Gone to Temple

Brandon’s Hindu Temple offers spectacular peek into an exotic culture

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

One of the best things about traveling through Mississippi is the unexpected roadside surprises. Yet nowhere in the state will you find a greater surprise than the one you encounter along Vernon Jones Avenue in Brandon.

The dominating feature of most of the road, which peels off Highway 25 as you travel south toward Jackson, is acres of middle-class tract housing. Near the end of the road, the housing developments abruptly stop and the landscape appears more rural, as it must have been before Brandon became a major suburb of Jackson. There have been no signs, no indicators at all, of what lies just round the bend of this worn patch of asphalt. You simply follow a sweeping curve to the right and suddenly are staring at what may be the most incongruous vista in the state.

Somehow, you have arrived in what surely must be India, for there sits a stark white Hindu temple, majestic with its spires capped with golden domes gleaming in the sunlight.

It is breathtaking, not only because of its beauty but because it is something you would simply never expect to see.

It is, in fact, the only Hindu temple in a four-state area. Temple volunteer Raghu Reddy, who also serves on the trust board of the Hindu Temple Society of Mississippi, says the temple serves as home not only to Hindus from throughout the state, but from the region as well.

“It is the only temple in the region,” Reddy said. “Hindus from all across the state and Louisiana and Alabama come here. We serve about 1,500 families.”

The story of how the temple came to be built finds its origins in education, to some degree.

Beginning in the 1970s, a migration of Indians, for whom Hinduism in the dominant religion, began to fill the vacuum of scientists in the state, many of them headed for the state’s universities to teach. This migration continues today.

With no temple available, work began on the first of the two temples on this site in 1987. The original temple, impressive in its own right but modest compared to the new temple constructed next to it in 2010, is still used by the Hindu community.

Because such temples must follow the exact specifications of Hinduism, a group of 15 Indian architects arrived in Brandon to oversee construction of the 5,000-square-foot, $2-million edifice.

“It does have to meet the same standards as the ones you see in India,” Reddy says. “There are a few differences. The temple is built with concrete and mortar. The temples in India are constructed only of stone.”

The large wooden doors were also imported from India, mainly because of the unique specifications required. The idols representing many gods (Hinduism is a polytheistic religion) were also imported from India. There are 21 idols arranged around the perimeter of the temple. The polished floor is reserved as a prayer area.

From just about every vantage point, both inside the temple and out, there is something remarkable to catch a visitor’s eye. Ornate, delicately fashioned imagery from Indian and Hindu culture — elephants, goddesses, etc. — seem to adorn every surface.

Unlike other religions, Hindus have no regular services. Instead, the temple is the place where Hindus go to pray. It is open for both morning and evening prayers seven days a week.

In addition to the faith, the temple has become something of a tourist attraction, as you might imagine.

The sights and mystery of the temple are enough to fill the uninitiated westerner with trepidation over committing some unintentional offense.

Those worries are quickly allayed by the staff and the pujari (temple priest) who presides over prayers.

The rules are few, and prominently posted outside the entrance. The main rules: Maintain silence upon entering, take off your shoes and leave them outside and no eating or drinking in the temple. There is one exception to this, as we will see.

“We welcome everyone,” Reddy assures first-time visitors. “It’s that way in everything we do, even our festivals. We want to be accommodating to all, whether they are Hindu or not.”

It takes only a few minutes to realize that Reddy is sincere. Even in a state known for its Southern hospitality, the greeting visitors get is impressive.

So feel free to explore the Temple, ask questions of the staff and, if he is available, chat with the pujari.

Yes, you may take pictures of the splendor of the temple, but visitors are told not to take photos of the idols themselves.

The pujari will explain about the temple and the various gods.

And if the pujaris are all like Kirit Joshi, who was leading prayers during a recent visit, you will likely be offered to have a prayer and blessing spoken over you, an impressive ritual in its own right, complete with bells, a lighted candle and the affable smiles and genuine hospitality of the priest. You will be offered a Prasad, defined literally as a “gracious gift,” which can be any sort of edible food. He first offers the Prasad to the god, then gives it to his guest as a good sign. The Prasad is then considered to have the deity’s blessing within it. The Prasad that Joshi offered this visitor was a sweetbread of sorts, in addition to a banana, which Joshi says is a particular favorite of the god Ganesh.

Yes, you may have your picture taken with Joshi. In fact, he may insist on it.

“When mom is happy, then the father and the children, right through to the priests and staff and all people, then God is happy,” he tells the visitors. “When you are happy, then God is happy, too.

“So I wish you blessings. Big blessings! Be happy!”

And, no matter your faith, you find yourself smiling at the genial face of the beaming pujari.

Yes, something surprising may await you around the next corner during your travels through Mississippi.

But there is no more pleasant surprise than the one that lies just around the bend on Vernon Jones Avenue in Brandon.