The first building constructed specifically as a Hindu temple on Long Island is rising in Melville and is set to become the religious focal point for a large portion of the region's growing Indian and Hindu community.
The temple heralds "a big moment for Hindus" on the Island, said Indu Jaiswal, a longtime community activist from Garden City who predicts it will become a "cultural landmark."
The 48,000-square-foot BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, rising on a 5-acre plot on Deshon Drive, will feature an expansive sanctuary, a large meeting room, a dozen classrooms, a gym and living quarters for a priest.
Slated for completion this fall or early in 2016, the two-story structure will be larger than the BAPS temple in Flushing, Queens, an area that is a bastion of New York City's Hindu community.
"We are very happy, very proud," said Harshad Bhatt, an orthopedic surgeon from Manhasset who first proposed the project in 1988. Construction was delayed by years of governmental red tape, land swaps, community opposition and difficulty in getting zoning permits.
Long Island is home to at least a dozen Hindu temples, including those in Hicksville and Dix Hills and two in Baldwin. All have been converted from structures built for other uses. The oldest, the Vedic Heritage temple in Hempstead, which opened in the mid-1980s, is a former YMCA.
Followers of BAPS, a major international Hindu group based in India, have met for services in small groups in private homes across Long Island, which had nearly 56,000 people of Indian descent in the 2010 census. Many are concentrated in Hicksville, where the Island's "India Day" parade now is held.
BAPS, which stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, has built the world's largest Hindu temple, in New Delhi, as well as large and architecturally stunning houses of worship in Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Robbinsville, New Jersey.
Among oldest religions
Hinduism, one of the world's oldest religions, counts some 1 billion followers, making it the third-largest religion after Christianity and Islam. The majority live in India, where 80 percent of the population is Hindu.
The religion is known for its philosophy and spirituality that has inspired world leaders such as Gandhi, its belief in reincarnation, karma and the use of yoga for meditation, and its numerous deities.
Girish Patel, a pharmacist and BAPS leader from Westbury, estimated the new temple's cost at about $9 million.
Its construction is being paid for by about 85 families who belong to BAPS on Long Island and another 250 local families more loosely affiliated with the group, Patel said. BAPS members in Queens also will contribute, and BAPS organizations throughout the country will help with technical expertise or by donating materials.
The effort is possible in part because Indian businesspeople who immigrated here in the 1960s are established and successful, said S.N. Sridhar, director of the Mattoo Center for India Studies at Stony Brook University. Many come from the prosperous state of Gujarat, where the BAPS international headquarters is located.
"In other communities also there is a lot of faith, but this community has devoted the money to go with it," Sridhar said.
The temple will adhere to architectural guidelines required of the BAPS faith. Cornerstones blessed in India by Pramukh Swami Maharaj, 93, the spiritual leader of BAPS worldwide, were brought to Long Island for a groundbreaking in October 2013, Bhatt said.
The temple project was personally approved by Swami Maharaj, who visited Long Island in 1988 and while staying at Bhatt's home gave his blessing, Bhatt said.
Its construction marks a turning point for the Indian and Hindu community on Long Island, which started to grow after a landmark 1965 immigration law opened the nation's borders more broadly to non-Europeans, Sridhar noted.
The first major wave of immigrants from India to the United States in the mid-1960s, mostly professionals such as doctors, educators, pharmacists and engineers, was followed by another influx in the late 1960s that included many businesspeople. Community leaders said technology experts were a feature of a third group that arrived in the 1990s.
Over the years, the local BAPS group looked at 150 parcels of land for its temple, Bhatt said, and finally bought the 8.1-acre Meyers Farm property in Melville in 2003. Nearby residents objected to the proposed temple, so BAPS leaders agreed to a complex three-way land swap involving the Town of Huntington that gave them the Deshon Drive property.
Free clinics, classes
As at other BAPS temples, the leaders said, the one in Melville will do extensive social outreach, offering free health clinics and educational programs along with Indian cultural classes and religious instruction. The temple will be open to the public and may include nonreligious programs such as SAT preparation.
BAPS may bring a priest from India to serve at the temple and live there, Patel said.
Hindu temples generally are open most of each day and evening for people who wish to pray, and the resident priest rarely leaves. Regular communal prayer services often take place twice a week.
The Melville temple will have statues of Ganesha, Shiva and Swaminarayan, the central figure worshipped by BAPS members. The statues were made in India and are being held in storage, Bhatt said, awaiting installation in the temple.
Despite the long struggle to get property for the temple and have it built, the local BAPS leader said he is pleased his dream will be fulfilled.
"At the end of the story," Bhatt said, "everybody is happy."
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE FAITH
The diverse, decentralized religion -- one of the world's oldest, dating back 5,000 years -- has no single founder, no single scripture and no rigid set of teachings. Its deities number in the thousands, and which one a temple or family worships often varies from place to place.
Hindus "conceive God and approach God in an infinite number of ways," said S.N. Sridhar, director of the Mattoo Center for India Studies at Stony Brook University. "We don't think of this as a weakness. We think of it as a strength, because who is to say my conception is better than yours?"
The three main Hindu gods are Brahma, the creator of the world, though he is not widely worshipped today; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer and re-creator.
Other popular deities are Rama and Krishna, revered as incarnations of God; Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, who is depicted with a human body and elephant head; and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity often shown with gold coins.
The Swaminarayan movement
This progressive, reformist movement, led by a charismatic spiritual leader, was founded in the 19th century and requires vegetarianism, social service and transcendence of caste and gender distinctions. Its full name is Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS.
BAPS members commit to five lifelong vows: no impurities of body and mind, including vices such as anger, lust, greed and envy; no adultery; no consumption of meat, eggs, poultry or seafood; no alcohol; and no addictions, including to tobacco and drugs.