TAMPA – Up the grand outdoor staircase that is flanked by depictions of gatekeepers Sri Jay and Sri Vijay, and under the ornate temple tower, or Rajagopuram, dozens of worshippers enter on this special holiday to pay homage to Lord Ganesha.
Here, at what is like a second home for many descendants from India, women in brightly colored saris and men in long tunics and loose pants gather outside under a small tent to follow the chants and mantras of a priest during the havan. It is a consecrated fire ritual, where the small flames are asked to carry the prayers and burned offerings to Ganesha, the god of good fortune, wisdom and prosperity, on this, his day of birth (or rebirth).
Inside is the large, second-floor temple, where worshippers leave coconuts and other fruit and offerings at granite or marble alters of various gods and goddesses – from the presiding deity of Lord Satya Narayana in the form of Lord Vishnu, to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Shiva. Today a large gathering of worshippers sits or stands before the altar of Ganesha as priests and assistants wash his statue and decorate it with flower garlands while bestowing offerings of fruit, honey, milk and yogurt.
“Today is a special day when we invoke the god with all the natural elements,” says Dr. Chitra Ravindra, a family medical doctor and temple trustee, dressed in a sparkling yellow sari bordered in red and gold fabric.
The festival of Ganesha Chaturthi held on this warm, sunny Sunday morning is one of many religious and cultural celebrations observed year round at the Hindu Temple of Florida in a suburb northwest of Tampa as well as at more than a half-dozen smaller Hindu temples in the region.
The temples throughout Tampa Bay – home to the state’s third largest population of Indian-Americans, following South Florida and Orlando – provide more than places of worship. They are also centers from which to pass on cultural and spiritual heritage not just to younger generations tracing lineage to India, but also to the general public at large. The temples offer everything from classes on yoga, to studies of ancient India scriptures and texts, to the colorful festivals and celebrations held throughout the year.
Hinduism, considered the oldest religion in the world, is the dominant religion of India with no fixed or specific theological system, no founder, and an incredibly diverse array of traditions and philosophies. However, many forms share a common recognition of a supreme God manifested through many lords, gods and goddesses. They also share many central principles, such as the belief that people create their destinies through thoughts, words and actions – the law of karma – resulting in rebirths until all karmas are resolved and liberation is attained through the highest consciousness and union with God.
Two other temples are located right here next to the Hindu Temple of Florida – all situated on 10 acres of land anchored by the India Cultural Center. On this same morning across a grassy field and parking lot, followers at the Vishnu Mandir gather for a lecture, service and singing inside a one-story white house with pink trim.
To the back of the 10 acres and closer to the India Cultural Center is the Jain Temple – a large white building with ornate archways. Inside the white marble temple this morning, members have gathered, leaving shoes outside on the concrete porch to enter and sit on chairs or colorful rugs, women in bright orange, green and maroon saris and men in long tunics and pants.
The smell of incense hovers in the air, and candles burn along the side walls before small temples of each Tirthankara – or great teachers – believed to have been born human before reaching a state of enlightenment through meditation and self-realization. Up at the front of the temple, members are busy decorating the statue of Lord Mahavira.
Lord Mahavira is considered the 24th and last Tirthankara in Jainism – which teaches a path of nonviolence, peace and self-control toward personal enlightenment and liberation. Today is one of the most important days of the year for Jains – celebrated as the birth of Lord Mahavira.
“We are trying to purify ourselves,” says Dr. Ashwin Mehta, in explanation about the fasting and other rituals that accompany the festival, which he likens to the importance of Christmas. Though Jainism is a distinct religion from Hinduism, it shares many traditions and cultural counterparts.
Activities and festivals take place all year round at all the temples. One of the biggest Hindu celebrations is Navratri, the festival of nine nights and the honoring of cosmic or divine feminine energy, which usually falls in October. During Navratri, three different forms of Shakti are worshipped and honored – Durga, the goddess of power and energy who destroys and cleans out evil; Lakshmi, the goddess of spiritual wealth; and Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom. The festivals are accompanied by feasting, fasting and elaborate, traditional dances. In Tampa Bay, ceremonies are held at temples and are also organized by the Gujarati Samaj of Tampa Bay at the Florida State Fairgrounds. (Visit: http://www.gujaratisamaj.org/)
But the biggest celebration of them all is Diwali – the five-day festival of lights that usually falls in October or November. It is celebrated in numerous different ways throughout India’s regions but is particularly a time to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and to honor and invoke Lakshmi, the goddess of spiritual wealth.
Diwali has been likened to the celebratory significance of Christmas and New Year’s combined. The festivities are marked by family traditions in the home – including house-cleaning and the lighting of clay lamps to welcome Lakshmi. A new calendar year is welcomed. New clothes are donned, sweets and snacks are exchanged, and at temples and public gatherings firecrackers are set off and dinners and dances are held.
For more details about festivals, classes, service times and other events, here’s a list of Indian temples in the Tampa Bay area along with contact information.
HINDU TEMPLE OF FLORIDA is located at 5509 Lynn Road, Tampa, in front of the India Cultural Center. In addition to religious ceremonies and celebrations, the temple regularly offers educational tours as well as classes on yoga, language study, ancient scriptures of India, public speaking, SAT preparation and more. For more information, call (813) 962-6890 or visit www.htflt.org.
JAIN TEMPLE of the Jain Society Inc. of Tampa Bay is located at 5511-A Lynn Road, Tampa, across from the India Cultural Center. Scholars and yoga gurus who are from India or trained in India regularly visit during the summer and once a month throughout the year. For more information, visit: http://www.jainsocietytampabay.org.
VISHNU MANDIR or temple is located at 5803 Lynn Road, Tampa, near the India Cultural Center. The temple offers fellowship, services, rituals and opportunities for prayer and study for all Hindu sects. For more information, call (813) 269-7262 or visit www.vishnumandirtampa.com.
AMBAJI MANDIR OF TAMPA BAY, 10991 58th Street, Pinellas Park. The temple is a place for Hindu worship and cultural events. For more information, call (727) 388-6685 or visit: www.ambajimandir.org.
SANATAN MANDIR, for Hindu worship and celebrations, is located at 311 E. Palm Ave. Tampa. For more information, call (813) 221-4482 or visit www.ourmandir.org.
BAPS SHRI SWAMINARAYAN MANDIR, is located at 9556 E. Fowler Ave., Thonotosassa, and offers a strong emphasis on humanitarian service. For more information, call (813) 986-5473 or visit: www.baps.org/Global-Network/North-America/Tampa.aspx.
SHRI RADHA KRSNA MANDIR is located at 14610 N. 17th St., Tampa. For more information, call (813) 971-6474.
SHREE MARIAMMAN KALI TEMPLE, is located at 6949 W. Mohawk Ave., Tampa. For more information, call (813) 494-2317 or visit: http://shreemariammankali.wix.com/cuturalcenterofflorida.
SHRI SARASWATI DEVI MANDIR, is located at 16220 Livingston Ave., Lutz. For more information, call (813) 264-1539 or visit: www.facebook.com/shrisaraswatidevimandirtampa.