Temple Traffic a Mixed Blessing

Brigid Schulte, Washington Post, September 15, 2008

On a cool marble altar lined with gold-haloed Hindu deities dressed in peacock blue robes, a Hindu priest traces the outline of each statue with the flame of an oil lamp, chanting in Sanskrit and ringing a golden bell. He has already offered pure water. And soon he will gently fan each one with an elaborate whisk made of long, gray yak tail.

“We fan the deities because in India it is so hot,” explained Rajeev Khanna. “The idea is, you take care of us, we want you to be comfortable.”

This twice-daily ritual—three times on Sunday—is called Aarti. It is critical for the care and feeding of the gods in any Hindu temple. It is also key to understanding why this temple, Rajdhani Mandir, in suburban Fairfax County, is having so much trouble with its neighbors.

The issue is not religion, race or immigration.

It’s parking.

And unless you understand Aarti, you will not understand why something as prosaic as county zoning regulations have become a lightning rod for cultural misunderstanding, with accusations of paranoia and xenophobia being thrown about. The situation has become so volatile that county leaders threatened last week to shut down the temple if members don’t get the parking under control, temple leaders said.

The problem is this: The high-tech boom and explosion in immigrants coming to the D.C. area from India have pushed the number of devotees coming to the temple far beyond anything the original builders could have imagined when they began constructing a temple for 250 people in 1998. So, with only 87 parking spaces and sometimes hundreds if not thousands of worshipers coming and going throughout the day, many wind up parking in the neighborhood, residents say, blocking driveways and intersections, making unsafe U-turns and clogging two-lane Pleasant Valley Road. Neighbors have complained to the county so often that some have been asked not to write again. They have even sent photos and videos of cars parked on grass and sari-clad pedestrians walking in the street at night.

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Thursday evenings, the fast-growing Sai Baba sect comes to worship. And many major Hindu festivals are timed to coincide with the full moon.

The neighbors and some county officials think the answer for the temple is simple: Move.

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Indeed, Rajdhani Mandir is a victim of its own success. Unlike the three or four other Hindu temples in the D.C. area that cater only to one major deity or one region of India, Rajdhani, which means “capital,” welcomes everyone.

But the suggestion of moving is, “insulting” at minimum and “repugnant” at worst, one temple official says.

They can’t move.

The 17 deities that sit serenely in alcoves around the maroon sanctuary hall are alive.

“They’ve been enlivened in a process we call prana pratishta,” Khanna, a doctor and chairman of the temple’s board of trustees, explained. “Once the stone statues are transformed into living deities, they are rooted to the spot. They can never be moved. That’s why there are temples in India that are 2,000 years old.”

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But in a zoning and culture clash Catch-22, plans that might solve most of the parking problems have been put on hold. The temple already is technically in violation of its original permit because it agreed to supply adequate parking for worshipers on-site. And there is a deep distrust among residents about the temple’s plans.

The temple has a contingency contract on 33 acres across the street and is studying the feasibility of building a community center with more parking. But neighbors see this as an unwarranted expansion that would further snarl traffic. For that reason, many are opposing the one-acre parking lot.

County officials warned temple leaders at a meeting Friday that one more violation, meaning even one more person parking in the neighborhood, could be sufficient grounds to take the temple to court to shut it down, Khanna said. Barring new violations for 30 to 60 days, county officials said they would help expedite meetings with the community and begin reviewing the new parking lot plan, according to temple leaders.

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{snip} Across the street, someone had posted a sign with bright red, emphatic letters: “Please No Temple Parking Here.”

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