Close to 2,000 people flocked to the grand opening of a major Hindu temple in Melville on Sunday, with many expressing amazement and gratitude at the beauty and size of a gleaming place of worship 30 years in the making.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called the BAPS temple on Deshon Drive “extraordinary” and said it underscores Long Island’s increasing diversity. Some of the faithful traveled from out of state to witness the inauguration, including one man from Texas.
“It’s incredible. It’s as if Heaven and God are present on Earth,” said Shreena Shah, 27, who grew up in Five Towns and is now a medical resident at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan.
“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life,” she added. “I can’t believe it is finally here and so beautiful. It went beyond all our expectations.”
Bhumika Joshi, 38, an attorney and stay-at-home mother of two from New Hyde Park, said the temple was “phenomenal. It’s obviously gorgeous. This will serve as a haven for the Indian diaspora.”
The sprawling, 49,000-square-foot temple and community center is one of the larger religious sites on Long Island, and features an auditorium that was packed with about 1,000 people Sunday. There is also a gym, a large kitchen, classrooms, a store selling Hindu religious items and living quarters for a priest who will tend the temple full time.
It was built by India-based BAPS, which stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, and is one of the largest Hindu organizations in the United States and the world. The group has built the world’s largest Hindu temple, in New Delhi, as well as impressive temples in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
Its late longtime leader, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who died in August at 94, broke the Guinness World Record in 2007 for the most temples consecrated by an individual — 713. The group now has 1,100 temples or centers.
In the late 1980s the guru visited Long Island and told local BAPS leaders he wanted a temple built here. Years of government red tape and difficulty finding a site delayed the project.
On Sunday, BAPS monks in orange robes blessed newly unveiled Hindu idols — which were made in India — in the center’s sanctuary as scores of the faithful sat on the floor and prayed with them. The idols include the Hindu gods Ganesh, Shiva, Krishna and Rama.
The center is a combination of traditional Indian architecture on the outside and modern accommodations inside such as Wi-Fi throughout the building and Smart Boards in classrooms.
Kishore Mehta, 80, said he was at the meeting with the guru in the late 1980s and traveled from Houston to attend the opening. “When I came here the first time and saw the complex it was just beyond my imagination,” said the former Valley Stream resident. “I was speechless.”
Bellone told the crowd he was “ecstatic” to be present, and called it “a great day for Long Island.”
In an interview, Bellone said the “very large and vibrant” Indian community on Long Island “are contributing significantly to the fabric of the society here. We are a diverse place. That is the reality. This is simply a large manifestation of that fact.”
“We celebrate our diversity in Suffolk County and view it as one of our strengths,” he said.
Much of the temple was constructed through volunteer labor. Hardik Patel, 29, an organic grocer from Huntington, said that since June he and BAPS friends worked after their regular jobs from 6:30 p.m. to about 1 a.m. weekdays to help raise the center. On weekends they went from 10 a.m. to midnight.
“To see it all come to life right in my backyard is a very special feeling,” he said Sunday.