Temple Youth Center – Beyond the Building

     Human Life, conceivably, is the loftiest of endowments, barring perhaps our Hindu belief that the ‘ultimate salvation’ is freedom from the cycle of life and death. The dignity of human life rests on the assumption that unlike other living organisms driven by the impulses of nature, humans have the discretionary ability to differentiate right from wrong and that we are empowered with a soul, which enables us to choose a path for spiritual progress.
     The divine gift of life nevertheless comes with variable choices of responsibilities and accountability. We are routinely challenged with options and are often compelled to choose a path that may have an enormous impact on our future. Religion provides us the confidence to follow the right path, courage to uphold the proper values and wisdom to differentiate between good and evil. It guides us to lead a life of honesty, generosity, compassion, and respect and serves to inculcate in us a sense of righteousness, dutifulness and our obligations as a human being.
     Unique attributes of Hinduism include freedom to question, analyze or discuss a certain message before one can attempt to rationalize, consume and accept it. The student of the religion has the liberty to reject a certain philosophical dogma if one is not able to come to terms with it. Hinduism allows one to choose the means and direction to attain self-realization, without imposing any stringent restrictions on the individual. Thus, the tolerance of other religious beliefs is a rare, distinctive characteristic of Hinduism.
     Hindu temples have been the havens for all our religious needs. Primarily being the abode of gods, we congregate in temples for pujas, prayers, and different religious celebrations. They provide the stage for religious education through discourses, explanation of scriptures, mythological storytelling, and other religious classes. Our epics contain narratives that elaborate and convey moral lessons to instill values in the listeners and enlighten their outlook about life. Our Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas provide profound, rational, logical explanations that can be pragmatically applied to everyday life. The symbolic explanations imbued in 202 many of our simple tales impart practical, useful guidance for daily life situations.
     Sri Meenakshi Temple, having qualified as a primary sanctuary for religious rituals, is now entering into an even greater arena of responsibility, to nourish our young souls with the elementary needs of understanding Hindu Dharma. As we, the first-generation Hindus have chosen to move out and settle in an alien society, the onus of passing on the mantle to our posterity rests entirely on our shoulders. We should establish measures that our younger generation takes over the guardianship of our heritage and uphold our rich traditions. They will also require that understanding to feel proud of their distinct identity.
     No one escapes the tenure of being a youth, along with the agony and ecstasy that are inherent to that tenure; yet no one remains to be a youth forever. As the youth mature into adults, they should become ambassadors of our traditions, proudly absorbing our exalted, cultural principles and disseminating them to interested listeners. It may be prudent to hope that during these troubled times, the legendary wisdom of our time-honored scriptures may come in as the panacea for all the ills of the world. Let our enlightened youth succeed in making an impact with a renewed awareness.
     Our newly completed Youth Center is an establishment shouldering an enormous task. Under its roof and within its four walls, beyond its classrooms and surrounding its numerous paraphernalia, immersed within the very essence of its purpose, lies the paragon of teaching and learning, to support, sustain and spread the sagacious wisdom of our forefathers, passed on to us through millennia of monumental traditions. Each and every one of us, even remotely involved with its creation and its operation should feel immensely content to be part of the historic responsibility that we have been fortunate to be associated with.
     We are blessed with just one life. Let us make an earnest attempt to make the noblest use of it. (September 10, 2003)

Sri. Raja Rathna Bhattar – His Memories Always guiding us.

Sri. Raja Ratna Bhattar

     To be asked to express about someone you hold in high esteem is an honor that I cherish immensely. I am privileged with that honor to write about Sri. Raja Rathna Bhattar, Priest Emeritus of Sri. Meenakshi Temple of Houston. I also consider it a blessing to have been closely associated with a person of such intense knowledge and devotion, during my fortunate involvement in the activities of the temple.
