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Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Hindu Temple in Southern California

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Chino Hills, California
Have you ever been in what is practically your own backyard, and then suddenly felt like you had been transported to another country?  We were driving to Pasadena to visit friends when all of a sudden right off the freeway we saw this huge beautiful temple we had never seen before.  We recently made the same trip again and this time built in time to visit the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is a traditional Hindu temple located in Chino Hills, California, which is in the part of San Bernardino County that borders Los Angeles County.  Chino Hills is a small suburb that would not normally be viewed as a tourist destination.  But now it has one of the largest Hindu temples in North America, which was recently inaugurated on December 23, 2012.

Haveli
Haveli (Visitor Center)

Haveli Peacock Carving
India's National Bird
I first visited the Haveli, or visitor center, a large white building covered with intricately carved wood.  Inside I was given a brief tour and explanation of what I would be seeing by a friendly and knowledgeable guide.  Inside the Haveli is a square enclosed indoor courtyard with pillars supporting balconies, all made with the same carved wood as the outside.  My guide explained that traditionally hosts would welcome guests by standing in balconies and throwing flower petals, so the balconies in the Haveli symbolically welcome guests to the temple, without the flowers of course.  The wood of the Haveli was all hand carved in India by just over 200 people, which took 18 months to complete.  There are many carved figures, including peacocks, the national bird of India, and elephants, which symbolize strength and stability.  My guide also explained BAPS is not just a place of worship, but also serves the community with activities such as health fairs, walkathons, and youth activities.

Haveli - All Hand Carved
We then walked outside of the Haveli to view the Mandir, the place of worship.  The Mandir is unique because, unlike other BAPS temples, it is constructed from two different types of stone.  The outside is Indian pink sandstone and the inside is Italian Carrara marble.  While the stone came from two different countries, it was all hand carved in India, then shipped to the site and assembled.  The Mandir is also unique because it is the first to be built with earthquake technology.  The Mandir has two sections, the bottom and the top, with springs in between, so in case of an earthquake, the top portion will remain stable and not collapse.  Just a little reminder that you are still in California. 

Mandir Exterior
Mandir Exterior

Elephant Carving
 
I walked over to the temple and, after examining the carved stone exterior, I removed my shoes and entered the temple.  The inside of the Mandir is stark white and filled with carved columns, ceilings and walls.  The floor is tiled with various mosaics of colored stone and mother of pearl.  I happened to enter in time to observe the daily ritual of Rājbhog Arti, a symbolic gesture of welcoming God.  During the ritual, everyone had to remain seated, and the men sat up front, close to the sacred shrine, while the women sat in the middle to back.  The ritual involved chanting, clapping, and music, and the monks came out and opened the doors to the shrine and genuflected in front of the Murtis, images expressing the Divine Spirit.  After the ceremony was finished the shrine could be approached.  The men approached first, and women could approach after the monks left.

I loved the experience of visiting this Hindu temple in the middle of Southern California.  The carvings are beautiful and the fact that they were all carved by hand without the use of any electric tools is incredible.  If you are ever visiting Los Angeles, Orange County, or San Bernardino County and have an hour or two to spare, visit this beautiful temple and be transported.

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Katherine Belarmino is the author of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. She works full-time in a non-travel related job, but she and her husband Romeo take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.