By Mary Harper Simmons, Abigail Hawkins, Brennyn Shelton, and Will Carlisle
Founded in 1993, the Hindu Temple & Cultural Center of Birmingham is the metropolitan area’s primary hub of traditional Hindu practice. The center helps unify Hindus living throughout the region and supports the worship of a wide range of deities. Additionally, those at the temple seek to befriend and educate their non-Hindu neighbors by welcoming all visitors and explaining to them the significance of their deities and practices. The temple is both vibrant and pious as its lively music and vivid colors yield humble expressions of worship. Through traditional Hindu prayer rituals and worship of deities, Birmingham’s Hindu community maintains the religious system’s values of health, rebirth, strong family, and liberation.
Hinduism in Birmingham
There were few, if any, Hindus in Birmingham until after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This civil rights act removed restrictions to immigration and citizenship based on national origin which had restricted immigration from India to the United States. Initially, Hindu worship in Birmingham was confined to individual or small group settings within homes. These domestic worship spaces reflected the trend of “urban middle-class Hindus” who often transformed the home into a temple and practiced their religious values within other public organizations (Waghorne 2004, 231). This trend of worship at home temporarily satisfied individuals’ desires for a communal experience. Soon, however, they wanted a temple where these like-minded groups could gather for rituals in a larger context. Hindu parents also wanted this larger gathering to help their children and future generations embrace Hindu beliefs (Waghorne 2004).
In the 1990s, after the Hindu Temple of Atlanta opened in 1990, Dr. Santosh Khare, a Birmingham-area pediatrician and Hindu, took the Birmingham Hindu community’s desire for a temple and helped make this dream a reality. Khare first came to Birmingham in 1972 and practiced medicine at Cooper Green Hospital. After the Temple’s opening in 1998, Dr. Manhender Reddy stated that the new space “gave a discipline and identity to our children” and encouraged them to continue their Hindu beliefs (Garrison 2014). Thus, passing on the Hindu faith to the next generation was a key reason why Indian immigrants built temples throughout the U.S. at the end of the twentieth century.
Hinduism is a religion with a deeply-ingrained sense of identity. When looking into how the intensity of this faith translates into Hinduism in the United States, one must consider whether or not it is possible to carry out a traditional level of Hindu devotion in a city like Birmingham. Here, Hindu festivals are not part of the cultural calendar; however, Hindus in Birmingham have adapted their faith to incorporate both their heritage and their sense of belonging in North Alabama.
One of the main similarities between Hinduism in India and in the U.S. is the extravagance of the shrines. Shrines that face either east or west are the main places of worship, both in the home and in temples. The main focus of the shrine is the murti, or statue of the god. Both in India and in the South Asian diaspora in America, Hindus focus on the symbolism behind these altars and desire to create a space for prayer and sacrifice. They commonly have objects that represent the essence of the specific god, as well as bowls for offerings such as food, floral arrangements, and money. As a result, followers honor the deity through respectful altar construction.
Additionally, celebration of larger Hindu festivals connects Hindus residing in America to their familial roots. While the magnitude of festivals varies greatly, both Hindu cultures observe main holy days such as Diwali, the festival of lights, and Holi, the welcoming of spring. In India, Diwali is an important holiday and is acknowledged by adorning both oneself and the home in the finest decor. The main focus is the lighting of the home by lanterns, which is also practiced in Birmingham by local Hindus and in temples. Holi is also a major holiday celebrated across America and is celebrated by bright colors, dancing, and traditional Indian cuisine (Dutta 2016). The event is a joyous occasion as participants welcome a new season, and with it, welcome reconciliation and new love in relationships (Fowler 1997). By celebrating these festivals, American Hindus are able to honor and reconnect with the generations before them that also partook in these age-old holidays.
The Temple’s Deities
Upon entrance into the Birmingham temple, attendees walk in a clockwise direction around the room to visit each deity. Some of the most prominent deities that visitors encounter are Ganesha, Parvati, and Shiva. People pray to Ganesha, who is known for his elephant head, for intellect and the removal of obstacles (Hindu Temple 2006). Individuals worship Parvati, Ganesha’s mother and the goddess of power, for her great strength. Shiva, her husband and father to Ganesha, sits on the other side of Parvati. He is also revered for his power as he will one day destroy the universe. Another noteworthy deity in the temple is Hanuman, who is a god of devotion and protector of Radha and Krishna, who have their own shrine nearby. Krishna is the eighth avatar of Vishnu and Radha is Krishna’s wife. Hindu followers present a variety of offerings to these gods, including nuts, apples, bananas, and money.
