Building the most elaborate Hindu temple in the U.S.
By Lavina Melwani
Photo courtesy of Hinduism Today
Centuries into the future, travelers may one day chance upon a fabulous Chola-style temple on a Hawaiian island and wonder what age, what civilization it belonged to. They will learn about a blaze of faith, a celebration of Hinduism, which took place in the 21st century, thousands of miles away from India.
This faith in a far-flung land was not carried forth by maritime traders or travelers as it was in the 9th century, but by the monks of the Saiva Siddhanta Church. Built far from the Holy Ganges, this temple nevertheless has arisen alongside the Waialua River, on the Garden Island of Kauai, held sacred by the Hawaiian people long ago.
Imagine this – a temple conceived on one continent and then transported – literally stone by stone – to another continent 10,000 miles away, with hundreds of heavy slabs of hand-carved stone, some as heavy as 4,000 pounds, crossing the ocean from South India to Hawaii in 80 container loads!
Indeed, the San Marga Iraivan Temple is perhaps the only temple in the world to have been moved block by block from one part of the world to the other. It’s been called the most elaborate Hindu temple in the United States and also is noted as the only temple to be built without modern equipment in modern times.
The figures are certainly quite mind-boggling. The temple, when complete, will weigh 1.45 million kg and cost $16 million. To create it, an entire village of stone carvers was set up with 70 sculptors, or shilpis, and their families in Mandanayakanahalli, near Bangalore. Here each stone was carved by hand while in Hawaii, another full-time team of six shilpis, along with monks and workers, assembled the temple in its new home.
Photo courtesy of Hinduism Today
Even the foundation of the temple has set a record: Using more than 108 truckloads of cement, Dr. Kumar Mehta designed a crack-free, 7,000 psi formula using fly ash. Old and new meet in this structure: The temple is designed according to ancient rituals and the Agamic Shastras, but cutting-edge technology of digital cameras and computers has been used to plan out the design and workmanship.
The Iraivan Temple is the jewel of Kauai’s Hindu Monastery where 20 monks live under the spiritual guidance of Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami. It is a place of pilgrimage for those seeking spirituality and peace. San Marga means “the straight path to God,” and visitors wander through the divine gardens with its canopy of Rudraksha trees to the Iraivan Temple, which once completed, will hold the rare, 50-million-years-in-the-making crystal Siva lingam – thus bringing the reality of a divine maker of the universe full circle to Hawaii, according to the monastery.
The Iraivan Temple may well be the last all-granite, hand-carved temple. Newer temples, because of time and budget concerns, tend to be constructed solely of concrete and brick. The story of how this ancient art form from India found its way into the Hawaiian Islands is an intriguing one, showing how a Higher Authority ultimately plans things, the monks would say.
Kauai’s Hindu Monastery was established in 1970 by the late Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, known as Gurudeva, as part of the Saiva Siddhanta Church, which was founded in Sri Lanka in 1949. Gurudeva created the Hindu Monastery on a 458-acre, pristine retreat. Then came the powerful moment of discovering the marvelous 700 pound Spatika Lingam, one of the largest crystal lingams in the world, a rare crystal said to bring positive changes to the lives of devotees. Indeed, this temple was destined to be, and for Gurudeva, it was as simple and compelling as following Lord Siva’s instructions.
“It is being built based on Gurudeva’s vision of Lord Siva asking for the temple to be built … making it particularly blessed,” says Ravi Rahavendran, a pharmaceutical scientist and a long-time devotee from California. “The temple is built according to strict and precise methods using the Chola style that stretches back to the 9th century. In fact, each stone is excavated using ancient methods specifically written down in the Agamas and followed by shilpis using very basic tools – this ensures that the vibration from each stone is kept intact, thereby enhancing the sacredness, and using green approaches.”
“The design, layout, orientation to cardinal points and construction of the temple follows very specific and traditional guidelines as specified in the Vastu Shastras and Saiva Agamas,” said Deva Rajan of California. “The architect, Sri V. Ganapati Stapathi, is one of India’s most revered architects of traditional Hindu temples, and the following of this process maximizes the way in which the mystical, inner workings of a Hindu temple can happen.”
Gurudeva directed that all aspects of the construction be engineered to last 1,000 years – an ambitious goal by Western standards, though many temples of such age and older exist in India today. Indeed, all of the stones – 3.2 million pounds – for this temple were quarried and hand carved in Bangalore, India, and no dynamite or machine tools were used, so as not to disturb the “life force” or prana which exists in the stone.
Selvanathan Stapathi, a fourth-generation temple architect from the family of Ganapathi Stapathi, was given the responsibility for preparing detailed drawings and executing the actual site markings for the shilpis to carve the stones at Bangalore, as well as the technical markings for the jointing works by carvers at Kauai Island. He said, “From the beginning, the temple, located at the foot of an extinct volcano on the northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands, was conceived to be as rare as the vision that birthed it.”
