Mahesh and Natasha Chhatlani turned a home office into a Hindu prayer room with a mandir, or temple. NewsdayTV's Rachel Weiss reports. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

A few years after moving from Queens to Long Island, Mahesh Chhatlani converted his home office into a Hindu prayer room.

Feeling blessed in life and wanting to give thanks to the gods, he and his wife, Natasha, put in a wood mandir, or Hindu temple, adorning it with yellow garlands. Statues of Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, and other Hindu deities were placed inside the mandir and around the room, including figurines inherited from his parents' temple, once housed in the closet of their small, Elmhurst apartment.

Chhatlani is one of many Long Islanders who have carved out special spaces in their homes to honor culture, religion, history and family. It can be almost anything — a shrine hanging on a wall with a spot for incense, a table of family heirlooms or a memento connecting the living with the dead. Simple or elaborate, these spaces touch and define the soul.

Mahesh Chhatlani and his wife, Natasha, turned a home office into a prayer room with a mandir. Credit: Johnny Milano/Johnny Milano

For Chhatlani, knowing God has a room in his South Valley Stream home has reminded him, his wife and their two children, now doctors with their own families, of how to live. The temple room keeps the family humble and grounded and provides a little comfort during crises, like when Chhatlani's parents died.

"I go to my temple in the house every time I'm unsure of a big decision I have to make, every time I'm uneasy or lost, said Chhatlani, 59. "I always come out happy and content.

"You can always go to your room and meditate and think about God and that should be good enough too," he said. "But this room is just like a crutch. The environment of the room helps you. It keeps you focused."

The Chhatlanis placed statues of Ganesh and other Hindu deities inside the mandir and around the room, including figurines inherited from his parents' temple. Credit: Johnny Milano

Childlike comfort

While no figures are available on how many households have imbued a portion of their real estate with a personal significance, the United States has been a mosaic of cultures that honor ancestors, patron saints, protective spirits and more. Many diners have probably seen the "spirit houses" in Thai restaurants. Others may be familiar with statues of patron saints in backyard gardens.

Karen Quiros, 61, a wellness consultant who's a nurse by training, said the spaces, often inspirational, help people "recharge."

Some said they found their special spaces especially comforting during the pandemic.

"They used their sacred spaces and shrines more often in the past couple of years to pray for the health and well-being of their loved ones, memorialize those who transitioned, to be reminded of the real reason for life, and to surround themselves with loving, caring people," Quiros, of Baiting Hollow, said of some of her clients.

"Others shared that they have used their sacred spaces more often in the past couple of years because they had more alone time during the pandemic, more time to reflect on things that are important to them and to pray for all that is going on in the world right now.

'If you think about children, they have little areas in their rooms where they have special toys they put together and they can talk to. It's something that brings us comfort.'

— Karen Quiros

Quiros teaches people how to set up spaces or "altars" that connect with their souls, whether it's in their homes, vehicles or within themselves.

"It should be something that brings them peace, something that makes them feel safe and calm and inspires them to want to return to that space," she said. "If you just glance at it, even if you're too busy to sit down and tune in, you are now brought back to the energy of that peaceful feeling it brings you.

"If you think about children, they have little areas in their rooms where they have special toys they put together and they can talk to. It's something that brings us comfort."

Dad's watching over him

Pete D'Ancona memorializes his late father in a display case as a way of keeping his "best friend" alive. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

For Pete D'Ancona, 35, a Southampton Town police officer, his altar belongs to dad.

He put mementos of his late father, Peter D'Ancona, in a display case in his Center Moriches home, a way of keeping his "best friend" alive. There's his father's FDNY helmet and a huge broken bolt that his father picked up from the Twin Towers as he searched for fellow firefighters. His father was off the day the planes hit the Twin Towers but he rushed to the site, searching for fellow firefighters and survivors and not going home until  Thanksgiving.  There's also a cassette tape from his grandmother's answering machine, which recorded his dad as a kid shouting in funny voices, "I know you're home, pick up the phone."

His father and his father's girlfriend, Tina Spagnuolo, died in 2018 of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning on their boat.

But perhaps the most significant spot is a blown-up photo of the late couple, displayed like a valuable painting, under a light in the dining room. By it, D'Ancona tells his two nephews, 18 months and 4 years old, about how "gramps" is a hero watching over them.

