Orlando Sentinel Article – Hindus Celebrate Temple Project

For months, the Hindu community of West Orange has held services under a giant white tent.

Now, a temple is in the works.

"Given the large community here, we felt the time was right," said Vishnu Hardowar, the temple’s spiritual leader.

On Saturday, the congregation broke ground for a 6,000-square-foot temple on a 5-acre lot at 8406 Clarcona-Ocoee Road. When completed in late summer, the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir — which means "a manifestation of God" — will be topped with a pointed dome and an Om, an ancient sacred Sanskrit symbol.

"Distinctive," is how Hardowar describes the temple.

The project is an achievement of the community and his family. His father, the late Hardowar Panday, established temples in his native Crabwood Creek, Guyana, and in Jamaica, N.Y. The 19-year-old New York temple is attended by 600 families and has become a community and religious center, Hardowar said.

The Ocoee location is a sister to that facility. Why Ocoee? Several years ago, Vishnu Hardowar moved to the Orlando area. Like his father, he is a pandit — a Hindu spiritual leader. Vishnu Hardowar is also a veterinarian, known in the community as "Pandit Doctor." Hardowar said he saw a need for a temple immediately, especially for immigrants from his native Guyana and elsewhere in the West Indies.

Nearly 75,000 West Indians live in Central Florida. The Hindu population numbers 7,000 to 10,000 families. Many Orlando Hindus are immigrants from India, but others are from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, which also have large Indian populations.

Central Florida has about a dozen temples of varying sizes. Some are small houses where a living room has been cleared to hold an altar. The largest Hindu temple in the area is in Casselberry. On a 10-acre site, that temple is run by the Hindu Society of Central Florida has a membership of 2,600 families, most from mainland India.

The Shri Surya Narayan Mandir (mandir means temple or church) has members from the Apopka, Ocoee and Winter Garden areas, although it pulls from other parts of Orlando as well.

A variety of rituals associated with Hindu customs — some based on nationality — is one reason there are so many temples. Another is the sprawling nature of Orlando, Hardowar said. People want a temple close to home, he said.

The 5 acres on a winding part of Clarcona-Ocoee Road was purchased two years ago. The mostly residential street is dotted with horse stables and other churches. Forest Lake golf course sits at one end.

The congregation started small — about 30 families. Hardowar said they met under the tent, revival-like. Wind blew in dust. Sometimes, it rained.

"The need for the temple is immense," said member Purnesh Singh, who also attended the sister temple in New York for years.

Now, 150 families attend the Ocoee temple. Sunday services will continue at 9:30 a.m. until the building is finished in August.

The project — sanctuary and community center — will be completed in two stages. In upcoming years, a second building will be added to the campus.

For the groundbreaking, Hardowar and his older brother, Ram Hardowar, a spiritual leader at the New York temple, presided over services. On Feb. 22 and 23, the ground was blessed in what is called a Bhoomi Pooja — a prayer service to honor mother earth. Flower petals and sandalwood sticks were thrown into a flame as an offering.

Singh said the need to build a temple was mostly an effort for the community to attract members of the younger generation who are straying from the culture.

"We need a place identifiable to our young people," Singh said.

For more information, visit http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org

Babita Persaud can be reached at bpersaud@orlandosentinel.com  or 407-420-6088.