Article, photos and by Henna Choudhary
Every Sunday morning, members of the Arya Samaj USA Mandir, a Hindu temple, gather for a three-hour service that includes intricate rituals, prayers, sermons and singing with musical accompaniment. After the service, members gather in the basement for lunch and to chat.
The attendees, wearing brightly colored salwar kameez – loose trousers and a matching decorative tunic top – and kurtas, long, loose tunics worn by men – sit cross-legged and barefoot on the carpeted floor, attentive and observing the prayers being performed before them. As the holy sacrifice’s fire billows above the congregation’s heads, they join in the prayer, chanting together.
The Arya Samaj USA Mandir, in South Richmond Hill, Queens, is one of many places of worship in the neighborhood where residents flock to celebrate their religion and keep cultural traditions alive. Over the years, Richmond Hill has evolved from a largely white, working-class neighborhood, into a bustling, lively place with diverse cuisine, ethnic clothing stores and many religious centers aimed at fostering community growth and development. Among the faiths represented are Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
While residents intermingle on a daily basis, the different traditions and cultural upbringings remain strong. People celebrate with a network of friends and family who share the same beliefs and traditions, taking part in festivities, prayers and events at their local places of worship.
“I have lived in Richmond Hill for 30 years, and I have friends here from all different country origins,” said Balram Rambrich, executive board president of the USA Arya Samaj Mandir. “But in my temple, we relate well, based on our similar Guyanese background since we have all migrated from Guyana. I immensely enjoy the events within my temple, because I get to interact with people that share the same values and concerns as my own. We see eye-to-eye on many things besides religion, such as political views, occupational choices, and the manner in which we raise our children.”
The mandir holds a wide array of classes, including yoga on Tuesday evenings, traditional singing sessions and Sunday afternoon Hindi language classes. On Friday nights, the mandir offers music lessons where an instructor teaches the younger members how to play instruments such as the sitar, harmonium and tabla.
In addition to these programs to encourage the new generation to remain rooted in its religion, the mandir offers a vast library of ancient scriptures and religious-based works of literature, which is open to the public.
Neha Gupta, a member of the mandir, is a teacher at Richmond Hill High School and organizes a school program known as South Asian Youth Action, or SAYA.
“I teach a leadership program for ninth graders at Richmond Hill High School, and although the program is run by South Asians, we encourage students of all ethnicities to partake in our activities and classes,” said Gupta. “Although people within the community are more drawn towards their own religion’s place of worship or partake in holidays and parades centered on their own culture, there is a general sense of acceptance and brotherhood across all the races of Richmond Hill.”
Hinduism is not the only widely practiced religion within the neighborhood. The Sikh Cultural Society regularly shares its vibrant culture through parades and street fairs that extend outside of the oak doors of the gurdwara down the streets of Richmond Hill.
The men regularly wear traditional turbans and the women walk about in brightly colored, glittering salwar kameez suits, waving flags emblazoned with the Sikh symbol Khanda. This depicts the Sikh principle of Deg Tegh Fateh, a slogan that preaches the two main components of Sikhism – to provide food and protection for those in need.
As the Sikh community chants in its native language, Punjabi, and sings religious songs to the beat of a drum, the strong sense of pride and love for religion and race is undeniable.
Avneet Kaur, a 20-year-old Sikh who migrated to Richmond Hill from Punjab about a decade ago, said she immediately felt comfortable in the neighborhood due to the large number of other Sikhs.
“I attend religious events at the Sikh center on special occasions. I enjoy getting to dress up in cultural outfits and getting together with family and friends, enjoying our rituals and delicious Punjabi cuisine,” Kaur said. “I spend most of my time in the city, rather than my neighborhood, but just knowing that there is a great population of Punjabis in Richmond Hill gives me a strong sense of love for my community.”
The Sikh Cultural Society nestles alongside Southeast Asian grocery stores, boutiques and restaurants. The two-story structure houses an expansive prayer room, communal eating chambers and recreational areas where devotees engage in discussions, games and conversation.
As the older generation leads the younger in reciting holy prayers, the Sikhs bend their heads to the ground in reverence. Musicians line the walls and provide accompaniment. Those who walk the halls of the temple hail from different walks of life but are united with one sole purpose: to pay their devotions to their beloved gurus and sages.
“I have three teenage children, and it is not easy in this day and age to teach them about our religion and traditions when they are so immersed in American culture,” said Shan Singh, a middle-aged father of three and active member at the temple. “So, when we attend the service at the temple weekly, “it allows us to grow together as a family and meet and befriend other Sikhs in the community to form lifelong friendships.”