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Voices Fall-Winter 2010:
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Volume 36
Fall-Winter
2010
Voices

Hindu Domestic Mandirs: Home Temples in Greater New York by Puja Sahney

Hindus often say that there can be no town or city without a temple. Similarly, no house is complete without a domestic mandir, or temple. A mandir enlightens the house and the minds of those living in the house. In my study of the interior decoration of Hindu homes in United States, I encountered a domestic altar in every home, decorated in bright colors and placed in a sacred space. This essay describes the significance, placement, and decoration of the Hindu mandir. Mandir means place of worship in Hindi, the national language of India. A mandir can refer to a public building where people go to worship, like a church, but also to domestic altars dedicated to Hindu gods that people place in their homes. My research is based in a residential community called Ravens Crest in Plainsboro, New Jersey, which is located in the New York metro area near Princeton, New Jersey.

Mandir set up in a traditional mandap kept on a corner of the kitchen counter
Mandir set up in a traditional mandap kept on a corner of the kitchen counter and lit by an electric bulb. All photos: Puja Sahney

Ravens Crest is a large complex of onebedroom and two-bedroom apartments. Many in Ravens Crest work in New York City. They prefer to live in Plainsboro, however, because they point out that it has good schools. Plainsboro has the second largest community of people from India in United States, topped only by Edison, another town in New Jersey. According to the 2000 census, Plainsboro has a population of 20,215, with 16.97% describing themselves as having Indian ancestry. Women I met in Ravens Crest said that, in the past ten years, the population of Indians has increased in Plainsboro and especially in Ravens Crest, as many people from India with information technology backgrounds have come to the United States on temporary projects. Indians in Plainsboro like living in Ravens Crest, because it is economical and offers good storage space.

My husband, Suraj, and I arrived in Plainsboro in May 2010 from Salt Lake City, Utah. Although I was pursuing a Ph.D. in folklore at Indiana University, I moved to Salt Lake City after completing coursework because Suraj was doing his Ph.D. at the University of Utah. We moved to Plainsboro for the summer because I wished to conduct dissertation fieldwork on Hindu interior decoration in the United States, and Suraj had been offered a summer internship with Siemens Corporate Research in Princeton. We chose to live in Ravens Crest because it has a large population of Indians, and we were able to sign a three-month lease. We did not have a car during our stay in Plainsboro, so I conducted a large part of my research in Ravens Crest.

Murtis are kept on a sinhasan (throne)
Murtis are kept on a sinhasan (throne).

My interest in interior decoration began with my adviser Henry Glassie at Indiana University, who has done considerable work on vernacular architecture. According to Glassie, interior decoration is increasingly important today because people no longer design the exterior of the houses in which they live, so they turn to interior decoration to express themselves. This is especially true for Hindu immigrants who buy—or, in the case of my informants, rent—homes built for an American lifestyle. Analyzing interior decoration in Ravens Crest therefore offers an opportunity to understand the life and culture of the Hindu community in the United States.


The Significance of the Hindu Mandir
When I first began my research at Ravens Crest, I struggled to find potential informants whose homes I would be able to observe. In time, I learned that there are small parks within the community where people come in the evening with their children. At one such park—close to my apartment and also adjacent to the community swimming pool and tennis courts—I met several women to whom I explained my study. These women were young mothers between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five and had been living in United States between two to fifteen years. India is a very diverse country. It has twenty-eight states, and each state has its own language, food, and dress, with cultural practices varying further between North and South India. Hindu religious practices are mostly common to all states, but different Hindu deities are favored in different states. For example, lord Ganesh is favored in the central western state of Maharashtra, lord Krishna in the central western state of Gujarat, goddess Durga in the northeastern state of Bengal, and lord Venkateshwara in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

At Ravens Crest, I met women from both North and South India. My paper is based on religious beliefs and practices that I found to be common to all Hindus, regardless of their home states in India. I explained to the women I met that I was studying the way Hindus from India decorate their homes in the United States in order to understand the life and culture of the community. Upon hearing my topic, many women invited me into their homes.

