PORTLAND – On a particularly auspicious day in a particularly auspicious month in the Hindu lunar calendar, 13 families and their friends took off their shoes before entering the cafeteria at Riverton Elementary School where they sat on the floor to invoke the Lord Vishnu.
Dressed in traditional Indian garb — women in colorful saris and men in monochromatic suits — they chanted in prayer and invited in different deities, offering food arranged on small white platforms in front of each person.
The ceremony, called the Satyanarayana puja, is performed at the start of a major life event and meant to clear any problems that may lie ahead. It was held last month to ensure the successful purchase of an old Westbrook church to be turned into a Hindu temple. And it worked.
Having a temple in Maine has been a hope of Hindus here for decades, said Deven Bhatt, president of Maine Hindu Temple, the nonprofit organization that orchestrated the purchase of the former Unitarian Universalist Church on Westbrook’s Main Street.
The community currently practices its faith and celebrates its festivals by rotating through private homes and renting out churches and schools.
“People who have lived here 25 years, this was their dream all along,” Bhatt said of the temple.
Only recently, he said, has the community reached a “critical mass” to support one. Though there is no solid count of Hindus in Maine, there may be as many as 2,000, said Sandeep Gandra, secretary for Maine Hindu Temple. He said he’s seen as many as 400 Hindus show up to a single event.
Regardless of the exact number, it’s a decidedly different scene from the one in the 1990s, said Ashok Nalamalapu, a Hindu who moved to the U.S. from India in 1987 and to Maine in 1996. Then, he said, there were about 20 Hindu families who would get together a couple of times a year for potlucks and festivals.
Although different Hindus worship in different ways, he said, there were so few then that everyone participated in the same events. Since then, people who speak the same languages or come from the same parts of India have formed smaller groups.
The number of Indians in Maine nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010 — from 1,021 to 1,959 — according to U.S. census data. Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, estimates that 85 to 90 percent are Hindu, the same percentage as in India.
The foundation uses the same formula to get its national figure for the number of Hindus, now around 2.3 million, though it doesn’t take into account people from other countries, including American converts.
Much of the state’s Hindu community stays connected through the India Association of Maine, which focuses on culture rather than religion because “everyone believes in a different god and different tradition,” said outgoing president Mamta Punjabi.
Still, families need a place to worship, she said. Now, they have to travel to Massachusetts.
“We were definitely ready for a Hindu temple in Maine,” said Punjabi.
A temple opened in Scarborough last year after Tejinder Jit, the owner of Tandoor restaurant on Exchange Street in Portland, bought the former First Universalist Church of Scarborough and South Buxton.
Members of Maine Hindu Temple, however, wanted a place that was owned by the whole Hindu community, not just one person. Despite the growth of that community, moving forward with the building’s purchase still relied on a leap of faith.
Maine Hindu Temple found out in mid-December that Westbrook Housing, which had inherited the Universalist church from its dwindling congregation, had accepted the group’s offer to buy the building for $75,000. The problem was the group had only raised around $30,000, and the housing agency wanted to close on the sale in a week.
Without enough time to get a loan, the group made an appeal to the Hindu community through emails, phone calls and Facebook. Donations poured in from Hindus as far away as California and, on the day the money had to be wired, the goal was reached.
Bhatt said he cried as he received some of the checks — not just the biggest ones, but those that came from people who could least afford it. Gandra points to the puja at the Riverton school for an explanation.
“I’m a strong believer it was the blessings from that ceremony,” he said.
Purchasing the church was a major feat, but Maine Hindu Temple still has a lot of work to do before the building can serve its purpose.
This week, members of the group’s board will meet with city officials to see what work is needed to get the building up to code. Then there will be the cleaning and the organizing of volunteers to lead services, which they hope will be held daily.
Soon, they want to replace the inefficient boiler, then the roof. And that will take money that’s yet to be raised.
But board members know the community is dedicated to making it happen and believe the temple will open in a few months, if not earlier, said Bhatt. There’s a calmness about Maine that befits the beliefs of Hinduism, he said. It gives him confidence in the temple’s success.
“The vibrations here in this area to nourish spirituality are there,” Bhatt said.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at