in Los Angeles into a reality
HIS DIVINE HOLINESS PRAMUKH SWAMI MAHARAJ, fifth spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and present leader of Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), visited the Golden State for the first time in 1977. He attended satsangs of his San Francisco devotees and encouraged a small group in Los Angeles to hold regular satsang as well. He and the senior sadhus of his monastic order returned nearly every year, nurturing and inspiring devotees throughout California and the Western US. In 1984 Swamishri, as he is affectionately called, inaugurated a small center in Whittier.
Fast forward to 1996: Leaders of the Southern California group made a proposal to build a larger facility, including a traditional stone mandir, to fulfill a vision that Swamishri had shared with them almost two decades earlier and to accommodate their growing congregation. With his blessings, they began searching for land. At Swamishri’s next visit, in 2000, they enlisted his vision and wealth of experience building mandirs, asking for guidance regarding the half dozen parcels they were considering. He guided them to select a plot right next to Highway 71 in the city of Chino Hills. With this thrust from their guru, the group successfully acquired the land and obtained all the necessary permits, studies and approvals to build the mandir and ten other buildings—a process that proved much more arduous and lengthy than they had anticipated.
After several years of working toward approval, the temple’s development team ran into a major snag. Pujya Viratswarup Swami, a monk involved in the planning, explains that the shikharas (towers) for a temple of this size should rise to 78 feet. The local zoning allowed a religious facility, but there was a height restriction of 42 feet. “We had thought there was a variance for architectural features, but we were mistaken. That applied to other zones—not this one.”
Asked again for guidance, Swamishri instructed them to make their application anyway and request a variance. The city officials and staff had been helpful throughout the planning stages, and in 2004 the planning commission recommended that the city council adopt the variance. But then opposition arose. Viratswarup Swami laments, “I think there was a misunderstanding. They may have envisioned 78-foot blocks of stone rising all over the place. As you can see, this one spire, one flagpole, one tip is 78 feet; everything else is well below that.”
The city council decided to allow BAPS to build the ten buildings surrounding the mandir but refused to change the height restriction.
Discouraged, the group asked Swamishri if they should move on and try to find a less restrictive place to build. He kept a positive attitude and encouraged them to press on in Chino Hills. He explained it would be better to continue, to connect with the people, rather than walk away and leave them with misconceptions about Hinduism, Hindus in general or BAPS in particular.
The base isolators that protect the temple from the shaking ground below; solar panels over the main parking area provide shade as a bonus
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Strengthened by their guru’s words and their dedication to make his vision a reality, the sishyas made progress on the other buildings while continuing to pursue the height variance for the mandir. Swamishri followed their progress closely from India, having the transcripts of every hearing translated into Gujarati and read to him.
The sishyas realized the importance of staying and explaining who they were to their neighbors and friends, Viratswarup Swami relates. ”Volunteers ventured out to city and community events, speaking to people in person and on the telephone. They held 13 open houses over the years in which people from the community were invited to the campus to mix and have lunch. These gatherings proved instrumental to our success.
“As we built these facilities,” Swami adds, “we learned how to better communicate with the community, share our experiences, share who we are, how we are part of this community in Chino Hills—that it’s the place we call home, too. We presented to the community what the temple is, what exactly we were asking for, what we do here. The support was just tremendous.”
In 2011, at the hearing about the height variance application, devotees were overwhelmed by the turnout of residents of all backgrounds from around the city. “They were all there in support of what we were doing, and I think the council saw that clearly,” Swami recalls.
During the hearing process, two children from the congregation wrote a letter to the city council and planning commission expressing why the mandir was so important to them. Ronak Patel, a lawyer who helped coordinate many aspects of the project, shares one of their stories: “A twelve-year-old boy had learned in school about the detrimental health effects of tobacco. He had always wished his father would overcome his addiction to tobacco. In the letter he explains what this mandir has taught him, what Hinduism has taught him, what Swamishri’s message of non-addiction and devotion to God has taught him, and how that can impact his life. He concluded that the mandir would have a very beneficial impact on families and related that while volunteering during the construction of the temple he was able to take the message he heard and convince his father to stop his addiction to tobacco.”
