Hindu Temple in Pennsylvania

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. (AP) -- Under billboards pointing tourists toward Amish souvenirs, an ornate, sandstone Hindu temple carves a corner of India into the middle of Pennsylvania's rolling farmland.

Haveli at Vraj opened this spring -- the first temple in the Western Hemisphere consecrated as a principal shrine of the Pushti Marg sect. It is an official pilgrimage destination for Hindus in North America.

The temple, about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia, will eventually be surrounded by other religious and cultural structures on a 300-acre campus.

The site was chosen because of its relative proximity to large Hindu communities in Boston, Pittsburgh and Richmond, Va., said Pramod Amin, Vraj's chief adviser and trustee. Already, it has draw large crowds: Approximately 15,000 people from across the country attended the first day of a monthlong Haveli inauguration celebration in May.

Dr. Pratima Shah, a physician from Cleveland, recently visited the shrine with members of her extended family.

``This is the holy temple. For our parents, our grandparents and our ancestors, we are following the same tradition,'' she said. ``We just wanted to be part of the celebration.''

``For meditation, for peace, it is the best place so far that I have visited, in India or in the U.S.,'' said Mahedra Shah, of Elmira, N.Y., no relation to Pratima Shah.

Six viewings of the swaroop, or icon, of the god Shri Nathjee are performed each day in the temple's main sanctum, which is decorated with silver and marble imported from the same region of India -- Vraj -- where the deity is believed to have lived while in human form.

In the Pushti Marg sect, the swaroop is believed to be the living presence of the god Shri Nathjee, the child image of Krishna. Krishna, in turn, is believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu -- one of Hinduism's principal deities -- who is worshipped as the protector and preserver of the world.

Barefoot worshippers in a mix of ethnic and Western dress kneel in front of the icon as attendants present offerings of flowers and food, and temple musicians beat on traditional Indian drums.

Construction workers finishing the temple's balcony, though, may keep their shoes ``because they are part of the creation,'' Amin said.

There are an estimated 837 million Hindus worldwide, including almost 1 million in the United States, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia.

Although the temple itself upholds Pushti Marg beliefs -- the only other such shrine to Shri Nathjee is in Nathdwara, India -- the rest of the Vraj campus will focus on the traditions held by all Hindus.

More small temples, along with a reflecting pool, a library and a museum about India and Indian culture are planned for the site. Weeklong camps for children from various Hindu sects will be held on the campus this summer.

For those unable to travel to India for a traditional 145-mile, 84-stop pilgrimage based on the life of Krishna, the Schuylkill County property has a smaller version that will circle the property.

Atul Parikh, the shrine's architect, said Vraj is a traditional Hindu temple haveli, which means ``palace'' or ``mansion.''

According to the Pushti Marg belief that Shri Nathjee practiced his faith at his father's house, the temple fulfills the god's needs with a place to sleep, eat and dress.

``I am translating the religious requirements into architectural form using the technology and building requirements here,'' Parikh said.

Funding for the haveli, which is expected to cost $6 million to $8 million, comes solely from private donations, from $5 up to several thousand dollars, Amin said. Sheela nyas -- ``stones given in trust'' -- used in construction can also be purchased for $25.

Since groundbreaking a decade ago, when the temple was just a blueprint, Vraj has attracted about 50,000 visitors annually, Amin said. He expects that number to double with the haveli's completion.

The founders of the Vraj intended to make the property a home-away-from-home for Hindus, Amin said.

``If we made a video of this temple and the campus when it is completed and sent it to India for people to see, no one would make out that it's in the middle of Pennsylvania,'' he said.