Inside their homes, I observed that most living rooms consisted of two couches set alongside the wall facing a TV, with a coffee table in the middle. On one side of the room, near the kitchen, stood the family dining table. The walls were decorated with family pictures, children’s artwork, or birthday party decorations that had not been removed. In each home, I found a domestic mandir, most commonly placed in a corner of the kitchen or near the dining table.

The Hindu mandir houses the idols of various Hindu gods and goddesses, called murtis, before which the family prays daily. When a family moves into a new home, the first thing they do—before moving in the furniture—is place a murti. This murti is often of lord Ganesh, because he is considered the god of beginnings and also the god who removes obstacles. Murtis are made of metal (often bronze) or even clay. Along with murtis, mandirs often include pictures of gods and goddesses, called tasvir in Hindi, either plastered to adjoining walls or framed and kept on stands. These murtis and tasvirs of gods and goddesses are placed on a red or orange cloth, because these colors are considered auspicious in Hinduism.

Murtis are more expensive than pictures and photos of gods; therefore, in poor households in India, one finds more tasvir than murtis. All my informants were married to IT professionals with middle-class incomes, but in many apartments I entered, I found more pictures than murtis in the mandir. Due to “weight problems” on the aircraft, many families had been unable to carry murtis from India, while others pointed out that their murtis were made of glass, and they feared that they might break on such a long journey. Some bought murtis from temples in the United States, while others brought them from India a few at a time, each time they went home for a visit. Some informants explained to me that they prefer murtis from India because they are cheaper. Also, in some families, parents give murtis as wedding gifts, so these murtis have sentimental value. Many women said that they left these murtis in their in-laws’ mandir when they came to the United States, because they were not sure how long they will live abroad. In spite of this uncertainty, however, others brought their murtis with them.

Mandir set up in a wooden cabinet placed next to the dining table.Mandir set up in a wooden cabinet placed next to the dining table. In front is the aasan, where the devotee may sit and pray.

In India, the mandir is housed in a small pyramid-shaped structure called a mandap, which can be made of many materials, but is most commonly wood or metal. The mandap’s pyramid-shaped roof with a pointed top is important, as it is believed to attract magnetic energy. Hindu temples have a similar pyramid shape, and the primary deity of the temple is placed under this roof. The magnetic energy attracted by the roof’s shape is believed to infuse the murti with energy.

Women said that another reason to house the deities in a mandap is that it is shaped like a house. Just as we live in a house, a god should also be given a house, because gods should have a roof over their heads. Sometimes houses in India come with a separate small room, usually near the kitchen, that can be dedicated to worship. This room, about the size of a queen-sized bed, has a shelf intended for the mandap. Women explained that the mandir should be set up at a height above an average man’s chest when he is sitting down, so that the deity is above when the devotee prays. Traditionally, Hindus always pray while sitting, not standing. As one of my informants said, “We do so much work standing. We should take out at least a few minutes a day to sit down with god and pray to him peacefully.”

I discovered that more than 90 percent of the homes in Ravens Crest lacked mandaps. In their absence, some women had made symbolic pyramid-shaped roofs out of cut paper, but most mandirs were instead placed in small wooden cabinets, bookshelves, or built-in wardrobes. The women said that due to the recession, and also the fact that their husbands are here working on temporary IT projects without green cards, they may have to return to India at any time. Consequently, they did not want to purchase one of the expensive mandaps sold in Indian stores in the U.S. or shipped from India. Another reason for not wanting to invest in a mandap was that if the family had to leave, they would never want to sell their mandap, and they feared that any family to whom they may give it may not treat it with equal respect. For this reason, they preferred to set up their mandirs on shelves or in cabinets.

