A Hidden Gem: The Hindu Temple of Hampton Roads

The first Hindu temple of Hampton Roads began as a weekly meeting at Saileela Venkatesan’s house. Local Asian Indians sang devotionals and forged deep connections, beyond the usual movies and shopping trips.

As the tight-knit Asian Indian community grew, Venkatesan knew people needed a better alternative. The nearest Hindu temple was in Richmond. Venkatesan and her husband rented halls for gatherings but the rooms still didn’t offer enough space.

In June 1985, Venkatesan and a group of Asian Indians decided to raise money for a temple in Chesapeake, which was completed in 1991.

“The opening of the temple, it was one of the happiest days of my life,” Venkatesan said.

The original founders donated almost $60,000 of their own money during their first meeting. They then involved other families to form an organizing group, the VIP Associates. They pulled together $2 million to begin construction, focusing on a cultural hall for celebrations and festivals, an integral part of Hinduism.

As one of the major religions of the world, Hinduism is more of a way of life rather than a simple set of beliefs. It emphasizes values such as dharma, or duty to family and community, and tolerance. It grew out of a conglomerate of ancient Asian Indian traditions and customs. The traditions of dance and song assisted in spreading the religion and it is practiced by approximately 1 billion people worldwide. About 80 percent of the population of India is Hindu, according to India's census.

“My heart is in India,” said Vinod Agarwal, a professor of economics at Old Dominion University. He was one of the founders and remains a member of the board of trustees. Having a temple was important to him because he wanted his children to feel like they are American but to “have some Indian values.”

Five years after the temple’s opening in 1991, it burned down, possibly because of faulty electrical wiring.

“It was like losing a relative,” Venkatesan said. “It was very, very disturbing,”.

The community rallied and built a bigger temple, including a dining hall and kitchen.

Now, among the trees along Samson Creek Road, the orange-roofed temple complex swings into view as devotees drive down a winding road to the front door. The smell of flowers from the garden and the shouts of cricket players in the green fields fill the air outside. Inside the cultural hall, Indian music blares from the speakers while women dance, twirling their hands and shifting their hips. Spicy curries and sweet puddings fill the trays on the table in the nearby dining hall. In the main prayer room, a row of shining statues of gods and goddesses line the front as people sing songs accompanied by drums, tambourines and the clapping of hands.

More than 61 percent of the local Asian Indian population was born outside of the United States, according to temple officials. Many of them came here for graduate or professional schools. The community is diverse with people from south and north India, along with other parts of southeastern Asia. Being at the temple allows Asian Indians from one area to learn about festivals and customs from another.

Agarwal said it would be easy for people to divide themselves along the geographic lines of their native homelands, but they don’t. The temple is “our place,” he said. “Not yours or mine, but ours.”

As the Asian Indian community expands, so do the temple’s activities.

Dilip Sarkar, a retired associate professor of surgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School, had open-heart surgery in 2001. He found his calling in yoga as part of a series of lifestyle changes, and began teaching yoga classes at the temple in 2002. The yoga program has grown tremendously, gaining a following through word-of-mouth and workshops like the annual ODU yoga therapy retreat.

Sarkar said he is proud of the the participants’ progress. “Many of them have had a significant improvement with their lifestyle-related conditions like diabetes, hypertension, multiple sclerosis.”

Pediatrician Rajeshwari Kaloji, who was born in Pune, India, moved to Hampton Roads in 1999 from Philadelphia. Her eldest daughter had been taking cultural classes there. The Chesapeake temple did not have any organized cultural classes so Kaloji created a curriculum.

The “Sunday school” started in 2000. Mothers help teach and volunteers come in on arts-and-crafts days. Kids learn about Hindu festivals and traditions and the details behind the Hindu gods, symbols, and customs. Students also engage in 30 minutes of yoga to focus their minds and calm their bodies.

The temple hosts Jeevan Sandhya Mandal meetings for retirees and senior citizens. The group started so that parents of the Asian Indian immigrants could interact and develop friendships in their unfamiliar new home. The temple also has a cricket club that meets in the fields next to the temple.

To connect with the external community, the temple hosts an annual health camp where Asian Indian doctors provide free health consultations. The annual Taste of India celebration offers a day filled with cultural performances and food at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. The event boasts around 8,000 to 9,000 visitors each year.

The temple also welcomes non-Hindus who want to learn more about the community.

“We have a beautiful temple complex,” Agarwal said. “We are proud to be the owners of the temple. We are a small community, but it shows that if we put our minds together, we can achieve almost anything.”