Founded in 1998 on a narrow road in the Queens neighborhood of Corona, the Bangladesh Hindu Mandir is unique in its conscious identification with a Bangladeshi community and/or Bangladeshi origin. In the 1990s, many immigrants of Bangladeshi origin began to arrive in New York City. As Bangladeshis began to create lives for themselves here in NYC, they often brought their family members from Bangladesh to share their lives in NYC. As the number of families grew and a collective diasporic experience emerged, the need for a community that both articulated and responded to this experience surfaced.
This need for a community that preserved and reconfigured culture and religion in a diaspora context is particularly poignant when thinking of the Bangladeshi Hindu community in the broader history of Bangladesh. Historically a religious minority in the geographic region that is now known as Bangladesh, Bangladeshi Hindus have faced varying degrees of persecution under different regimes and rulers. In 1947, at the time of Partition, the number of Hindus living in the area now known as Bangladesh was 31% (Hindu American Foundation, p. 10). In 2004, that number was 9.6% (CIA World Factbook: Bangladesh). The decline can be explained by systematic programs of violence against Bangladeshi Hindus and by outward migration–in fear of persecution and for other reasons). It is estimated that about 5.3 million Hindus left Bangladesh between 1964 and 1991 (Hindu American Foundation 2012, p. 10). In thinking of this history as an often silenced minority, the Bangladeshi Hindu community’s deliberate identification, through the act of naming in the community-building construction of a mandir, with an origin that is both traumatic and nostalgic is remarkable.
Though it clearly identifies itself as Bangladeshi, the mandir is open to all and its purpose is expressly religious. According to the mandir website, its mission is to “perform religious rites, congregate to worship and hold religious and cultural festivals throughout the year. The Mandir will also hold discussions on Hindu religion and moral philosophy with a view to familiarize our posterity with the teachings and ethical value systems of Hinduism” (Bangladesh Hindu Mandir). The mandir elaborately celebrates religious and cultural holidays and festivals that occur throughout the calendar year. The mandir website is employed primarily to promote upcoming events.
The mandir is open every day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Puja is offered daily by the pandit, Shankar Pariyal. Most people, however, come to the puja on Saturday evenings at 7 p.m. when kirtan and gita path take place. Members of the community may request that the pandit perform pujas for their own life events, ranging from weddings, funerals, baby christenings, and car blessings. The pandit also travels to homes to perform pujas, if transportation is provided. The mandir is sometimes rented out for other purposes. Most notably, a renowned dance instructor in the Bengali community, Chandra Bannerjee, holds dance practice in the basement of the mandir every Saturday afternoon.
Physically, the mandir is a striking construction. The building itself is situated in a space that is poignantly urban, at the intersection of the residential, the commercial, and the faintly industrial. The building itself is located somewhat away from the road and a visitor enters through a gate into a wide, paved space adorned with alpana, colorful designs painted onto the concrete floor. Children often play outside in this space when the weather is nice. Once visible, the structure of the mandir becomes the dominant fact of the block, to which the surrounding homes and buildings serve as a backdrop. The balconied ceiling of the mandir seems to interact with the sky during the day, and its cool façade seemingly glows in the darkness during the evening. The wide, steel, well-decorated doors of the mandir are normally open so that a visitor can unreservedly walk inside.
Inside, the mandir contains a small office on one side of the lobby and a grand prayer room that holds murtis (statues) of the deities Shiv, Radha/Krishna, Ma Kali, and a small murti of Satyanarayan, but is otherwise largely empty. Downstairs, there is a communal kitchen and a large multifunctional space. This is the space where people accept prasad–food that is received as a blessing from the deities. It is also a place to socialize.
Usually there is a cultural program that precedes or happens concurrently with the performance of the puja by the pandit. The cultural program is defined by the performance of kirtan (devotional chanting and singing), though not all songs performed are expressly devotional in content (such as Rabindranath songs). It is toward this program that the audience usually directs itself while the pandit performs the rites and recites the prayers for the puja at the far right end of the room. The kirtan and bhajan are usually led by the same group of people, though guests are often invited to sing and/or lecture. A wide variety of instruments are played including the harmonium, the tabla, and the dhak. Generally, the audience is encouraged to clap and sing along; sometimes, copies of the lyrics are shared with anyone who wants to follow along.
Through the process of religious ritual and within the safe space of the mandir, relationships are nurtured and community is built. The construction of this mandir in 1998 marked a turning point in the consciousness of the growing Bangladeshi community in New York City. It recognized their long-term presence in this space, it represented a push to establish roots, and it responded to a desire to crystallize community. Through the mandir, this sense of community is further strengthened. Many of the mandir’s members have been a part of the mandir since its inception. Others can trace their own immigrant experiences in the history of the mandir. Still others are more recently arrived immigrants who are able to find guidance by interacting with the existing mandir community. Often members of the mandir community only see one another at mandir events, so the mandir provides the space for them to catch up and joke with one another, whether it is in hushed tones during puja or loudly in the downstairs space or lobby. As one member of the mandir succinctly put it, “These are the people I grew up with.”
“2011 Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora: A Survey of Human Rights.” Hindu American Foundation: HAF. Hindu American Foundation, 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.
“Our Mission.” Bangladesh Hindu Mandir. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.