Exalting birth of godly protector

Hindu and Jain faithful gather in Finksburg to honor Krishna, protector of universe


The women are dressed in kaleidoscopic colors, dancing in a whirling pinwheel and tapping wooden sticks with their neighbors' to keep the beat. Their white-robed priest leads the congregation in chants, offering fruit and fragrant flower garlands to the gods who stand watch on marble pedestals.

As the night wears on, children rub their eyes and grandmothers yawn, waiting for midnight. That's when they can finally celebrate the birth of the baby Krishna, the most venerated Hindu god, the protector of the universe.

"It's a big festival for the temple," says Dr. Dinesh Kalaria, a Westminster cardiologist directing the hundreds of cars trying to park outside the Greater Baltimore Temple in Finksburg Wednesday night. "Even though this is a weekday, this is one of those bigger crowds, maybe the biggest this year."

Close to 900 Indian immigrants and their American-born children, who live in Carroll and surrounding counties, flock to the Hindu and Jain temple for the occasion.

Driving past the temple's 48-foot, often-illuminated dome, it might not be obvious that it is a holiday, if not for all the cars spilling into the adjoining shopping center's lot off Gamber Road.

The birth of Krishna, or Sri Krishna Janma Ashtami, is one of the most sacred of the dozen-plus prominent Hindu holidays.

At midnight, worshipers place a baby Krishna statue in a bassinet. They rock the crib and bow before their god in prayer.

Efforts to build the temple originated with a few hundred families in the early 1990s. Now the temple, which opened in 1998, has swelled to include 1,500 families on their mailing list, with another 700 families in their database, said Annasaheb Anuje, the temple's president. Some 300 members, including Anuje, are Jain, another ancient Indian religion.

"Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism all come from the same philosophical base," said Anuje, a longtime Annapolis resident. "It's like the Western, Abrahamic religions, but the roots are even closer to each other."

The temple is the only one of its kind in the Baltimore area.

Many Hindu families have a home altar, where they meditate, sometimes daily. But they come out in large numbers for the big festivals.

Passing on the rituals to their Americanized children can be difficult. "It's a challenge," Finksburg resident Jitesh Parikh said. "The kids who come on a routine basis end up following the traditions."

In predominantly Christian Carroll County, Parikh's daughters said their classmates are fascinated with Hinduism, a religion that's more than 3,000 years old. Though they worship thousands of deities, Hindus believe in one divine power that unites all beings.

At the pool party and field hockey practice she had scheduled for the next day, Parikh's daughter Priya Parikh said her friends might ask why she is so tired.

"They actually think it's really cool to learn about this stuff," says Priya, 12, a Shiloh Middle School pupil.

Inside the temple, shoes are piled in a small room near the prayer hall. Entering the sanctuary with bare feet is a requirement, for spiritual purity.

The smell of curry lingers in the air. Earlier in the evening, the crowd enjoyed a vegetarian feast - except for the most pious, who fast until midnight.

Meat and alcohol are banned from the premises, according to religious custom.

During the Sanskrit chanting and Hindi folk songs, tabla drums and small cymbals create percussive sounds for the faithful, as young children giggle and bounce from room to room. Priya's cousin Kajal Parikh, 8, plays games on her father's Blackberry.

"The priest made an announcement that you're not supposed to talk, but obviously ... ," Priya's sister Ruchi Parikh says, gesturing to those who were more focused on chatting than prayers. "The dancing is for the kids to enjoy."

Ruchi, 17, and her peers delight in the circles of dancing that follow. The women wear vibrant saris and salwar kameezes, fashioned from a rainbow of rhinestone-studded fabrics. Some of the men sport pants and polo shirts, others more-traditional, earth-toned tunics.

The priest, Pundit Padmanabha Joshi, who bore a red mark on his forehead signifying the third eye, hails from Uttar Pradesh, the North Indian state where Krishna himself is believed to have been born.

Joshi led a temple in Columbia, S.C., before coming to lead the Greater Baltimore Temple when it opened close to eight years ago.


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