Religion today

Buena Park, USA - In a suburban landscape dotted with evangelical megachurches and auto malls, followers of an Indian religion thousands of years old spent days decorating marble idols and lighting incense to herald the opening of one of their faith's largest temples.

The new $20 million Jain temple complex, celebrating a religion that promotes nonviolence and vegetarianism, and shares with Hinduism the concepts of nirvana and reincarnation, is expected to attract pilgrims and scholars worldwide.

The soaring marble-and-limestone facade takes up almost an entire block in this working class city and dominates a mundane scene of laundromats, auto repair shops and taco stands with its domed roof and gleaming, coffee-colored pillars.

It replaces a much smaller temple that opened in 1988 about a decade after 25 Jain families first came together to worship in this northern Orange County city. That original building was the first independent Jain temple in the United States.

Twenty years later, intricate images of instrument-playing goddesses, idols, elephants and flowering lotuses line the marble walls and ceiling of the new temple. The designs were inspired by two famous Jain temples in India, both about 1,000 years old; tons of Indian marble were shipped in crates over six months to recreate the imagery, paid for almost entirely by member donations.

"You don't see temples this size very often, even in India," said Dilip V. Shah, president of Federation of Jain Associations in North America. "It's so majestic. ... This is something to admire, and it inspires others."

Jains began migrating to the U.S. from India in the 1960s. Southern California was a popular new home because of the many universities and highly skilled jobs in the region, but Jains also settled in large numbers in San Francisco, Chicago and New Jersey.

The tiny religious minority has struggled to maintain its beliefs amid the distractions of Western life, especially for second- and third-generation Jains. The new complex was inspired, in part, by that challenge, said Ashok Savla, president of Jain Center of Southern California.

"In this day and age, there's so much violence in our lives and here we are with a philosophy of nonviolence. How do we pass these values on to the next generation?" Savla said. "We need a place where we can have our children start learning the values that we all believe in."

Less than 1 percent of Indians practice Jainism. Still, its followers number in the millions worldwide and a tight-knit community of about 100,000 faithful has flourished in the U.S.

The temple opened last weekend after 11 days of dancing, worship and theater organized by the 1,500-member community, topped off by a parade and sacred ceremony to install 47 marble idols in their new home. Twenty-four of the statues, which Jains worship, represent people who attained enlightenment through repeated reincarnation.

Together with its attached cultural center, classrooms and a planned 10,000-tome library, the complex will be the largest Jain spiritual center outside India.

The completed project will include 15 classrooms so that hundreds of children can take religion classes and learn Hindi and Gujarti to read religious texts, said Savla. Some of the classrooms will share space with the library, the largest collection of Jain writings outside India.

On the first day of the ceremonies, chanting worshippers flowed into their old, makeshift temple as men in toga-style white robes and white face masks painstakingly pasted rice-sized bits of bright blue and white yarn on idol statues.

The men, who wore the masks to keep the air around the idols pure, created a pattern of zigzagging bands on the smooth marble, then topped their work off with tiny jewels of red and purple. The men redecorated the idols daily for 10 days, sometimes adding elaborate headdresses.

"It's like how we dress up when we have a party," said Adhir Shah. "We try to decorate this way so we get more feelings inside of our own life, our own body, and we can worship more and more."

Later, young girls tossed flowers at the audience and rubbed red paint and rice grains on the foreheads of onlookers to symbolize renewal before a troupe of teenagers performed classical Indian dances. The ceremony ended with a solemn lamp-lighting to symbolize enlightenment.

Pina Mehta, who grew up worshipping at the crowded former temple, said she brings her 1 1/2-year-old daughter to all the religious functions to try keep family traditions alive.

"I'm going to try to raise her the same way my parents raised me," said Mehta, 30, wearing a deep blue sari and jangling silver bracelets. "I'm really proud of all the beliefs that I have."

For Paras Bhimani, however, the appeal of the new temple is much more immediate. Bhimani, 23, was so worried he wouldn't find a Jain temple when he moved from India last year that he brought along pictures of the most important idols so he could worship at home.

Now, he won't need them.

"This is better, because in this place everyone is doing the same thing," said Bhimani, as he took a break from walking prayer circles around an altar holding idol statues. "It feels like back home."