The Bridgewater Temple

March 24, 2000

Last weekend I went to the Bridgewater temple, a point of pilgrimage for the Desi in America, somewhat like Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and Disneyland - but this is different. Here eyes are not averted from one another, but people smile, ask about the children and in no time a conversation is underway. This is OUR place, created out of nothing, on the undulating tracks of New Jersey. A sense of belonging pervades as people enter knowing that for the alien, hijacked from his cultural and religious roots, here is a place to which he can go and find solace and peace and come to terms with his own god in a faraway place. The Gopuram rises strangely visible from route 202 and like a beacon draws car after car heading in that direction, on a Sunday morning. It signifies that the Indian in America has come to stay.

Unlike the scene in a traditional Indian temple, orderliness prevails. You enter the lavish marble-clad foyer and follow in the wake of families who have obviously been here many times and know just what to do. You can have a south Indian breakfast of Idli-vada, all organized American style, with an eye on convenience and self help. Collect what you want, microwave it and when you are done, throw away your paper plate and cup in the bin. No litter. Breakfast done, you move into another lobby and remove your shoes and stack them neatly in the racks provided. Here is even a conveniently located place for washing feet. This is the Indian at his best adapting his culture and his needs with a touch of western orderliness.

Walk upstairs to the main temple and find shrine after shrine dedicated to different deities. Shaven pundits, bare-chested and dhoti-clad administer their flock. I wondered about them, how had they adopted themselves to American conditions? How did they get their visas? Did the drive to work? Were they the modern day counter-part of their ancient forefathers?

The shrines are beautifully crafted and are exotic and colourful, but in good taste. I sit in one corner and observe quietly all that is going on around me. Again I feel palpably the mix of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. And then it hits me. This has the look of an ancient Indian temple, but it is in fact a modern-day Indian temple. Dedicated not to one deity, but to all of them, catering to the needs of Indians from all over India. A shrine for goddess Durga and here you can hear a babble of Bengali voices. Radha and Lord Krishna find North Indian favour. Lord Venkateshwara, Shiva and Parvati and Nandi are worshipped devoutly by the south Indian devotees. Lord Ganesha by the Maharastrians. Here in microcosm is all of India. Not Bengali or Kannadiga or Tamil or Punjabi, but Indian. Not divided and animostic to each other, but brought together by a common thread of need and longing. The women are dressed in saris and salwar-kameez, some in western clothes. The place has its share of old people, for whom being here is a kind of compensation for all they miss of their home and country. A place to pray, a place to meet other Indians, a place to come together as a community for cultural programmes, religious discourses and special festival days. Special prayers can be organised, designed to fill the vacum that has existed for so long in the life of the expatriot. Priests will conduct poojas and homas for births, deaths, marriages and other occasions.

On one side of me in this vast hall is a small group of women, listening intently to the poojari who is giving a religious discourse. In front, lined-up in front of the main deity, people wait for the prasadam. Oil lamps burn flickeringly in front of each deity. Fresh flowers garland each statue, not jasmines, marigolds and red roses, but American flowers, strangely compatible in this milieu. Religious music is played softly through loud speakers.

I am amazed at the orderliness and the cleanliness and the eye to detail. The jostling and pushing and the noise and dust that surround our temples in India are missing. Something lacking, but something added. The adaptability is remarkable.

A symbolic name this, BRIDGE-WATER. This is indeed a bridge over distant waters and oceans. A bridge between India and America. A bridge between Indian and Indian.

A woman offers prasadam to strangers. She has come all the way from Atlantic-city and her face is suffused with joy. She seems to have found an identity here; a commonality of purpose; a collective longing for the old country and known gods and familiar people. Here is something to identify with. For people who come from strong traditional cultures this temple fills a void in a land that revels in progress and advancement, where the Dollar is god and little time is spent on spiritual pursuits and reflection.

One day, a hundred years from now, when this temple has mellowed with time and is no longer a strange landmark in New Jersey, it could be a place of pilgrimage. Not just for the Indian newly arrived, but for a second and third generation born here, who will learn about their roots and origins and know of the land of gods of their forefathers. Americans will come here and know that they had the generosity of spirit to allow another religion and culture to flourish and are the richer for it. This is America's strength. Perhaps by then, in the same complex there will be a shrine dedicated to Christ and a place of worship for the Indian Muslim and Buddhist. In a world divided by strife and dissent, brother against brother, community against community, this could be one symbolic place, where religious peace and amity prevail and religious brotherhood is a by-word, and tolerance the greatest virtue of the Hindu faith stands out like a beacon of hope, just like the Gopuram of the temple at Bridgewater.

- Nomita Chandy for NRIOL.COM on visiting the Bridgewater temple in New Jersey, USA

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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