Sections of D'Ancona's home displays memories of his father, including photos, patches and a firefigher helmet. Credit: J. Conrad Williams

"I spend most of my time in my kitchen and I see that every day. I stay there sometimes to talk to him. I yell at him," the son said with a chuckle.

"It's kind of like a reminder he's watching me, he's with me, so I'd better keep my act together."

D'Ancona knows his father is with him every day because of 343, the number tattooed on his father's arm. It was the number of firefighters who died on 9/11, a number that often popped up in his father's life, from a license plate to the time, the son said.

"After he passed away, that number started popping up everywhere in front of me," D'Ancona said. "It was the flight I took. I was in his favorite restaurant next to his condo in Florida and I got the bill and the tax on the bill was $3.43. It pops up daily. It's pretty wild. I know he's with me."

D'Ancona got the number tattooed on his arm two years ago.

Honoring her ancestors

Marylin Banks-Winter created a shrine that honors her family and her Black and Native American roots. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Family is also important to Marylin Banks-Winter, a mother of five and grandmother of six, so the Riverhead resident goes decades back in honoring her ancestors' accomplishment, Bell Town, an Aquebogue community her grandfather Mansfield Bell and his three brothers created in the 1930s.

The four, part of the Unkechaug Indian Nation, had migrated from Virginia and purchased 16 acres, dividing them into 32 residential lots sold or given away, primarily to family and friends. Bell Town turned into a self-sustaining community and safe haven for Blacks and Native American families. Riverhead Town last year designated the community as its first honorary Heritage Area.

In her parlor, Banks-Winter has a table covered with her ancestors' photos, figurines of Native Americans, the worn but revered family Bible and awards she's gotten as a businessperson. They're reminders of her roots in several tribes — including Pequot, Corchaug, Montaukett and Unkechaug — and her accomplishments as head of an electrical contracting company and as a community advocate.

"I give honor to my ancestors," she said as she told stories of the people in the photos. "I come and meditate and I feel peace in this area. This is a power area for me as I go through life as an Afro-indigenous woman, a businessperson.

"I give honor to the Lord first and here is where I find peace and tranquility, knowing that my ancestors are looking over me and guiding me through life's difficulties."

Photos of Banks-Winter's father and his brother as little boys, and of her mother smiling, adorn the shrine in her home.

One photo shows her father and his brother as little boys in shirts and shorts. Another has her mother smiling. It's next to a photo, brown with age, of her grandmother's father, a determined-looking man.

Banks-Winter uses the space to educate younger relatives and notes that her grandfather and his brothers were not descendants of slaves but of indentured workers.

She encourages people to find out who they are.

"You can't go into the future without knowing where we came from in the past, the struggles, all the adversities my grandparents had to deal with," Banks-Winter said. "We don't want to lose our history. The best people to tell the history are family members."

'A sad-happy feeling'

On Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in Mexico, mariachi bands dressed like skeletons play in cemeteries, families tempt the dead to "come out" by offering their favorite foods, and people in colorful, whimsical costumes parade down wide avenues. Families buy "bread of the dead," with dough-shaped bones as decoration.

"Mexicans, we take death like a joke … as a fun thing," said Ana Trujillo, 69, of Rockville Centre. "Nobody's afraid of skulls and nobody's afraid of death.

"You kind of remember people who are gone. It's like they're here with you … . . . It's like a sad-happy feeling."

She laughed as she recalled being a little kid stealing some tangerines left for departed relatives in her family's Day of the Dead offerings at home.

Now, every Nov. 1, Trujillo an executive at a software company, puts out popcorn for a cousin, cognac for her godmother and the favorite foods of about 15 friends and relatives. On the same table, photos of loved ones are displayed, along with white sugar skulls with the names of the living.

'Even my grandmother, I never met her, I know she's there. I just feel it.'

— Ana Trujillo

When it's over, she eats what she can, while most of the photos, the sugar skulls, candles and ornaments go back into a dining room display cabinet.

For the rest of the year, Trujillo speaks at the cabinet where she knows her relatives and friends are gathered.

"Even my grandmother, I never met her, I know she's there," she said. "I just feel it. All I have is her picture and I feel close to her."

So many times, Trujillo said, her prayers have been answered. When she was getting divorced, she was looking for a small house for herself and her two children so they could finish school. At one point, she noticed a local house and thought something like that would be just the right size.

"I kept asking them, 'help me out,'" Trujillo recalled. "Then that house came up for rent. I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' I got like the chills.''

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