During our group’s visit to the temple, we first participated in a communal prayer to Sri Shirdi Sai Baba, a holy man (d. 1918) who regarded now as a divine figure. Each individual in the room stepped in front of the shrine, moved the incense in a clockwise motion three times, and then passed the incense to the next person. After everyone completed this prayer ritual, the temple priest gave our group a tour of the room and explained the importance of each deity. At the conclusion of the tour, he offered each of us pieces of the food offerings that believers recently placed in front of the shrines. His farewell challenge was that we do our best to spread good in the world and to treat every human with kindness.
Hindu Temple Architecture
In order to determine how the Birmingham Temple incorporates its religious values through architecture, one must first identify the characteristics of traditional architecture in Indian temples. Each wall, corner, and walking space are specifically designed to enforce an upward movement for its visitors (Indorf 2004). The interior walls take on a “pyramidal form” that guides the eye to an apex in the center of the building (Indorf 2004, 46). This element establishes an awareness of “divine energy” that descends through the apex (Indorf 2004, 48). Along with movement, there are detailed measurements for each section of the worship space. Beginning in the eleventh century, Indian architects built assembly halls that connected to their temples’ main worship room. These halls were used for ceremonies of sacrifices and dances (Volwahsen 1969). Even though these extensions expanded the temple immensely, architects maintained the geometrical and proportional style of the temple to reiterate God’s nature of order, perfection, and sacredness (Volwahsen 1969).
In light of these observations, the Birmingham temple is dedicated to creating an environment that promotes traditional Hindu architecture. Although the Temple is not identical to most of its established counterparts throughout the world, its members continue to evolve their structure into the mold of classical Hindu design. Where traditional Indian architecture emphasizes “divine energy” (Indorf 2004, 48), the temple similarly promotes “peace and tranquility” to all who enter (Hindu Temple 2006). Because the founding committee was eager to provide local Hindus with a place of worship, the temple opened with minimal adornments with plans to slowly elaborate over the next several years. The sanctuary includes a cupola, which is a small dome at the pinnacle of the arched ceiling. However, the temple’s plan is to add a shikhara that will further reflect apexes from Indian models. Additionally, the priests find great significance in the arrangement of deities in the sanctuary. The website states, “the deities are arranged in a ‘U’ shape” to allow for circumambulation, or the circling of deities during prayer and devotion (Hindu Temple 2006).
Through architecture, participation in various local Hindu practices and rituals, and the veneration of deities through food and incense, it is evident that Hindus residing in Birmingham honor their heritage through the way that their faith is carried out. The Birmingham Hindu Temple and Cultural Center is a place where members are eager to educate about the history of Hinduism, reverence of the Hindu faith can be tangibly felt, and all are welcome, regardless of religious background.
Hindu Temple & Cultural Center of Birmingham
Address: 200 N Chandalar Dr, Pelham, AL 35124
Sources For Further Information
Dutta, Riya. “Holi, the Spring Festival of Colors in India.” Skipping Stones 28, no. 2 (April 2016): 34.
Engage. “Indian Cultural Association at UAB.” 2019, https://uab.campuslabs.com/engage/organization/indian-cultural-association-at-uab.
Fowler, Jeaneane D. Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1997.
Garrison, Greg. “Doctor Who Co-Founded Hindu Temple in Birmingham Led by Example.” Al.com, July 27, 2014, Last modified Mar 6, 2019, https://www.al.com/living/2014/07/doctor_who_co-founded_hindu_te.html.
Indorf, Pinna. “Interpreting the Hindu Temple Form: A Model Based on Its Conceptualization as a Formal Expression of Measured Movement.” Artibus Asiae 64, no. 2 (2004): 177-211. www.jstor.org/stable/3250184.
Volwahsen, Andr. Living Architecture: Indian. Translated by Ann E. Keep. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969.
Waghorne, Joanne Punzo. Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle-Class World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Published December 17, 2019