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A hidden temple grows in Ashland

As area's Hindu population increases, so does importance of a local house of worship

Above, the elaborate carvings of the Sri Lakshmi Temple, which is little known to the outside Ashland community.
Above, the elaborate carvings of the Sri Lakshmi Temple, which is little known to the outside Ashland community. (Bill Polo/ Globe Staff)

There's a modest stone marker and a belt of trees that separate the Hindu priests from the everyday traffic on Route 135. It's enough to isolate a ceremony completely from the rest of life in Ashland.

One rings a small bell, and several devotees join him in chanting. The priest waves a candelabra in front of a deity statue, which is dressed in gold and red robes and bedecked in flower garlands. The light represents consciousness, and the priest will offer it to the small audience standing just outside the sanctum.

It's the beginning of a ritual that is repeated several times daily at Ashland's Sri Lakshmi Temple, the largest Hindu temple in the area but mostly unknown to its host community. If it weren't for a few teenagers throwing homemade explosives in the parking lot this summer, most area residents probably wouldn't know that the white, intricately carved temple even exists.

Another priest joins the first one in the sanctum, the small alcove that houses any deity, and which is off limits to laypersons. The priests then step down to offer to devotees the flame, over which they pass their hands, bringing the warmth to their eyes. And then, one by one, the devotees receive holy water to drink from their palms, red vermil ion powder to rub on their foreheads, and spicy tulsi basil to chew.

This is a ceremonial offering, said Ranga Geetha, past president of the temple. "All these things are blessed by the gods," she said, adding that such worship brings a higher level of consciousness.

Hindus from all over Greater Boston flock to the temple, opened in 1986, for significant holidays because the celebrations in Ashland are much larger than those at smaller temples.

"It's different from the other temples because it looks like how a temple looks in India," said Pawan Deshpande, a Cambridge resident and member of the executive council of the Maryland-based Hindu American Foundation. "I do go there, for example, for special religious occasions, or if we buy a new car, to have blessings."

"Our collective devotion and faith and belief is magnified" at the temple, said Kumar Nochur, chairman of the temple's board of trustees.

For Avu Chokalingam, temple president, the building is not just a religious gathering place, but also a bridge to a stronger community.

"Helping the Indian and the Hindu community better assimilate into the American society . . . I think that's what is important to me," he said. "I would like to see, personally, more Indians or Hindus buying houses in Ashland and Framingham and settling down there, so that there is more of a community rather than just a religious aspect" to the temple.

As the Indian population has grown in the United States, so has the number of temples. There are as many as 2 million Americans who are Hindu, widely considered the oldest religion and the third largest in the world.

There are a handful of other Hindu temples in Greater Boston, but they tend to be less formal, he said. The Massachusetts Hindu community is becoming more visible not just because the numbers are growing, but because individuals are becoming more organized, said Deshpande.

The Ashland temple was in the headlines during the summer after two incidents, in July and August, when six teenagers allegedly threw Molotov cocktails around the temple's parking lot. The teens caused more than $12,000 in damage, mostly to lights on the property, according to Ashland Police Officer David Muri.

Four teens suspected of taking part in the incidents were arrested Aug. 30, and two others received summonses to appear in court, he said. The Middlesex district attorney's office would not comment on the status of the case because it involves juveniles.

Both police and temple officials agree it was not a hate crime.

"It was a random act of vandalism, rather than specific to attacking the temple," said Chokalingam.

There was a more serious incident in 2003, when racial epithets were spray-painted onto large rocks next to the temple. Police did consider that a hate crime, said Muri, but the man charged with the crime was found not guilty.

Incidents like that arise due to the growing Hindu population and a lack of understanding about what the faith is all about, said Ramesh Rao, executive council member of the Hindu American Foundation.

"We have had an interesting growth spurt in Hindu Americans in the last few years, and higher visibility," he said.

Young people particularly can be ignorant of other cultures, said Rao, and therefore imagine wild ideas about what actually happens at a temple.

Rao said as others got to church or synagogue, Hindus go to temple for special festivals or to celebrate a birth or marriage. Services are somewhat ongoing, in that a Hindu can stop by the temple any time to worship.

There are about 900 Hindu temples in the United States, and although her organization doesn't track data, it's clear that the number has grown, as has the grandeur, said Ishani Chowdhury, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. Recently a $19 million temple opened in a suburb of Atlanta.

Temples often offer language classes and cultural events and serve as the rare place where young Hindus can meet people who share their background, Chowdhury said.

"The temple is the focal point for the community," she said

Vandalism is not at all widespread, but there is a serious problem facing all American temples, according to Chowdhury. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has proposed tighter rules, already being enforced to some extent, governing which religious workers can receive visas to enter the country, she said.

There are no American-trained Hindu religious workers, she said, nothing like a seminary. When the agency redefined "priest" as part of the proposed changes, it did so from a Judeo-Christian perspective, leaving out Eastern religions, said Chowdhury.

Visas are already being denied, she said, and the worry now is that the rules will become permanent, denying temples the people they need to function.

"It's becoming a huge problem," said Chowdhury. "We'll have these beautiful temples but, unfortunately, they will be inactive."

The government proposed changes to regulations governing visas for religious workers because the fraud rate was estimated to be 33 percent, according to Shawn Saucier, spokesman for US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The changes are meant to "expand those definitions to include all religions," he said.

But the bottom line, said Saucier, is that when you petition for a religious worker to come to the United States, "you need to show how that worker is part of your religion and necessary to your religious denomination, and how that work is necessary."

Chokalingam said the Ashland temple has not had any serious problems yet with the new regulation. One or two priests were recently denied visas, he said, but with help from US Senator Edward M. Kennedy's office, they were eventually granted.

Devotees can't imagine life without the Ashland temple. Geetha, the former temple president and a Framingham resident, is taking time off from work in the healthcare industry to devote more time to the temple.

"It means life to me right now," she said. "I get goose bumps when I talk about the temple, it means that much to me."

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@globe.com.

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