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.”
Trustees show off the model of the upcoming Templo de Shiva in Lisbon; devotees perform abhishekam at the Doorga Maa Mandir in Catania.
In 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.”
Priest Srinivasan performs archana at the Sri Ganesha Tempel in Berlin.
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.”
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The basement entry to Berlin’s original Sri Mayurapathy Murugan Tempel juxtaposed with the new structure’s finished gopuram; the new, incomplete Sri Manonmani Ampal Alayam in Trimbach, 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.”
Devotees gather for bhajans at the Hindu Mandir Association’s basement shrine in Vienna, Austria.
Our UK correspondent, Niraj Thaker, journeyed to distant Vienna, Austria, to explore the temples there. He wrote, “A small door on Lammgasse leads to the Hindu Mandir Organization’s temple in the basement of a building, much like the entrance to a cave temple in India. Hindus from various parts of Vienna and Austria converge on this beautiful, elaborate, North Indian style shrine. A small BAPS Swaminarayan group holds their weekly satsangs here, too. I was impressed to see so many from the North and South of India coming together to worship.”
The large hall, with all the murtis enshrined at the front—Durga in the center here—is common to most of the provisional temples we encountered throughout the Continent. Murli Lalwani, the temple’s president, lamented, “We have been trying for 20 years to build a proper temple. The government has proposed various sites, but every time it hasn’t materialized due to bureaucracy.” They have raised the necessary funds and intend to start as soon as the latest proposal—a historic building, the inside of which they will be allowed to renovate into a temple—is finalized.
A small room in Vienna’s Afro-Asian Institute, an interreligious meeting place, is home to another shrine. Dr. Bimal Kundu, the priest, shared, “We began in 1980 by celebrating Dussehra, Durga Puja, and it was very successful.” Currently, up to 40 attend the weekly puja and satsang.
A cluster of well-kept rented buildings in Vienna’s Meidling district is home to the Sri Sri Radha Govinda Gaudiya Math, founded in 2001 by Srimad Bhakti Vaibhava Puri Goswami Maharaj and headed by Tridandi Swami Bhakti Sadhak Muni, an Austrian who lived in India and Sri Lanka from 1977 to 1998. Residents follow an intensive daily schedule of bhakti sadhanas and classes, and a growing Indian immigrant population now constitutes 80 percent of attendance at pujas, Swami explained. Under the banner of the Society for Hindu Gaudiya Vaishnavas, they have plans to build a permanent temple on an 8,000-square-meter parcel outside Vienna in the next couple years.
Austria, Belgium & the Netherlands
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Pura Agung Santi Bhuwana, the Balinese temple set in Paira Daiza in Brugelette, Belgium, even has mock rice terraces among the landscaping; main Deities of the Shree Raam Mandir in Wijchen, the Netherlands.
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.
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Reopening ceremonies following completion of the new gopuram at the Sri Varatharaja Selvavinayagar Temple in Den Helder, the Netherlands.