     Priests in Hindu traditions occupy an exalted status in terms of respectability and reverence, yet are not the bastions of power wielding politics, like in many other religious hierarchies. In our religious customs, they function as the mediators between the sanctum and the devotee, invoking the divinity of the deities through ritualistic practices. The priests also function as the teachers of our rich religious wisdom, by interpreting and explaining the profound philosophy enshrined in our sacred scriptures.
     Sri. Raja Rathna Bhattar has been a godsend to our temple, spearheading the evolution of our phenomenal growth, from its humble beginnings to the present glorious accomplishments. Since the most basic function of a temple is to provide religious, ritualistic services to the visiting devotees, the priests shoulder the major responsibility of its success. As the chief priest of Sri Meenakshi Temple for many years, Sri. Bhattar was instrumental in establishing, sustaining and promoting the high standard that it has achieved now, attracting many thousands of devotees from far and near. I can honestly and sincerely credit Sri. Rathna Bhattar for having guided us in the marvelous strides we have made in meeting our religious needs in an alien land so far away from ‘home’.
     Sri. Bhattar has been instrumental as a guiding force in all our temple religious activities, like daily poojas for the various deities, planning the various special poojas arranged as needed, making the yearly temple calendars, giving discourses explaining our traditions, providing input in the expansion of our facilities, organizing cultural activities and participating in various educational needs. Even after retirement, he has been tirelessly available and been graciously helpful in all our temple needs. On a personal level, in times of need, he is always there to advise you and to guide you, with compassion and sincerity.
     Sri. Rathna Bhattar and his elder brother Sri. Thanga Bhattar was called to divine duty to Houston many years ago, from the illustrious, priestly background of the famous Madurai Meenakshi Temple, for the benefit of the Hindu population of Texas and surroundings. For someone hailing from a strict, almost rigid religious legacy, adhering to fundamentalism and observing fastidious, orthodox practices, would seem to be a practical impossibility to adapt to modernistic, western attitudes in an almost hostile environment. But Bhattar Mama, as we reverently and affectionately address him, not only lived up to the needs but surpassed our expectations, by his uncanny adaptability and scholarly comprehension of the circumstances. With vast, in-depth knowledge of the true meaning of our scriptures and its application, he has been successful in providing the needed guidance to Hindus here, to fit their needs as demanded by our new lifestyle.
     On a personal note, he has been very close to our family, providing advice on a variety of religious and adaptability issues that we face in this land, accommodating the practical differences in a cordial and prudent fashion without diluting our time-honoured tenets. Even if he tries to snub some issue that cannot be accommodated, with his diplomatic and authentic understanding, he makes it palatable to those listening. Bhattar Mama conducted the weddings of our two daughters, one to an American Catholic and the other one to a Gujarathi Jain; and he held on to all our traditions and incorporated their valued customs without offending either of us and doing phenomenally authentic rituals.
     In Hinduism, as in most religions, one can easily get bewildered and go astray if one does not comprehend the basic tenet that divinity dwells in all. Bhattar Mama has set an exemplary example of a true Hindu scholar by his broadmindedness, his understanding, and interpretation of our philosophy, his application of the knowledge in our religious practices and daily life and his ability to convey the essence of our faith and convince us about it. Speaking at the InterFaith assembly, I have heard him saying to an astonished group of mostly onetrack believers, that Krishna and Christ or Mary or Maariamman are the reflections of one and the same Almighty
     As we celebrate his birthday, it is my honor and good fortune to felicitate his accomplishments and pray for his long life, health, and peace of mind. May Goddess Meenakshi shower her blessings on this enlightened individual, his devoted wife, and his affectionate family and protect him for the benefit of the many of us, who look up to him for his guidance.
(Bhattar Mama has been gone, but he will always remain in our thoughts)

A momentous milestone in our Temple

     Sri Meenakshi Temple is celebrating the renovation of its original Ganesh Temple with the newly constructed granite sanctum and facility. As dictated by the traditional religious mores of ‘Agama Sastras’, consecration and sanctification of the new ‘Sannidhi’ will be dedicated through the ritualistic grandeur of the Kumbabhishekam. The festivities are planned through a week of elaborate religious observance from November 22, with the grand finale on Friday, the 29th 2013.
     The event will be a relevant and prudent occasion to recall the history of the temple from its humble beginnings, through its inspiring progress to the present glorious realization.
     It is the first traditional Hindu religious landmark in the Southwest United States, built over three decades ago and that has been attracting thousands of devotees on a regular basis. What started in 1977 as a humble dream for a small group of supporters has gradually blossomed into a magnificent complex meeting the religious needs of the vast, growing community. This is the first such temple outside India with Goddess Meenakshi as the main deity, constructed with guidance and assistance from the original Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai, India.
     Before the main temple was built, and as the conventional custom of Hindu faith dictates, a small ‘Sannidhi’, a sanctum for Lord Ganesha was consecrated, as shown in the picture, in 1979. It is the belief that every auspicious event starts with prayers to God Ganapathy who will bless it through without any obstacles, to 193 successful completion. To the many devotees, Sri Ganesh Temple has a very special significance with fond memories and spiritual connotations. Worshippers visiting the temple begin their ‘darshan’, offering obeisance at the Ganesh temple first, thus attesting to its sentimental significance.
     The founders struggled very hard during the initial stages to raise funds, own a piece of land and construct a small Ganesh temple. It was a modest, free-standing sheltered sanctum where poojas were conducted by conversant, local volunteers as the devotees stood outside in the open and prayed. The main temple was constructed in 1982 followed by the majestic and ornate ‘gopurams’ at the four entrances along with the traditional surrounding walls. The supporters have been generous with their time, resources and emotions, the temple doing exceedingly well, attracting visitors and adding more facilities as dictated by the needs.
     The Goddess Temple has become a sacred Indian monument in Pearland, the suburb of Houston, and recognized by the state and the city, as an attraction for visitors. To quote Texas Traveler “seeing a gleaming white Hindu temple rising from the grass in the middle of Texas cornfield is a thing to behold”, should give an impression of how it is perceived as an established landmark of the area.
     Built over thirty years ago, Ganesh Temple is in the process of some required renovations. The devotees felt compelled to upgrade the facility and modify it to match the stunning architectural beauty of the rest of the temple complex. So, after the due processes of discussions and approval by the elected Board and the Advisory Council, as laid down in the by-laws, and incorporating input from devotees through a few town hall meetings, it was decided to reconstruct the Ganesh Temple.
     The temple architect, Padmashree Muthiah Stapathi designed the new project as instructed by our scriptural guidelines and taking into consideration the needs of our growing devotee population. Ashok Mungara, our local architect has been in charge of the construction that should be completed and ready to be inaugurated at the Kumbabhishekam. The new construction includes a Vimanam above the Sannidhi, sixteen Shodasa Ganapathy Pillars and a Gopuram at the entrance, all completely built-in granite, following the classic customs of old Indian temples and enhancing and complementing the architectural magnificence of our main temple. The granite brings in the splendor and majestic elegance of our historic temple traditions, while the skylights allow openness and a fabulous view of the pristine Vimanam from inside the hall, thus blending centuries-old antiquity with the modernity of the twenty-first century America.
     For the founding members of the temple, the developments have been ecstatic, beyond belief. As they prepare to phase out of the equation, they can feel immensely proud and content that their dream and struggles have amply paid off, relieving them of any sense of guilt of leaving their precious roots in India. And 194 the young devotees should be pleased that the beautiful, spacious facility could accommodate their growing religious, spiritual, and social needs.
     The temple organization remains enormously proud and honorably privileged to invite the entire Houston community to come and be part of the momentous event. For information about the temple, please go to www.meenakshi.org (November 29, 2013)

Sri Meenakshi Temple, Pearland – The 40-year History.

