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A Hindu temple in Portage makes up for lost time with big plans for its 25th anniversary

Worshippers, some in masks, stand for the ceremony called arti. A woman and two girls hold a round tray with lighted wicks.
Sehvilla Mann
Worshippers participate in the ceremony of arti, at the conclusion of services at the IACC&T on July 24

The Indo-American Cultural Center and Temple turned 25 last year, but had to wait until this year to celebrate. On a recent Sunday, members were hopeful about the IACC&T's future, without taking it for granted.

It’s a little after noon, and the service is underway at the IACC&T, housed in a former church on quiet Ramona Avenue. A few people sit on carpets in the long, softly lit room where members worship. A group of women sings a hymn.

This part of the service is open-format. Families arrive on their own time. The singing of hymns follows rites priest Shashibhushana Hebbar performs at the altar. And the altar is next to the temple’s focus of attention, a semi-circle of nine intricately painted statues of deities that fills the front of the room.

View from the back of the temple. Worshippers sit on carpets and also on benches lining the room. The ceiling is exposed and finished wood beams. Distantly you can see the deities at the front. The wall behind them is painted like a partly sunny sky
Sehvilla Mann
Worshippers gather the Indo-American Cultural Center and Temple on Sunday, July 24.

“We are trying to fulfill everybody's needs from all over,” said Vijay Sood, the Center’s chairwoman. She stands downstairs in the dining room where volunteers are preparing a meal.

Sood says worshippers here have roots in many different parts of India.

“Each one has different tradition, each state, so but they are basically under the umbrella of Hindu religion. So that's why you saw so many deities. Everybody has their own chosen deities, some believe in Lord Shiva, some believe in Ganesha, and some believe in Lord Krishna,” she explained.

The IACC&T, founded in 1996, has planned an extensive celebrationfor its belated 25th anniversary, with three days of rituals and ceremonies, lunches and dinners. It will culminate on Sunday with visits from elected leaders and other guests.

IACCT priest Shashibhushana Hebbar, in white shirt and white cloth face mask, waves a lamp with several wicks in front of a deity
Sehvilla Mann
IACC&T priest Shashibhushana Hebbar reverently waves a lamp with several wicks in front of a deity during the arti ceremony.

Brij Bhargava is the Center’s president and one of its founders.

“Before this temple came along, we were meeting at different families’ houses, to fulfill our need to have our services, or getting together and pray. So then we all got together and decided that we need a place, where we want to have the services and we were also thinking about the future,” he said.

Specifically, they were thinking about the their kids, “and how do we teach them our culture and our background,” he said.

Sood says like any religious organization, the IACC&T faces the challenge of keeping young people involved.

“Right now we are thinking just giving them classes from very young age. So kind of bringing them into this so that they're exposed to it, then hopefully, they will just follow it up,” she said.

Back upstairs, the service concludes with a ceremony called arti. By now about 40 people have gathered in the temple. The worshippers stand, singing a closing hymn, while ringing a pair of ceremonial bells suspended from the ceiling. As they sing, Hebbar reverently waves a lamp with several flames in front of each deity.

Finally, the worshippers gather in the center’s dining room for a meal.

A man in an orange shirt ladles food into cups while a man in a lighter-orange shirt stands in the background. They are in a commercial-size kitchen.
Sehvilla Mann
Preparing a meal for after the service at the IACCT

Raj Valvani, 47, grew up in Kalamazoo but now lives in the Atlanta area. He’s a son of one of the founders, and I’m curious if he makes it to services soften.

“We do not probably as much as I should, because it's further away,” he said. “The closest temple to our place is probably 30 to 45 minutes. So just location, and sports and activities have gotten in the way.”

Still, his family is finding ways to pass on religious and secular traditions.

“My wife is in charge of running a camp, which, they bring in some of the activities, they teach them some of the rituals and activities, but they also play fun games related to the Indian culture, related to like cricket, and just getting the kids together,” he said.

Aradhna Kumar tidying up in the kitchen. The 20-year-old aviation student at Western Michigan University doesn’t come to the temple every week – partly because she’s busy, partly because she doesn’t live close by.

“So it's difficult for me to come here. If it was more accessible, then I will definitely be here very often,” she said.

Kumar has some ideas about how to attract people her age.

A brick and concrete block building, red with gray accents, with freestanding sign, viewed from the parking lot
Sehvilla Mann
The IACC&T's building, a remodeled former church on Ramona Avenue in Portage

“If temples could give out preaching that they could practically implement in life, I think that would attract the youngsters more because we all face problems, she said.

She added that instructional skits and dramas could play a role as well.

Whatever challenges the temple may face in the future, by one measure, it’s thriving. The founders say at the beginning, it served maybe 200 families. Now the number is somewhere around 600 families in the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek metro area.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.