Kumar Naganathan Gurukkal, priest of the temple in Lanham, Md., compared Iraivan to the Thirukailayam Temple on Mt. Everest, noting that it was designed according to the principles of the Agama Sastra. “I don’t have words to describe the temple’s architecture. After seeing it, my heart becomes single-minded without desires and thoughts about the future. Generally, temples are built as per the worshipers’ desire but in Hawaii, the temple is built for the sake of Supreme Lord.”
While the idyllic location of the temple adds to its beauty, Ravi Rahavendran observes that there is another important reason for the potency of this temple – the presence of the monks of Kauai Aadheenam, who he believes are living examples of upholding dharma and who lead a very high level of sattvic disciplined lifestyle.
“They will be attending to the rituals at the temple and enabling a strong and continuous connection to the inner worlds. This makes it a very special place because one can actually experience divine energy here,” he says. “Even now the inner sanctum has a strong vibration since daily rituals are being conducted within it.” He adds that since 1975, the monks have been conducting pujas at three hourly intervals 24 hours a day for the past 40 years – without missing a single puja at the Aadheenam, which certainly contributes to powerful vibrations.
The strong vibrations certainly rub off on the visitors, and Nilufer Clubwala of Campbell Hall, N.Y., who is a pediatrician, says that with the blessings of the HHE (Hindu Heritage Endowment) she has started an endowment for the Yogaswami Girls Home in Sittandy, Sri Lanka, an orphanage that houses 38 girls.
Visitors to the temple-in-progress continue to come for darshan, though it will be at least four to five years before the completion of the main structure of the temple. The nine Indian shilpis are doing 98 percent of the work on Kauai. The monks also assist, making scaffoldings, moving stones with a forklift, and pressure-washing sculpted pieces, and every few weeks a crane operator spends half a day lifting stones into place.
Acharya Palaniswami, publisher of Hinduism Today, says that the team in Kauai is working on installing the rose-colored granite flooring stones and assembling the Rajagopuram entrance tower, while in India the second team is carving the Nandi Mandapam, an elaborate, 16-pillared pavilion that will be the home for Nandi, Siva’s mount.
“This Iraivan Temple has been designed and is being built to last 1000 years,” says Deva Rajan. “Utmost care is being taken to use the finest and most durable stone and materials. Workers are advised to ‘slow-down’ and ‘do the very best work that you can ever do’ – advice seldom given to workers on a worldly project. Where else on earth do we find such goals as these?”
This traditional field goes from father to son and each generation is initiated into this sacred art. Selvanathan Sthapati, one of the architects of the Iraivan Temple inherited this wealth of knowledge from his paternal uncle and father, and carries on the proud tradition.“I was brought up in a traditional home and environment filled with the sound of chisel and hammer,” recalls Selvanathan Sthapati. “I was exposed to the sculptural works that were carried out in our workshop – pattarai – from very early days. I always saw shilpis working on stones, my father and paternal uncle giving instructions, carrying out the marking works. I also had seen the whole process of the sculptural form from its rough cutting to a fine-looking sculpture, as well as the loading of the sculptural pieces into huge vehicles. As a child, I learned the skills by watching the scenario at our pattarai and began exploring the nuances and curves of the tradition before the institutional training.”
Such a major undertaking also entails great time and expense, and it is the devotees who are ensuring that the temple dream becomes a reality. Since Gurudeva wanted this temple to be built without undertaking any debt, fundraising is vital for the project to reach fruition. Says Palaniswami: “We have raised $11.9 million toward our $16-million goal. Though we do have a few major donors, by far the majority of all donations so far have come from 10,830 small donors in 58 countries around the world.” Half of this money will be set aside for a maintenance endowment so that the temple continues to flourish in the future.
Big ideas don’t come easy, and there have been many tribulations on the way in handling this gargantuan task. An entire village had to be built near Bangalore to house the shilpis, who all have to be non-smokers and vegetarian, and begin their day with prayers. Stone cutting is a dying art in India and yet in recent years, there has been a new appetite for stone temples. This means that with the small pool of available talent, there is a constant struggle to obtain the best shilpis who will treat the temple creation as their life work, rather than just another job. There have been many engineering challenges in bringing an ancient craft to the modern age and erecting a temple 10,000 miles away.
Bringing shilpi talent to America has been difficult, especially with the visa issues after 9/11. Finally, since this is a pay-as-you-go effort, coordinating the worldwide fundraising efforts is challenging, as immigrant Hindus have dispersed all over the globe.
The Saiva Siddhanta Monastic Yoga Order manages the long-term planning and daily functioning of the temple. As Rajan points out, “Unlike most Hindu temples that are managed by a changing board of directors, this monastic order will bring to the management a consistency and stability that is free of politics and personal motives.”
Gurudeva had envisaged the Iraivan temple as a “Moksha Temple” or “Wish-Fulfilling Temple” and as the beautiful carved stones fall into place, this Abode of Siva continues to draw travelers from all over the world, searching for answers in their own personal spiritual journey, praying for a peaceful world, free from strife and sorrow.
Reprinted with permission from Hinduism Today magazine.