Sree Meenakshi Temple, Pearland, Texas

     A Temple to a Hindu, is the abode of God, a symbolic assembly where the secular can congregate with the sacred, a spiritual destination for the mortal to experience the Divine. Temples are constructed as per the guidelines laid out in our sacred texts, incorporating the perception of the cosmic elements and their extension into human existence. The sacredness of the Almighty is invoked and consecrated into the installed deities, who are objects to allow the devotee to concentrate on the enormous concept through our mundane comprehension. The construction of the edifice, the installation of the deities, the maintenance of the premises, the observation of the rituals, the periodic conservation and every elaborate detail about the temples are meticulously and austerely guided by tenets laid out in our scriptural manuscripts.
     If to be offered a human life was the ultimate endowment by the Creator, to be involved in creating a temple would be the eventual blessing for a human soul.
     This is the exhilarating chronicle of a group of Houstonian Indian Hindus 187 who had a dream of creating a humble place of worship that has blossomed into a magnificent monument of enviable accomplishment, a marvelous, elaborate, beautiful complex of reverence, love, and pride.
     This is our Sri Meenakshi Temple in Pearland, Texas.
     And this is the story of a few of us who were ultimately privileged to be part of that inspiring initiative.
     Our temple is the first such Shakti temple outside of India and the third Hindu temple created in the United States. And we were permitted and privileged to borrow the prestige of the name by the legendary Sri Madurai Meenakshi Temple, who generously offered all the required assistance and guidance in building our facility in a chosen location in Pearland a suburb of Houston metropolis, Texas.
     When one is writing history, it would be customary to visit and elucidate some of the circumstances that lead to conceive a concept and arrive at a resolution before proceeding with its implementation. And it would be our desire to create a synopsis that would be interesting, informative and enjoyable reading as the life story of an Indian, Hindu religious institution gets established in the heart of a cowboy country. That story would not only convey the achievements of our visionary, early settlers, but it should also bestow our compliments and gratitude to the magnanimity of our gracious hosts, who whole-heartedly welcomed us and our faith into their passionate bible belt.
     As we embark on telling the story of our temple, the narration should elicit curiosity in the readers as they are guided through the premises leading to its birth, the shaky steps and the falls endured through its growth before it matured into a splendid institution, and ultimately creating s sense of sublime satisfaction with gratitude and humility in the accomplishment.
     We may begin the fairy-tale from 1969 when Sri Diwan, a contractor at NASA initiated The India Family Circle, and a few like-minded Hindus gathered in various homes and did poojas and bhajans, the process continuing into 1973. The set up evolved into the formation of the Hindu Worship Society that was inaugurated at the University of Houston auditorium on April 14, 1973. Devotees used to meet at the Rothko Chapel on Sundays for prayers and potluck lunch in the adjacent building. A small fraction broke away under the name of Hindu Temple Society
     ‘Jyothi’, a newsletter was started to reach out and attract community members, the editorial committee comprising of Sri G. Subramaniam, Aravind Ghosh, Sam Kannappan and Pramila Vyas. A piece of land was purchased in 1975 at Hwy 59 N and Little York, with plans to build a temple, where the Bhoomi Pooja, the ground-breaking ceremony was performed by Sri Panrimalai Swamigal, who came with Dr. Alagappan from New York. The land had to be sold at a loss due to a faulty title. Another acre was purchased by the HWS in 1976 on Wilcrest road, where the present Hindu Worship Society continues.
     Even though Hindu Worship Society functioned with members from all over India, at some point it was obvious that the prayer habits and the practice of worship were distinctly different between the devotees of Northern and Southern India. If in the North, the custom was for individual devotees themselves to do the poojas for the deities made of marble with aarthis and havans and bhajans, South Indian system was accustomed to follow Agama Sastra where the granite Murthis were offered Abhishekam, Alankaram, Naivedyam and Archanas by the priests adhering to strictly enforced elaborate steps dictated by the Sastras.
