Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bosnian lunch and Hindu Temple

Yesterday we took a field trip to Gwinnett County, the most ethnically diverse county in Georgia. It was an opportunity for us to get out of the office, see what's going on, do some outreach, and a little staff bonding too.

The itinerary was set by our Bosnian staffer so we went to a pizza place run by Bosnians. I had Ćevapčići / ćevapi, basically ground beef formed into little sausage shapes (but it's not sausage), served in a wonderfully chewy leavened flatbread, with a side of kajmak (sour cream) and ajvar (pureed spread of red bell peppers, eggplant, garlic, and chili pepper). The 'j' is pronounced like 'y' as in 'sky.' Anyway, it was good and actually better than what I had in Serbia.

We finished the field trip by stopping at the BAPS Hindu temple. It opened this past weekend and will be open to the public starting September 1. Even though it wasn't officially open, they welcomed us to walk the grounds. Here's the article from the newspaper.

All in all it was a really good field trip.

'A piece of India' dedicated in Lilburn

Largest mandir of its kind in the United States opens after volunteers spend more than 1.3 million man hours in construction.
By D. AILEEN DODDThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/27/07

It towers from a hilltop in monumental grandeur, a hand-carved house for God built using the ancient traditions of India and planted on red Georgia clay.

Hindus came from half-way around the world Sunday for the inauguration of the $19 million mandir in Lilburn.

Colored rice decorates the entrance to the $19 million BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Lilburn. The world leader of the BAPS organization flew in especially to consecrate the mandir, as people from around the world attended.

The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir heaved from marble, limestone and sandstone by the careful hands of Indian artisans, is the largest mandir of its kind in the United States. It is the fourth traditional BAPS community temple in North America. And a source of pride for Hindus nationwide.

The world leader of the BAPS organization, His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, flew in especially to consecrate the mandir. The inauguration comes during the centennial anniversary of the BAPS religious heritage.

Sunday's ceremonies celebrated the link between Indian and American cultures.

Balloons in the colors of the American and Indian flags floated overhead. The national anthems of both countries were sung.

"This mandir is not just for the Swaminarayan faithful, it is for everyone," said Pramukh Swami Mahara to his faithful Sunday. "God resides in this mandir. ... We hope the volunteers who worked on it serve as an inspiration to others."

Volunteers spent more than 1.3 million man hours building the mandir.

Thousands of devotees gathered in the shadow of the temple after the opening ceremonies, eagerly awaiting to step barefoot inside of it.

For some of them, seeing the ornate temple beneath the canopy of trees was like a vision from India. The strip malls, the aging subdivisions, the stream of traffic traveling Lawrenceville Highway in Lilburn disappeared for the moment.

There was only the chanting of the sadhus, the monks of the temple. The sound of Gujarati rolling off tongues. The gazes of the ancient forefathers of the Hindu religion staring down from their stone perches, from Vyas Muni and Vishnu, to the sacred images of Swaminarayan and his successors.

"You do not have to go that far away from home to feel like you're in India," said Hetal Patel of Duluth. "I can come here to pray and have peace."

People traveled from London, India, Africa and across the nation to celebrate the opening of the mandir in a place many of the devotees had never heard of before — Lilburn. Families were reunited for the special occasion.

Hindus wore their Sunday best just to stand in line in the sweltering heat. The women wore long silk saris dripping with sequins and beads, the men wore hand-embroided cotton pants with shirts to the knee as the sun beamed down relentlessly.

"I'm so excited," said Sheetal Desai of Buford. "I can't believe it's finally opening."

Sanjay Patel of Jacksonville, Fla., paid $3,000 so his in-laws could fly in from India. The family drove several hours Sunday to see the mandir. His wife, Jaya, painted her hand with decorative henna.

"There is no temple like this in Jacksonville," Patel said. "It is important for us to be here."

The Hindu devotees were joined by three metro-Atlanta dignitaries who were welcomed with fresh garlands of carnations. U.S. Congressman Hank Johnson delivered a proclamation from the House of Representatives. Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister and Lilburn Mayor Jack Bolton also were among the crowd.

"This certainly has put Lilburn on the map," Bolton said. "It is a grand addition to our city."

It took 17 months to build the mandir and nearly 35,000 pieces of stone. It is made of Italian carrara marble, Turkish limra limestone and Indian pink sandstone.

Artisans have been carving stone since 2005 for the temple. Their work is so detailed that you can see the whimsical expressions on the faces of the sages and devotees on the ceilings and columns of the mandir. One, a scholar, is wearing glasses.

The mandir will be a place children and families can return to their roots and celebrate their culture. It will be used for meditation. A Family Activity Center nearby will teach native languages, instrument lessons and provide other services.

Metro Atlanta is home to about 500 BAPS followers. There are 1 million worldwide out of about 1 billion Hindus. The BAPS strain of Hinduism, one of many offshoots of the religion, has roots in 19th century Gujarat. It was founded in 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj. Pramukh Swami Maharaj is regarded as the fifth spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the central figure of the Swaminarayan faith who lived in the 1700s and 1800s.

Members practice non-violence, strive to maintain high personal ethics and a commitment to community service. They are strict vegetarians who believe in reincarnation and worship Bhagwan Swaminarayan. BAPS also is a civic organization dedicated to community service worldwide and the preservation of Indian heritage.

Looking at the sages on the mandir, Deepa Patel, a Lawrenceville student studying law in St. Paul, Minn., was reminded of stories from her childhood.

"It like our little corner of the world here," she said. "It feels like a piece of India placed in Lilburn."

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