Because Hindus traditionally sit to pray, a mandir is always set up on the floor or on a low shelf. In front of the mandir is placed a mat called an aasan in Hindi, on which the devotee should sit. The aasan is believed to help devotees concentrate on god and also keeps their clothes clean while sitting on the floor. One woman shared her belief that one’s prayer does not reach the deity if one does not sit on the mat in front of the mandir. I was therefore surprised to find that most families had set up the mandir on top of bookshelves and cabinets, rather than closer to the floor. Even those who had mandaps had placed them on top of bookshelves or on kitchen counters. My informants wished to keep the mandir—especially the lamp— out of their small children’s reach, which is more of a challenge in small, single-family American homes than in many Indian homes.

Every Hindu mandir includes a central lamp called a deepak that is lit morning and evening, or sometimes left constantly lit. Hindus light the deepak in the mandir in the morning as soon as they shower, and then again in the evening between six and seven. The morning deepak symbolizes the morning light that has dispelled the night’s darkness. It is also lit to banish ignorance and darkness of the mind with light. In the evening, the deepak is lit once again to light up the house, which will soon be consumed by darkness. Some women said that they keep the deepak lit all the time. As soon as it goes off, they light it again. These women explained that one must not leave the god in darkness. Most families I observed had bought a small electric light and placed it over their mandir. This bulb was left lit all day long. Others had bought small electric lamps shaped like traditional Hindu diyas (clay lamps) that were placed at the mandir. These electric bulbs and diyas were in addition to the central deepak, which is lit daily by the woman of the house, except during her monthly period, when the deepak is lit by her husband.

In India, where homes are commonly made of concrete bricks, lighting the daily deepak is not a problem, but in the United States, most houses are made of wood and may catch fire easily. In different homes, I observed that, depending on the location of the mandir, people took different precautions with lighting the deepak. In India, people use a large amount of ghee, or clarified butter, to keep the deepak lit longer. Due to the danger of fire in U.S. houses, Hindus put only a small amount of ghee or oil, so that by the time the devotee finishes the prayer, the deepak goes out. Some families cover the deepak with a large open glass shade, place it on a plate, or set it in a small bowl of water. Others paste some aluminum foil on the shelf or wall on top of the deepak to prevent the smoke from spoiling the wooden shelf or wall above.



Placing the Mandir in the Home
The placement of the mandir in the house is also very important. Women I spoke with said that ideally, if means allow, Hindus should dedicate a separate puja (worship) room to the gods, where the mandir is placed and the family worships either individually or as a group. As I mentioned earlier, houses in India sometimes come with a puja room already built in by the architect. However, adjustments can be made when such a room is not available. The mandir should always be placed in the most pure, or shudh, room. Although these topics are not openly discussed in the community, Hindus generally believe that sexual activity and menstruating women are impure. For this reason, Hindus never place the mandir in the master bedroom, where a couple is sexually active. A menstruating woman always avoids coming near her home’s mandir, which cannot be avoided in the master bedroom where she sleeps. Similarly, mandirs should never be placed in living rooms, because female guests may have their periods.

In the absence of a separate puja room, the next best place to keep the mandir is the kitchen. For Hindus, the kitchen is a shudh space. All members of the household are encouraged to enter the kitchen only after a bath. Women in India avoid going into the kitchen when they are menstruating. Since many women in India live in extended families with their in-laws and sisters-in-law, they do not need to go into the kitchen; for those few days, the food is cooked and served by other ladies of the house. Women also avoid eating from utensils used by the rest of the family, using separate utensils set aside for those days. When mothers or mothers-in-law visit the United States, they often cook for the duration of those days. Menstruating women even avoid bodily touch with the rest of the family. The stress on shuddhta, or purity, is so strong for some Hindus that, after a shower, some men and women go straight from the bathroom to the mandir with wet hair to pray in their purest state.

Mandir in a wardrobe. Aluminum foil is pasted to the shelf above as a safety precaution.
Mandir in a wardrobe. Aluminum foil is pasted to the shelf above as a safety precaution.

