April 2006

Creating a Home Away From Home

The Daily Illini

In late February, about 200 Hindu families in Champaign-Urbana got together to celebrate Maha Shivratri, a Hindu high holiday that honors Shiva, the destroyer, one of the three Gods that comprise the Hindu Holy Trinity. Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver, are the others.

On Maha Shivratri, families gather to mark the night Lord Shiva married. And while families joined together in temples across the globe, Hindu families here in Champaign-Urbana settled for the Urbana Civic Center. There is no Hindu temple in the area, but a concentrated group of Hindu families are trying to create a temple where they can worship.

The temple isn’t as crucial to Hinduism as a church is to Christians or a mosque to Muslims. Hinduism is a very personal religion. Most Hindu families in the area have shrines in their houses to which they pray to on a daily basis. But the temple is still considered a cultural center of Hindu life.

“There is still a certain communal aspect to (Hinduism),” said Rajmohan Gandhi, director of Global Crossroads and visiting professor.

The idea to build a temple began about three years ago among three University professors, including Professor Shiv Gopal Kapoor.

“We felt we had a critical mass of Hindu families in the area, and it was time,” he said.

During Kapoor’s early years in Champaign, he and his family would travel to Chicago to attend temple. There is a temple in Peoria, Ill., which is a 90-minute drive from Champaign-Urbana.

“We’re doing it for ourselves, but we’re also interested in helping the large number of Hindu students who come to the University from Chicago – where they had temples at home,” Kapoor said.

Akhil Shah is one of those students. The 22-year-old senior in LAS is the president of the Hindu Students Council. The group meets weekly at the office of Registered Student Organizations and holds bi-weekly discussions on cultural and religious topics. When the group wants to get together and celebrate a holiday, they usually end up at the McKinley Foundation.

“We have to bring in a Hindu priest from Peoria or Chicago whenever we want to celebrate a holiday,” he said.

The Board of Trustees of the Hindu Temple and Cultural Society of Central Illinois, the group organizing and funding the temple, estimates a total cost at just more than $700,000.

“We currently have about $300,000 in cash, with another $200,000 pledged,” Kapoor said.

They had a site picked out last year, but Champaign County officials never granted permits for land use, a 24-acre site on Airport Road in Urbana. The group was buying the land with a private investor, but the permit process took too long and he eventually dropped out.

This time, they’re doing things differently.

“We plan on first buying the land, then applying for a permit,” Kapoor said. “That way if we run into any problems, we’ll already have the land and not have to go back to step one.”

The group is looking at a 4.5-acre plot of land on Willow Road in Urbana. A basic design for the temple has been sketched out. The group has enlisted the help of HDC Engineering, a local firm. They also are working with a local architectural firm.

The temple will house offices, meeting halls, a fully functional kitchen, a 2,000 square-foot prayer hall, and what Kapoor considers to be the most important and unique additions: a cultural and community hall.

“We want this to be something for the community as well,” Kapoor said. The group’s Web site refers to this particular aspect of the temple as “the first of its kind in temple-building in America.”

“We want to make education a core element of the temple,” said Professor Pallassana Balgopal, another founding member of the temple’s board.

The group has Lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles, and the Goddess Saraswathi, goddess of knowledge, as their central deities.

“Since education is such a core aspect of life in Champaign-Urbana, we wanted that reflected in our temple,” Balgopal said.

Kapoor also envisions classes being taught in the building.

“We would like to see everything from Yoga to mythology or language classes,” Kapoor said. “I used to have to teach Hindi classes out of my basement. Hopefully that’s something we could work on.”

Kapoor also envisions a community center that could be used to hold birthday parties and weddings. He also thinks it would be good place for elementary students to tour, just to learn a little about a culture and a religion with which they are unfamiliar.

“Hinduism is a very accepting religion overall,” Balgopal said. “We would like to see the temple and cultural center reflect that in our community.”

© Copyright 2006 The Daily Illini