Bharatsinh Zala, a senior devotee, adds, “One of the commissioners mentioned during the hearing how inspiring this letter was, that it brought tears to his eyes. A city council member made a similar comment.”
Pramukh Swami Maharaj (center) with devotees in Southern California in the 1970s
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Strong support also came from Leonard Scarcella, mayor of Stafford, Texas, the Houston suburb where BAPS opened its first traditional stone mandir in the US in 2004. He told HINDUISM TODAY, “What I’ve personally observed for well over a decade now has been the tremendous devotion that these people have to their families, the community, their temple and their religious beliefs.” Responding to a request from one of his constituents, he wrote to the Chino Hills city council encouraging them to allow the height variance.
The mayor of Chino Hills phoned Scarcella to learn more about the effects the Stafford temple had on that community. Scarcella recalls, “I explained the situation related to the traffic, the building, but most importantly the perception that I’ve carried with me about the culture of the Hindu people and their strong beliefs, their strong commitment and their extremely strong desire to be productive citizens of the city and the community, always trying to move the city and the public towards its goal. I told him of our experience here and how positive a factor the Hindus had been, and that he should not sell short the tremendous asset that the Hindu people could be in his city.”
Despite the delays and the city council’s stance on the height variance, Pramukh Swami Maharaj advised his devotees to move forward confidently and build the sandstone mandir. Ultimately, the request was granted, and the structure was completed in 2012. Viratswarup Swami reflects, “I grew up in this country. You learn a lot and read a lot about concepts of equality and freedom. I think this temple is a monument to those concepts and to the fact that in America a minority religious group can come to a community and find not just acceptance but excitement. I think this is a great moment for this community, this state, this country.”
California is seismically active, and the greater Los Angeles area is located in Seismic Zone 4, the most severe. Therefore, this temple could not be built as it would have been in low-risk parts of India. Where there is high risk of earthquake damage, a stone temple is dangerous: the violent shaking could cause beams and pillars to crack and stones to come apart. A unique structural design was required to ensure the stability of the temple and the safety of the worshipers.
Job well done: Father and son celebrate during the Nagar Yatra, the parade through the community that was part of several days of opening activities; arati is offered to Bhagwan Swaminarayan and Gunatitanand Swami
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Jagdish Patel, a construction manager for the California Department of Transportation, is a member of the congregation. His expert volunteer help was invaluable in nearly every aspect of the design and construction. He relates, “The foundation was designed as a mat, three feet thick and covering the entire footprint of the temple. It is reinforced with #9 fiberglass rebar, which is 1-1/8" in diameter. We used fiberglass so that if water penetrates the foundation or footing concrete and the concrete ever cracks, the water will not react with the rebar. Thus the bonding between the concrete and the rebar will stay intact for years to come. And wherever the bar had to be bent, we used stainless steel, for the same reason of minimizing corrosion from water.” The life of typical concrete is about one hundred years. By using non-rusting rebar and a special concrete formula, they achieved a foundation with a projected lifespan of 500 to 1,000 years.
The unique design doesn’t stop at the foundation. “This temple is basically a big, thick, stone veneer,” Jagdish continues. “Twelve-inch concrete walls carry the seismic forces. Each stone is connected vertically and horizontally with surrounding stones, and horizontally back to the concrete wall with copper clamps. We used copper for less corrosiveness and long life.”
Between the foundation and the temple are 40 base isolators—perhaps the most significant structural feature that makes it possible to erect stone mandirs in earthquake zones. These are columns containing metal discs in viscous fluid, encased in rubber. Jagdish explains, “The isolators dissipate the energy, absorbing 80-90 percent of the horizontal seismic forces for the structure above. The stone and concrete walls have the capacity to withstand the remaining forces.” When the ground shakes, the base isolators allow the entire structure above to move as a single unit from two to four feet in all directions horizontally, giving the ability to withstand earthquakes rated up to 8.5 on the Richter scale. This is critically important due to the temple’s proximity to the nearest fault line: “We’re actually on it,” Jagdish emphasized. “There is an active fault going through Chino Hills.”