In the United States, however, women live in nuclear families with their husband and small children for a large part of the year. Gender roles are strongly defined in these households, and women cannot avoid entering the kitchen to cook daily meals for their families, so they make certain adjustments to the customary practices. Mandirs are placed in a corner of the kitchen, and women avoid that corner, if possible. Others placed the mandir in the corner of their dining table and avoid that corner during their cycle. One woman previously kept her mandir in a shelf in the passage near the bedrooms, but if she needed anything from any other shelf, she had to wait for her husband to get home in the evening and ask him to get it for her. For that reason, she bought a wooden cabinet for the mandir and placed it in a corner next to the dining table. Some women said that they close the doors of their cabinet during their monthly cycle. All women said that even though they cannot avoid entering the kitchen or cooking near their mandirs here in the United States, they do not light the deepak or touch any items in their mandir during their cycle. In a few instances, where families lived in two-bedroom apartments, women had placed the mandir in the second bedroom, often in one of the wardrobes. These rooms were their small children’s bedroom, children’s playroom, husband’s study, or music room—in short any room, they said, that could be avoided during the duration of their cycle.

The direction that the mandir faces is equally important. A mandir traditionally faces east, where the sun god comes out. However, some of my Hindu informants said that the murtis in the mandir should face west, so that the devotee faces east while worshiping them. Some said that east, west, and north are all equally suitable, but all agreed that a mandir should never face south. South is the kingdom of Yama, the god of death, so by facing the mandir southward, one is welcoming death, illness, and disease into the house. The decision on the placement of the mandir was also influenced by whether the family is vegetarian or eats meat and eggs. Hindus consider meat and eggs polluting, because they involve the death of living beings. In most cases I found the mandir near the kitchen or dining table. In the few instances where I found the mandir away from these locations, women explained that they cook meat and eggs in the kitchen, and they do not like to cook them so close to the mandir. In these cases, either a second bedroom was chosen or the mandir was placed in a corner of the living room. In some homes, the families were vegetarian, and therefore the kitchen space posed no threat to the shuddhta or purity of the mandir. When the mandir was placed in a non-vegetarian kitchen, the women said that one way to maintain the shuddhta is to ensure that the deepak is not lit while meat or eggs are cooked or else to close the mandir’s cabinet doors.



Decorating the Mandir
While the placement of the mandir did not vary much from one apartment to another, due to limited space and the apartments’ similar layout, each woman applied her own personal aesthetics in her mandir’s decoration. The mandirs were usually placed high on a bookshelf or over a cabinet, with the murtis displayed on a throne or some kind of raised platform. The women said that murtis should never be placed directly on the wooden surface of a mandap or in bookshelves and cabinets. The murtis should be shown respect by placing them on raised platforms called sinhasans. In some cases where women did not have sinhasans, they had placed murtis on a cloth or paper, usually red. In most mandirs, I observed that families had placed at least four to five murtis or tasvirs of different gods. One of these murtis is usually the family deity that the family worships more than others, but other gods are still welcomed in the mandir. The three gods that I found most commonly in all mandirs were Ganesh, Lakshmi, and Bal Krishna (baby Krishna). Hindus believe that no home can exist without Ganesh, because he is the god of beginnings. He must be worshipped before any other god. Ganesh is also the god who removes obstacles, so his presence in the house is considered important. Lakshmi is also present in all mandirs, because she is the goddess of wealth. Bal Krishna is most commonly given during weddings, as his presence is believed to bless the household with children. Some of my informants had also placed pictures of their parents and ancestors in their mandirs, to offer them the same respect as gods.

The murtis are arranged in no particular order; they are simply placed wherever there is space. The women observed that mandirs grow over the years, since murtis are common gifts exchanged during weddings and festivals, and no one returns gifted murtis. Their mothers and mothers-in-law have mandirs three times larger than their own. Many of these older women have given murtis from their mandir to their young daughters and daughters-in-law. The murtis are kept in the mandir with other items used in Hindu worship, like the deepak, thal (plate), ghanti (bell), and religious books that contain mantras. Depending on the space available, women placed these items either in front of the murtis or on a shelf below. Other items, like ghee, cotton, haldi (turmeric), and kumkum (red turmeric or saffron powder) that are used to light the deepak or offered in prayer are also kept on one of the shelves below. Apart from these items that I found in all mandirs, I observed that women had also individualized their mandirs. For example, one woman had placed a horseshoe on one side of her mandir. She explained that a horseshoe brings luck when nailed to the floor of the main entryway, as is common in India. Since it could not be nailed into the apartment’s entryway floor, my inventive informant had placed it in her mandir.

