Hindu temple rising in Groton serves growing immigrant community

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/10/13/hindu-temple-rising-in-groton-serves-growing-immigrant-community/

GROTON – This largely rural town of 11,000 will soon host one of the nation’s largest Hindu temples, serving thousands of New England residents who follow Shirdi Sai Baba, an Indian guru who died in 1918.

Located less than three miles west of Interstate 495 on the town line with Littleton, the 40,000-square foot temple is being built on a 28-acre site on Boston Road (Route 119) and will be modeled after a temple in the guru’s hometown of Shirdi, India.

While there are three smaller Shirdi Sai Baba groups in the state, and another temple in Connecticut, the Groton edifice will be the sect’s largest in the U.S. Plans call for three conical golden domes, the tallest reaching about 50 feet in height, according to architect B.D. Nayak, who is designing the structure. The second floor will eventually include a prayer hall for 500 worshippers, classrooms and libraries.

The first phase of the project, including land acquisition and site work, will cost $8 million, according to Mahender Singh, president of New England Shirdi Sai Parivaar, the group financing the temple. He said the structure won’t be visible from I-495.

Founded in 2006 with 40 families who follow Shirdi Sai Baba, the group has boomed in the past decade and now lists almost 5,000 families on its rolls. About 400 followers regularly attend Thursday evening worship services. The growth mirrors a surge of Indian immigrants to the region, with thousands now living and investing in the area to create jobs and a vibrant Indian-American community.

Although the local organization originated in a humble space in Dracut, north of Lowell, it quickly outgrew the space and moved to a larger building in nearby Chelmsford. Work on the new temple began in July, although building construction hasn’t started.

The first phase of the project is set to be completed in about a year. It will include the two-story building and the first floor’s rooms – restrooms, a kitchen and dining area. Singh said the group plans to raise funds to finance future expansion.

Less than half of the surrounding site has been cleared of trees to leave a 100-foot buffer, in keeping with the guru’s call to his followers to care for the environment, but also as a consideration for neighbors, Singh said. He expects the site to have parking for at least 200 vehicles.

“It’s our philosophy that makes us different from other temples,” said Ramakanth Challa, the secretary to the nonprofit organization’s board.

Followers of Shirdi Sai Baba focus on values that the guru taught, such as charity, inner peace and care of the environment.

According to legend, Sai Baba appeared in the Shirdi village and stayed there, living a simple life and caring for the poor.

“In some senses, the guru is made to seem greater than God because he connects the person to God,” Singh said. “The guru’s role is to tell people who God is.”

He said Shirdi Sai Baba was “different, because he said the true meaning of religion is tolerance and respecting the environment. A lot of people are attracted to that.”

To Hindus, gurus are enlightened teachers and counselors that assist people to better understand and know God. “Sai Baba” means “holy father” and there are many Babas, including the better known Sathya Sai Baba, a guru who died in 2011 and had claimed to be the reincarnated Shirdi Sai Baba.

Because gurus teach a philosophy, their followers can include adherents of other religions as well as Hindus. Singh said most of those who attend services are Hindu, for example, and some follow additional gurus, including Sathya Sai Baba.

Thursday evening worship services are conducted by two full-time temple priests, and include an hour of prayer chants and songs to the guru and a vegetarian meal, free for all. A life-sized Shirdi Sai Baba statue is often dressed in rich, decorative clothing as a gesture of honor.

The temple organization also provides space for daily for yoga exercises and meditation.

Plans call for the new building to host festivals during holidays – from Diwali, the autumnal Hindu “festival of lights,” to the American Thanksgiving. The group expects the temple and its activities to draw families from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island as well as the Bay State.

Signs of growth

Over the past 15 years, a surge in people of Indian descent has overtaken Greater Boston. The number of Asian-Americans in the state has increased 79 percent since 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The influx shows no signs of slowing.

Along with the rise in immigrants, there has been significant business investment in the region. The Confederation of Indian Industry reported in July that 14 Indian companies have invested $935 million to create more than 2,100 jobs in Massachusetts, which ranks sixth for such investment out of the 50 U.S. states.

In a study prepared with Grant Thornton that focused on 100 Indian companies that have invested in the U.S., the confederation showed that about 85 percent of those firms planned to make additional investments here. In the Bay State, half of the investments were in technology industries, the study showed.

Boston has seen a nearly 65 percent increase in Indian residents since the beginning of the millennium. Cambridge, Shrewsbury, Quincy and Lowell follow the capital city in housing the largest Indian populations, according to the 2010 census. By one estimate, more than 13,000 people of Indian descent live within about 30 miles of the temple site, including more than 2,700 in Cambridge and 2,400 in Lowell.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis.