BUENA PARK, Calif. – In a suburban landscape dotted with evangelical mega-churches and auto malls, followers of an Indian religion thousands of years old spent days decorating marble idols and lighting incense to herald the opening of one of their faith’s largest temples.
The new $20-million Jain temple complex, celebrating a religion that promotes nonviolence and vegetarianism, and shares with Hinduism the concepts of nirvana and reincarnation, is expected to attract pilgrims and scholars worldwide.
The soaring marble-and-limestone facade takes up almost an entire block in this working class city and dominates a mundane scene of laundromats, auto repair shops and taco stands with its domed roof and gleaming, coffee-coloured pillars.
It replaces a much smaller temple that opened in 1988 about a decade after 25 Jain families first came together to worship in this northern Orange County city. That original building was the first independent Jain temple in the United States.
“You don’t see temples this size very often, even in India,” said Dilip V. Shah, president of Federation of Jain Associations in North America. “It’s so majestic. … This is something to admire, and it inspires others.”
Jains began migrating to the U.S. from India in the 1960s. Southern California was a popular new home because of the many universities and highly skilled jobs in the
region, but Jains also settled in large numbers in San Francisco, Chicago and New Jersey.
The tiny religious minority has struggled to maintain its beliefs amid the distractions of western life, especially for second- and third-generation Jains. The new complex was inspired, in part, by that challenge, said Ashok Savla, president of Jain Center of Southern California.
The temple opened last weekend after 11 days of dancing, worship and theatre organized by the 1,500-member community, topped off by a parade and sacred ceremony to install 47 marble idols in their new home. Twenty-four of the statues, which Jains worship, represent people who attained enlightenment through repeated reincarnation.
Together with its attached cultural centre, classrooms and a planned 10,000-tome library, the complex will be the largest Jain spiritual centre outside India.