     When Sri S.M. Ganapathi Stapathy and Sri Purushotham Naidu from Andhra Pradesh visited Houston, they advised us that the land purchased was not suitable to build South Indian style temples and since our needs were different, the two factions decided to split our ways. But as much as we had interest, we were concerned about the ability and affordability of a small group of us to undertake an enormous project of creating an elaborate south Indian style temple. There were genuine concerns about our ability in raising funds and possible opposition from the Texan neighbors, as we encountered practical, physical, financial and emotional struggles every step of the way. But our youthful determination and sincere conviction along with the Divine sanction made it an inspiring challenge that transformed into a reality.
     On a clear, pleasant, sunny, Sunday morning of October 1977, about thirty of us met at the Fondren Southwest clubhouse of Venugopal and Sreedevi Menon and decided to proceed and explore our dream, a humble ambition of creating a temple to meet the needs of the Hindus in the area. The decision was to create a Shakthi Temple, a first of its kind outside India and the third Hindu temple in the USA after New York and Pittsburgh.
     Thanks to the encouragement from New York, to Sri Venkateswara Temple and Sree Madurai Meenakshi Temple, we ventured into the envious task. Instrumental in converting our dream to a feasibility stage were the efforts of Sam Kannappan who approached Sri. C. V. Narasimhan, ICS who was the undersecretary of the UN at the time, and Dr. Alagappa Alagappan of New York, who helped to connect us with the right contacts, using their standing influence in getting us the needed assistance and offering salient advice as needed. Establishing the connection with Sree Madurai Temple and ensuring their support in building our sanctuary, it was natural that our Shakthi Temple would be dedicated to the Goddess, and thus the choice was made and Sri Meenakshi Temple, Houston was born. Kodali Subba Rao and Bhaskar Rao Mutyala were instrumental in bringing in the Andhra community and considering the addition of Sri Venkateswara and Padmavathi as other main deities. There was also offer to help from Kanchi Sankara Matt, as the devotee base began to expand. During a meeting at TSU, as arranged by Prof. K. V. Ramaswamy, the committee initiated the creation of a constitution.
     As we were assembling our thoughts and expanding our support base, another group in Florida was attempting to build a Shakthi temple. C. V. Narasimhan informed us that their assistance could be offered only one of us, to the group purchasing the land first and is ready to build and obviously the other one would lose it. In a hurry, we identified five pieces, in Brookshire, Friendswood, on Synott Road, Murphy Road and on McLean road in Pearland. Our group decided on the five acres of Pearland for its affordability, openness and being situated away from the crowds of the city in a less established community. And the spacious acreage was facing east, the ideal choice for the temple.
     Kannappan with his family located the property and found it suitable, contacted a few others in the committee who concurred with the choice and proceeded to meet with the owner and settled the deal with a down payment check of $1000. There was an interesting anecdote that would be worth mentioning here. The identified piece of property was with overgrown grass and was unkempt, but when the owner assured that it had been mowed and cleaned, Kannappan realized what he had mistaken the adjacent property to be the one we bought. And it happened to be the six acres of land across McLean Road that the temple eventually purchased in the next few years.
     Concurrently, a Board was formed with nine members of Trustees. A loan of $29,000 was taken from Almeda Genoa Bank, sixteen of the steering committee members signing the contract and Dr. Rama Chavali setting up the automatic payment of $20 a month. The temple was registered as a Non-profit Association, Sri Meenakshi Temple, but was soon converted into a corporation that would remove the individual liability, but at the same time making the loaners less interested in offering a mortgage. MTS remained as an association from 1977 till 1993. It was registered as a 501C3entity in December 1978 with US Treasury Department Sale tax exemption from the State of Texas and creating a constitution. During the second chairmanship of Mr. Thiagarajan in 1994, it was converted as a Corporation with new By-laws and chartered with Texas Secretary of State.