Leonard Scarcella, Mayor of Stafford, Texas, presents Sadguru Pujya Bhaktipriya Swami, the senior BAPS sadhu who officiated at the mandir’s inauguration, with a commendation for the City of Chino Hills; construction manager Jagdish Patel with members of the building team
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While the seismic activity in Southern California presented a challenge, its location in the Sun Belt offered a tremendous opportunity. “We were looking for an alternate energy solution,” Jagdish shared, “because this property will have a total of 11 buildings and lot of activities, plus a large parking lot requiring a lot of lights at night. So we talked to Synergy,” a company that consults on energy efficiency and installs alternative production solutions. The decisions to cover the wide-open parking area and to build those covers out of solar panels went hand-in-hand, resulting in dual-purpose structures that generate a total of 500 kilowatts. “This will provide sufficient energy for all 11 buildings,” he continued. In India, BAPS does use solar for incidental electricity needs at many of its facilities. But this project has prompted them to evaluate opportunities for solar self-sufficiency at their other North American mandirs.
Local electricity production is not the only green principle being applied. A giant skylight provides natural lighting for the haveli (gathering hall), and Solatubes channel natural light into the rooms of many of the other buildings. The mandir itself is lit solely by low-consumption LEDs. The entire campus sets an example for ecological responsibility, demonstrating how to plan for future energy independence and long-term cost savings. Ronak comments, “Initially, there may be additional costs necessary to install the solar facilities, but the benefit to the environment, which is of utmost importance, is significant.”
The community attending this center for weekly worship is relatively small, just 200-250 families. Those families were the major source of funds to build the facility, with some support from devotees at smaller temples throughout California and the Western US who plan to come once or twice a year for major events. For such a small group of donors to successfully complete a project of this magnitude required sacrifice. Ronak remarks, “When you see people not buying a new car, not buying furniture for their home, kids not going out to eat, not going to a movie, not buying new clothes, when their parents invite them shopping and they say no, they want to give the money to the temple, that is inspiring.”
Architecture: Stunning is the level of detail and refined craftsmanship in the LED-lit ornate marble interior of the mandir; (inset) illuminated mostly by a giant skylight, the woodwork in the haveli, a multi-function cultural center next to the mandir, astounds the unsuspecting visitor
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The financial contributions were significantly supplemented by volunteer labor from devotees of all ages. Jagdish Patel, for example, came daily after work, often working until the middle of the night. Youth helped after school and on weekends in every way they could, be it cleaning up the abundant marble dust from the carving work or setting pavers. “They would do it with such enthusiasm and joy, really putting their hearts into it,” noted Bharatsinh.
Children were as generous with their money as with their time. “Ghanshyam Maharaj is the balswarup (childhood form) of Bhagwan Swaminarayan,” explained Viratswarup Swami. (An image of Him takes a prominent place in the mandir.) “The youth wanted to sponser the murti, so they saved money by not buying new video games; they took summer jobs and cut their personal expenses.” This has built an ownership of the temple in the young people, and a pride that they can say they were responsible for this image of God to which they most closely relate.
Swami relates a story that expresses how the volunteers have impacted the community around them. Swami relates, “During our open houses, we met a kind couple named Martha and Carlos. When we first met Carlos, he had just a general understanding of Hinduism and wanted to learn more. He began reading a few books here about Hinduism, learning about the faith a little at a time. As the process with the city council moved forward, we occasionally spoke with him, and he gave us some tips and offered to help us with whatever we needed. He was a strong supporter. But at the end of the process he said something incredible, and I think this represents the story of the mandir. He said, ‘My faith is that I’m an atheist. That’s what I believe in. But when I see your volunteers, I see God in them.’”