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Revered Hindu temple nestled in suburbia

Among the gum trees of outer-suburban Australia sits a granite Hindu temple, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

Featuring intricately hand-carved and imported stone, the renovated and enlarged place of worship for a growing Hindu population has reopened to much fanfare among a passionate religious community.

The Sri Vakrathunda Vinayagar Temple in Melbourne’s outer east boasts 11 granite shrines and is devoted to the Hindu god Ganesha.

The new space is a “dream come true” for Parameswary Pillai, who was among the founding group with her husband, temple secretary Shan Pillai, when the original building was opened in 1992.

The couple have since helped oversee the $4 million 2020 redevelopment, half sponsored by committed temple members, with 23 of them donating at least $50,000 each, as well as donations from other worshippers. The remaining half is on loan from a bank, to be repaid with future donations.

“I feel that I’ve got him (Ganesha) a permanent home now,” Mrs Pillai told AAP.

She likes to speak to the deity like a son: “You’ve got the stone, all properly built up for you so you’re going to sit there and bless everybody”.

Fellow committee member Rohini Thanabalasingam cried when asked what the revamped temple meant to her.

“I had a massive stroke when I was 40,” she told AAP.

“I fell down. They thought I died.

“Because of him (Ganesha), I’m okay now.”

There was great excitement when about 1500 people gathered at the temple in the foothills of Mt Dandenong for the building’s recent reopening. Such a celebration is held only once every 12 years after a temple is repaired.

The renovated temple in The Basin is the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and, as members put it, “a permanent home” for Ganesha – a widely-worshipped deity within Hinduism, believed to make life’s paths smooth by removing obstacles in the way.

The shrines which sit inside the extended temple building are comprised of 1000 stones mined out of a quarry in Salem, in the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu.

From the quarry they were transported to the historic city of Mahabalipuram, famous for its 7th and 8th century Hindu stone carvings and for temple design and construction.

More than 100 stonemasons carved the granite rocks before they were shipped to Australia in boxes made of silverwood – apparently the only acceptable timber to customs and one which would protect the brittle stone.

The hand carvings in the granite were half-complete on arrival, so 20 artisans were flown from India to finish the work.

They arrived days before Melbourne descended into its first round of COVID-19 restrictions and international air travel was drastically cut.

“I believe it is god’s work that (they) arrived here in the first week of March,” secretary Shan Pillai told AAP.

“During the severe (second) lockdown … they lived in the houses here and they had free access to completely build the whole thing.”

The central shrine for Ganesha is almost nine metres high and weighs 350 tonnes.

In-keeping with ancient design, it is hollow inside and comprised of 17 layers of rock, each layer made of 20 to 30 stones.

“You can’t find any joins,” architect Purushothaman Jayaraman told AAP proudly.

The hollowness enhances the spiritual experience of chanting, one of the key religious activities done inside the temple.

“You just say the ‘om’ and you can feel the vibration,” Mrs Pillai said.

“Gives me goosebumps.”

Hinduism in Australia has been steadily growing along with increased immigration from South Asia.

The number of people following Hinduism almost tripled from 150,000 in 1996 to 440,300 in 2016, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics census data. That’s 0.7 per cent of the nation’s population to 1.9 per cent within a decade.

The ABS in 2011 said it was the fastest-growing religion.

NSW boasts the highest population of Hindus, followed by Victoria.

The temple community has evolved from mostly Sri Lankan membership, due to high migration from that country because of civil war, to a melting pot of the South Asian diaspora.

These days, devotees also hail from India, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, Mauritius and South Africa.

They drive to the temple from all over Melbourne and Victoria, sometimes even from interstate.

A bustling kitchen with hired cooks produces up to 30,000 meals a year, so a journey out to the temple is both a religious and social outing.

The state government has recognised the value of the site as a cultural hub, recently committing $500,000 for a community kitchen upgrade.

While the cultural diversity of the community is strong, age diversity is not, with Mr Pillai acknowledging younger people are less engaged.

“This is the Facebook generation. They have a two-second attention span,” he said.

Despite the generational differences, Mr Pillai is not worried about the survival of temple life or the Hindu faith.

“Hinduism has existed for many years. It has adapted,” he said.

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