     Sri Meenakshi Temple initially owned an elongated, rectangle of five acres, a corn-cultivated barren land with perhaps a solitary tree standing lonely waiting for some activity. There were snakes on the ground and wasps flying around. All the members lived remote from the temple land and we could not afford outside help to develop the property. Nat Bhaskaran, Kris Raghavan, Raj Syal, S. Radhakrishnan, K. Balachandran, and many others undertook the responsibility and volunteered the physical labor to convert the piece to a usable area. Every 190 weekend the volunteers would mix concrete and pour on a stretch of twenty feet that would serve as the driveway to approach and reach the spot where the Ganesh Temple would be erected. As it is our custom, every Hindu initiative begins with the prayer to Ganesha, the God who would watch over us, keep the going smooth and protect our noble endeavor without blemishes forever. Looking back, for fortyone years He has stood by us and enabled the temple to blossom beyond our wildest dreams.
     Architect Ranjit Banerjee, professor at the University of Houston helped us with the sketching and planning of the facility. Even though it was desired to have the building set back farthest from the street, since it would then place the parking in the front and create an inappropriate office ambiance, it was decided that the temple would be built closer to the street. Dr. Rajagopal of Dallas and Mr. Palaniappan from San Antonio helped with the structural designs.
     With the assistance of the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh (later the Governor of Tamil Nadu), the idol of Sri Ganesha arrived, the Ganesh temple was completed and inaugurated on Ganesh Chaturthi day in 1979 by the priest who came from New York. But since there was no priest appointed or was available in the community on a daily basis, one family volunteered to do a simple Archana for the Murthi on the weekdays and Dr. Ramaswamy came on the weekends to perform the more elaborate pooja. Initially, there was nothing except that cubical structure.
     Mr. G. Subramaniam and Mr. Krishnamurthy were our senior mentors whose inspiration and motivation imparted the needed guidance for many of us to get involved in such endeavors. Uncle Subramaniam along with his family members arranged volunteers and guided them to do the daily poojas at Ganesh temple, as well as organizing the various requirements like bringing water and homemade prasadam. There were no roads, no running water, no restrooms, nor any shelter over our heads, but we persevered; and it was a sheer blessing for the families who had the precious opportunity to be involved.
     A host family program was started, each family sponsoring a pooja bringing their circle of friends, and potluck lunch with the hope of increasing the devotee base. Sri Manickam Parthasarathy was appointed as the priest for Ganesh Temple who was housed in the trailer home that the temple received as a courtesy of Joy Manufacturing company for $1, due to the efforts from Anantha Aiyer who along with his wife Padma, also acquired pledges for $34,000. Fundraising events by local talents as well as visiting professionals like Parveen Sultana, Balamurali Krishna, Seerkazhi Govindarajan, M. S. Subbulakshmi, and Pandit Ravi Shankar, most of them offering their talents free, are noteworthy to be remembered.
     As the available steering committee members gathered and tried to recapitulate interesting anecdotes from their rusted memories, several of the 191 encounters came back as nostalgic reminders; volunteers with no skill or training having to do the poojas, Ganesha idol getting His arm ‘fractured’ during transportation, standing in inclement weather to find delight in the prayers, driving and getting stuck on the muddy roads, backing off in the dark and slipping into the ditches, hosing and splashing water on the hot roof to keep it cool, feeling disturbed with minor instances of vandalism, getting free help from Mr. Patel to control the extensive pests, and most of all earning enjoyable camaraderie between the many like-minded volunteers passionately rooting for the same cause. From mowing and clearing the grounds, pouring concrete, laying the cables, putting up road signs, bringing food, applying for the several permits, establishing accountable financial transactions, communicating with India and handling the related dealings, the list goes on; the challenges were numerous, but the resolve remained resolute.
     Looking back, there is immense pride, pleasure, and privilege to have been involved in a marvelous accomplishment, to watch our humble dream evolve into a grand reality, and a sublime realization of the Divine allowance to have such a blessing bestowed on us.
(Steering Committee members of MTS, compiled by Venugopal Menon)