Moms and dads at Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Long Island in Selden clutch cellphones to record their children performing at a music recital.
The audience and musicians sit on thick carpet instead of rows of chairs facing a stage. Children wear a rich array of the colored fabrics of South Asia. Shoes are left by the door.
Such scenes are becoming more common at local Hindu temples, as the areas of worship are increasingly becoming community centers; magnets for recent arrivals and second and third generations of Hindus from many countries, nourishing languages, music, food and traditions.
Mutual aid societies formed by immigrant groups are a familiar tradition on Long Island. The first Order of the Sons of Italy opened in Patchogue in 1900, the Polish Roman Catholic Society of Fraternal Assistance in Riverhead in 1906 and the Portuguese American Club in Mineola in 1936. These clubs supplied new immigrants with assistance, loans when banks wouldn’t lend to them, English lessons and more. And they provided the comfort of the familiar in a strange land. Even earlier, Black Americans formed mutual aid societies for many of the same reasons.
They have lasted because they adapt. Hinduism, a 4,000-plus-year-old religion with 1.2 billion adherents around the world, exemplifies that.
"We are living in this home away from home, so we help the children become acquainted with the culture, teach them prayers and tell them stories," says Shoba Menon, Hindu Temple and Cultural Center (HTCCLI) board president. "We teach dance, music — primarily devotional songs — tabla (drum), Hindi, religious class, Sanskrit." Dance classes range from $60 to $100 per month, and yoga classes are $10 per session.
HTCCLI is one of several temples on Long Island which expanded to larger facilities just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. They are now rebuilding their momentum by offering more events, and culturally-based classes with a focus on the next generation.
EYE ON YOUTH
Pandit Barghavan Sridhavan, the priest at HTCCLI, is just 26. Not only does he play the drums, he is fluent in five languages — English, Tamil, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Telugu — helpful in a temple whose 300-plus families can hail from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the West Indies or anywhere in the vast reach of Hinduism.
The youth are also the focus at the palatial Bhavani Shankara Mandir in Central Islip, where Varune Ramharack, 16, a sophomore at Brentwood High School, plays harmonium and tabla and sings at Sunday satsang (worship service) and other events in their expanding, marble-lined, multistory facility. His parents are Hindus from Trinidad and his father — a carpenter — helped build the new temple, opened in 2019. That’s when Ramharack got free tabla lessons and began his career as a temple musician and vocalist.
“It really opened my mind,” he says. “I was amazed at the diversity and how it can connect to Western music. I found my peace with music.”
Kishore “Dave” Rampersad, 38, came from Trinidad at age 5. Now assistant pandit at Bhavani Shankara Mandir, he participates in rituals, but also offers yoga Thursdays and wants to expand. “We are creating a community where people can also come for music and dance,” he says. “All that was happening before COVID; now we are starting again.” Yoga classes are by donation, and music classes are $50 per hour.
Asa’Mai Hindu Temple in Hicksville started in Queens by Hindus displaced by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s. In 2004, it followed its flock to Long Island. Today, there are few Afghan Hindus migrating, but Asa’Mai, devoted to guru Sai Baba, opens its doors to all devotees. With three full-time pandits, a Sunday school, recently renovated full commercial kitchen and events hall, they are set up for secular as well as spiritual events.
“On Saturday, we can have 500 to 600 people coming,” says Sunder Luthra, of Kandahar, president of the Hindu-Afghan Association, as devotees stream in and out to pray. “On Tuesdays, there is dinner and on Sundays lunch for everyone, full vegetarian.”
“Most of the kids are from outside greater India,” says association secretary and certified K-12 Sunday school teacher Nanda Sundri, from Guyana. “They love to meet; they learn Hindi, meditation, yoga and do crafts. The older kids love to teach the younger ones, so it brings camaraderie.”
The spirit of today’s Long Island temples is to welcome all.
“There is uniqueness all around India,” Pandit Barghavan of HTCCLI says. “It is a multicultural community, so we try to have all the deities in the temple so everyone is satisfied. And we are open to everyone, not just Hindus. All we need is good positivity.”