Hindus believe that if you keep god well, he will keep you well in return, so women go to great lengths to decorate their mandirs and make daily offerings to the Hindu gods. Such daily offerings include food and flowers. Some women make daily sandpaintings using rice flour or chalk to honor the gods. These drawings are called by different names all over India. In North India, they are called rangooli, and in South India, kolam. Several women said that in India they make daily sandpaintings outside their main door, as well as on the floor in front of the mandir, but in the United States, they restrict it to festivals only. American homes pose a challenge for these paintings because they are often carpeted, but some women have nevertheless continued the practice of making daily sandpaintings. Instead of making them on the floor, they use as a suitable platform small granite stones intended for crushing masalas or wooden surfaces called chakla in Hindi, used for making chappatis. The women make these sandpaintings on a daily basis and place them on their mandir before the murtis.

Fresh flowers are also offered daily. Many women I met grew these flowers in pots in their patios. Every god has a different color preference. Ganesh likes the colors red and orange, for example, so women grow red roses and orange marigolds for him. Severe winters in this region pose a problem for growing the flowers, so during winter, they buy flowers from the market. In some homes, the women prefer to use artificial flowers, since fresh flowers are not easily available all year round in the United States.

A second reason that mandirs and homes are decorated and women spend considerable time keeping their homes clean is because Hindus believe that it brings wealth and prosperity to the house. It is believed that goddesses Lakshmi and Daridra are sisters. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, while Daridra is the goddess of poverty. Lakshmi resides in a home that is kept clean and beautifully decorated, while Daridra resides in a home that is unclean. The belief is encouraged by elders to teach an important lesson: if one keeps a house clean and tidy, it will prevent illness and disease. On the other hand, an unclean house will attract illness and disease, and the household will lose considerable wealth in medical expenses.

On Diwali, an important Hindu festival, Hindus perform Lakshmi puja, and clean their houses in order to welcome Lakshmi. They make rangooli outside their doors and hang torans on their doors. A toran is a garland hung from one end of the main door to the other. Traditionally, it was made of fresh mango leaves and marigold flowers— both auspicious items used in Hindu rituals—but these days, no one has time to make fresh torans. Artistic torans can be bought from shops and hung on the door to welcome Lakshmi. Although Lakshmi puja is performed during Diwali, everyone wants Lakshmi in their home all year long. Therefore, Hindus value keeping their homes clean and beautiful and display torans and rangooli outside their homes as symbols of welcome and prosperity throughout the year.

A mandir is central in every Hindu home, and no Hindu home is complete without one. When a woman gets married, she is given murtis and puja ki samagry (items used for daily puja) by parents, in-laws, and guests in recognition of the central role she plays in maintaining the well-being of the household. Hindus believe in keeping their homes clean, tidy, and well-decorated to welcome goddess Lakshmi into the house, bringing wealth and prosperity. They value their religious practices and traditions and continue them as much as possible in United States. However, as my research has shown, when these practices are not possible for architectural or environmental reasons, or due to a different lifestyle, Hindus are flexible in their attitudes and accommodate their religious and traditional practices through creative means.


 









Puja Sahney is a PhD candidate in folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington. She lives in Salt Lake City, where she has conducted fieldwork on the ways Hindus decorate their suburban houses. She is now writing a dissertation on Hindu homes and religious practices. She is also interested in festivals and women’s rituals. Her master’s thesis at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, examined an annual ritual from North India during which married women fast for a day to pray for the longevity of their husbands. Copyright © Puja Sahney.



The Hindu mandir houses the idols of various Hindu gods and goddesses, called murtis, before which the family prays daily. When a family moves into a new home, the first thing they do—before moving in the furniture—is place a murti.




This article appeared in Voices Vol. 36, Fall-Winter 2010. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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