South Jordan • In a land of fast food restaurants, strip malls and car washes, the new tower of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple suggests a world apart.

The gleaming tiers of the 34-foot spire, bedecked with sculpted figures and gold cones, hint at what will greet visitors inside the nondescript gray, cinder block building — a kind of heavenly city.

Painted deities dressed in embroidered robes and silk tunics line three sides of the sanctuary, sitting under handcarved sculptures that tell the stories of the gods’ incarnations.

For Utah Hindus, it finally feels like home — even for those who have never lived in South Asia but have nostalgia for the sights and smells of their ancestral abode.

“Once you enter inside to see the shrines adorned,” says temple President Satish Nachaegari, “it connects you to most temples in India.”

Devotees have enjoyed the temple since it was first consecrated in 2003 as a relatively small gathering space with the signature Ganesha statue, but the multifaceted individual shrines, iconography and tower did not fully take shape until after 2015, when it was rededicated.

With the help of seven specially trained artisans, an Indian ambience emerged before their eyes.

This enlarged and richly decorated space “fills a gap for our people,” says Venka Subramanyan, who oversaw the beautification process, “not just immigrants but those who have been here a long time.”

Gliding quietly on the heated marble tiles or meditating in front of one of the shrines, worshippers in the growing community find a sense of joy. Many visit daily; others come weekly or on major holidays.

They come for blessings before a test, before a big game, before a new project or performance, before a birth or marriage.

“You get energy when you come here,” says Manju Sundar as she circles a stand-alone shrine near the door nine times while meditating on the nine planets.

City of gods

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Indra Neelameggham talks with fellow devotees of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple, March 28, 2019. Artisans from around the world spent two years hand-carving deities in the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan.

The temple’s central deity is Ganesha, the elephant-faced god known as the “remover of obstacles,” explains Indra Neelameggham, a longtime leader who housed the donated statue in her basement from 1995 to 2003.

In the original temple space, Ganesha’s shrine was in the center, where worshippers could sit on any side and chant or meditate.

Within the first few months after its 2003 dedication, two other shrines were added: Durga, or the mother goddess, and Shiva, who rules over the ending of cycles and the beginning of others (also a destroyer of evil). Around 2005, the temple added a shrine to Vishnu, known as a “giver and preserver,” Neelameggham says. “He is a restorer of all a devotee asks for.”

Starting in 2014, the sanctuary more than doubled in size, from a capacity of 240 to 650 attendees at a celebration.

The expanded space was rededicated in 2015 — Hindu temples are rededicated every 12 years — as an act of “purification,” says Subramanyan.

But only the four deities had individual shrines, he says, and the other 10 that were planned needed their own space. In addition, the Utahns wanted to add carvings common to Hindu temples that would express each deity’s purpose.

So they arranged for seven Indian artists to come to the Beehive State for about two years to complete the painstaking work.

“These skilled artisans work in concrete and wet cement,” Subramanyan says. “There are no molds or machines to help them.”

Each sculptor has his own style (almost all are men), he says, whose knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, from grandfathers to fathers to sons.

“This kind of work is very specialized,” he says. “It can’t be done by everybody.”

‘Like humans’

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple priest Sathish Nivarthi makes offerings to deities Vishnu and Lalitha, March 28, 2019. Hindu priests act as a kind of mediator between the worshipper and the deity, performing rituals to the deities on behalf of the worshippers. Artisans from around the world spent two years hand-carving deities in the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan.

Now there are 14 separate shrines with a single figure or more, each in an alcove, along with the concrete carvings on top that add layers of awareness to the shrine.

One god might be connected to a bull or a peacock. Another might offer hand gestures to suggest peace and prosperity. There is deity for learning, knowledge and the arts.

One male god is depicted with two wives, symbolizing the unity of north and south Indian traditions.

“It is meant to symbolize that all religion is one,” Neelameggham says.

Besides counseling couples on auspicious occasions for a baby blessing, wedding or funeral, a priest chants daily before each of the shrines, sprinkling it with water, and placing fruit, rice and flowers in front of it.

He also changes the deities’ adornments — sometimes as often as once a week.

The temple has a storage closet to house devotees’ donations of silk, jewelry and other ornamentation for the gods.

The female statues from northern India typically feature veils, Neelameggham says, because Hindus in that part of the country were influenced by Muslims, who long have required women to cover their hair.

In both regions, male deities mostly wear white, she says, as do the priests.

“Deities are treated like humans,” Neelameggham says. “They are fed, clothed and covered in fragrances — just as we do for people.”

Tower tradition

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple priest Sathish Nivarthi makes offerings to the planets of the Navagraha shrine, March 28, 2019. Hindu priests act as a kind of mediator between the worshipper and the deity, performing rituals to the deities on behalf of the worshippers. Artisans from around the world spent two years hand-carving deities in the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan.

Most Indian temples have stand-alone spires, says Subramanyan, which signal their location and prominence.

Kings used to build outside columns of varying heights, depending on the community’s wealth, he says. One in southern India reaches up 200 feet from the ground.

The South Jordan tower is just under 35 feet, with nine cones forming a row on the top, which the priest doused with water for purification during the 2015 consecration ceremony.

Towers also have served a more practical purpose — a place of refuge after a disaster or an invasion by a foreign army. They were built on high ground as a bulwark where people can go after a flood, which was a common experience in India.

Families could come to the temple, which they spotted by the tower, Neelameggham says, and “sit out the storm.”

Spires are “beacons of hope,” she says. “You look at them and pray.”

A shared experience

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Maha Vishnu, the eternal protector. Artisans from around the world spent two years hand-carving deities in the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan.

A Hindu temple is not only a place of worship but also a social gathering place. On that score, Subramanyan says, this temple “has served the community very well.”

Attached to the temple is the Indian Cultural Center, which now has added five classrooms.

“On any Saturday,” he says, “you would see 300 to 400 kids, learning languages, taking a class in classical dance or religious chanting,”

When the first structure went up more than 15 years ago, followers could scarcely have imagined the community’s “remarkable growth,” Subramanyan says. “In early days, we might get a couple of hundred devotees to a celebration. Now, we routinely surpass 1,000 or a couple of thousand attendees for our main festivals.”

Last month, between 1,200 and 1,500 came to the temple for the Shiva holiday.

“Those celebrations go through the whole night.” Nachaegari says. “We had a steady stream of people through the evening.”

As Utah’s Hindu population has surged to more than 8,000, these believers have felt valued and appreciated in the Mormon-dominated state.

“We have been fairly well received,” Subramanyan says. “We have been active with the interfaith group and try our level best to be integrated into the whole.”

For his part, Nachaegari has never felt Hindus are “treated as outsiders,” he says. “There has been lots of welcoming."

And, the temple president adds, “curiosity.”