“faith, race, placeexplores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came into being and how historical divisions are confronted today.
The Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills grew out of a series of dance classes in a basement in Squirrel Hill.
A new U.S. immigration law in 1965 brought a wave of Indian professionals to Pittsburgh in the 1960s and 1970s, drawn to jobs at its universities and medical centers.
Those who were parents wanted their children to feel connected to Indian culture – to “hold on to something”, said Aparna Rayaprol, a sociologist at the University of Hyderabad in India. Rayaprol came to Pittsburgh in 1988 to do her graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She ended up studying the local SV temple for her thesis project.
The parents hired a teacher of a classical form of South Indian dance to instruct their children. They found space in the basement of an Indian businessman’s shop in Squirrel Hill and built a small Hindu shrine there, so students could say a blessing before class.
Very quickly, this basement sanctuary felt inadequate. They wanted something bigger, more elaborate and on a hill, as was the tradition in Hinduism.
The seeds of the future Sri Venkateswara temple have been planted.
At first, Pittsburgh’s Jain, Sikh, and Hindu communities all shared a space in Monroeville, now known as the Jain Hindu Temple.
Soon, however, cultural and religious differences, such as which deities to present where, and funding complications led devotees in southern India to split up and seek their own temple.
Their site is said to be modeled on (and partially funded by) the famous Sri Venkateswara temple in Tirupati, a city in Andhra Pradesh, India. Other funding came from membership fees from local members and donations from the faithful. Its construction cost several million dollars.
As construction began, 15 sculptors and an architect arrived from India to ensure that the temple adhered precisely to the specifications outlined in the Hindu scriptures.
It was “very, very significant,” Rayaprol said. The Pittsburgh SV Temple continues to attract worshipers from across the country due to its resemblance to the original one in India. It was completed in 1977.
Yet for all the attention to authenticity, the builders of the Pittsburgh Temple also had to get creative, said Fred Clothey, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
According to tradition, for example, the deity of the central shrine of a temple must be in contact with the earth. In Pittsburgh, however, the central shrine was going to be on the second floor. No problem: the immigrants built a pillar of earth on which the sanctuary on the second floor rests.
In fact, in some ways, the South Indian immigrant community of Pittsburgh observed Hindu rituals Following minutely or cautiously than in India, which, at least among the professional class, tended to be quite secular.
People were asking, ‘Who are we? What defines our cultural identity? and turning to religion as an answer, Rayaprol said. She found that women, in particular, carried the work of defining this cultural identity – something that could be burdensome, in addition to their other roles.
“It’s a major job,” she said, detailing the different pressures a woman might face. “Even though she is an anesthetist by day, on Friday evenings she drives her children to the temple.”
Some women also became more studied in Hinduism to keep up with their curious children.
The first generation would accept authority rituals, Rayaprol explained. They did not question their meaning. The new generation born in the United States would ask: “Why?
Rayaprol offers its experience with the bindithe red mark which Hindu women sometimes wear on their foreheads, as an example of her own American instruction in Hindu ritual.
For her, it was a “cosmetic” thing, she said. If she wore an Indian dress, she would wear a bindi; if she wore pants, like in college, she wouldn’t. She first heard the religious significance—to sharpen the mind or keep it focused on spiritual matters—from someone at Temple SV.
The first generation of immigrant women constantly weighed how to help their children feel their Indian identity and also integrate as Americans.
It could be like cooking fries with traditional Indian dishes at community dinners or letting their children play basketball a bit outside the temple before entering.
The temple was a space to balance cultural preservation and exploration, a negotiation that many saw as key to their immigrant experience.
Rather than choosing “Indian” or “American,” Rayaprol said, “American culture lets you have the hyphen.”
Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s religious and religious reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin.
This story has been verified by Sophia Levin.
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