Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hindu Temple and Library

Gita for Beginners

After a long day of doing research in south suburban cemeteries in Chicago, trying to find some more interesting examples of books in out-of-the-ordinary contexts, I found myself driving out in the western parts of the county, and said to myself: "I'm not too far from that Hindu Temple in Lemont...I should go and see if they have a bookshop or library." I'd driven out to this place once before, but never entered into its shrinesque ether, never decalced myself for spiritual health or oblation. This time I did. But first, I pulled into the crescent driveway and parking area, which wraps around from the highway all the way up the hill behind the temple. It had gotten rather warm out, and I was eager to get back into the shade and coolness of indoors. The entrance of the building was situated at the lower end of a ramp. Immediately inside, one is greeted by an entry counter made of glass, under which a variety of Indic wares are available for purchase and consumption: books, pamphlets, jewelry, homemade curried or saffron rice, incense burners, cold drinks and more. The air was charmed with some spicy extracts, perhaps burning or just-burned. A young man behind the counter stood quietly rummaging among papers. I greeted him and asked if there was a library. He said "yes," much to my delight, and pointed up a short flight of stairs and said "it's up the stairs and down the hall to the right." And soon I bounded off into the chambers of the unknown, hoping to find yet another ritualistic surprise in my bilbio-ventures.

More than a hint of sub-continental spiced aromas inhabited these halls. And as I walked on the smells seemed to become sweeter: can, in fact, a smell be sweet, I wonder? Whatever the olfactory event, it was heightened at every passing step, and fluctuating as quickly and wildly as the gambits or subterfuge of Illinois politics. But very quickly did I see the room I was looking for: the library! Two older men were inside, speaking not Hindi, but a regional language. The one man, slightly bent, and maneuvering in a buzz, soon left the room mumbling in an almost Cash-for-Clunkers English, "Closed, it is!" The other man, sitting at a desk reading a book, looked up, and grinned happily at me. I introduced myself and asked him if I could see the library. He said something to the man who was running out the door, and the proceeded to open the library for me. It was a small room, but had a fine sized collection of items, mostly books for both adults and children, perhaps consisting of a few thousand volumes. As you will see above, I had the man kindly take a photo of me perusing the voluminous texts of the library. Of course, the aesthetic majesty of Indic ritualistic culture comes out in the pages and covers of many of the Indian-language books: deep reds, bright oranges, flush crimsons, vibrant blues, Darjeeling greens, chapati yellows. I highly recommend finding a tome and sitting with it for a while. Not only will it test the limits of human wrist action, but you'll likely be delighted with the ampleness of Gita-istic prose.

Indian (India--not Native American, presumably) Philosophy for Salvation and Good Health. When I read this pamphlet, I considered the implications of its meanings. Surely this was intended as a spiritual colonic, a purging of the soul of bad things, in order for it to be inhabited by good things. This delightful little booklet was atop dozens of other little booklets piled high at the entrance of the reading room, which was located just in front of the library itself.

And here: a slightly bent "Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago Library Card." Who knew such a thing existed!? Yet, I was very pleased to acquire such a fine specimen of Amero-Hindistic librariana, especially so that I could show it to all of you fine readers.

Ganesh, Gita, and Guru Har Gobind

When I first started browsing this fine little hidden library jewel ("jeeverathnam" or "jewel of life" was my favorite Indic-name, which a good friend in college had), the man who let me in began to speak to me about the books, albeit through the heavy cloak of Devanagari vowels and consonantal clusters. He threw a book before my face and said: "Do you know who this is?" Clearly, my linguistic skills were not quick enough to discern the language or author. And soon enough he proclaimed: "the president...the former president of India." "Ah! a most literate and literary man," I responded. I took some more photos of the library and of the statues that sat regally on the top shelves, keeping watch over their literary domains--most notably, an ivory white Ganesh, sitting peaceably atop its collection of Gitas and Vedic Cycles.

Hindu and Indic Literature

From the Mahabharata to children's versions of Guru Har Gobind (see at left), the library was plumply stocked with interesting titles. Most items were in the more common Indian languages (notably Hindi), but there were translations into English from traditional, epic, and classical Indian literature, from the Ramayana to Kumarasambhava (each written in different periodic styles of Sanskrit). Guru Har Gobind (the book at left) is a children's book about the historical figure of the same name, who is known as one of the Ten Gurus of Sikhism (#6 of the ten), and who lived from 1595-1644 in the Punjab region of modern India.

As one will see after looking through the reams of children's books, one finds that the subject matter of each is stylized for some educational purpose, sometimes creating or re-creating stories with moralistic tones or setting up the merits of heroism and strength to be found in good religious and ethical principles and practice in life. They entertain too, of course. Otherwise, kids wouldn't want to read them!

After visiting the library I headed toward the temple area itself. The old man in the library, who had told me about his family and his programmer son, who lived in Naperville, IL--though the man pronounced it "NaperVILLEE," as if it rhymed with that 1980s duo...Milli "Napervanilli," said he would come to visit me in my library in Hyde Park. He seemed so excited, but must have been stir crazy in rural Illinois, away from most of his family for his three month visit to the States. We parted company and I meandered through the circuitous halls. A large hallway with cubbies and shelves for shoes lay ahead of me. A room for bathing feet was adjacent to this area. I took off my sandals and went up a few flights of stairs into the Temple itself, and beheld the individual shrines and layout of the sanctified spaces. I did not take photographs inside, as they asked visitors to refrain from such activity. The only photo I took was at the entrance, where in the photo above, one can see the cross-armed man painted on a board and set upon an alms box. I walked into the Temple area itself, and encountered three men. They appeared to scowl a bit, so I kept my distance. They were preparing for a holiday that was coming up, wrapping and draping podiums and altars with ornately decorated cloth and setting up microphones. They were dressed in ceremonial garb, a sartorial choice which would be surely comfortable in the tropical warmth of Mumbai or Varanasi, but wouldn't work in the cold winters of Chicago. Statues in gold and black balanced every corner of the Temple. And color filled the space, from the sanguine red carpet to to the festooned decorations sweeping across the ceiling. One space looked like a chimney with a glass front, into which hundreds, maybe thousands of little notes written in Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, and other tongues, were stuffed like crumpled prayers into the decayed mortar slats of the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem.

Not staying too long, I returned downstairs; a kindly gentleman, also gowned in traditional dress, offered some "authentic" (in his words) Indian food. I declined, as I needed to head on. But thanked him for his hospitality. Sandals back on, I was soon headed out the door, back out into the afternoon heat.

I went outside and gazed upon each of the fine structures, considering their unique stations in these woods and rural hillsides of Lemont. Above is the newer temple, connected to the complex at the north end.

Above and below are two images of a statue and its protective gazebo--the statue is of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who was a key figure at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions. In the photo below, I had hoped to capture two churches in the distance to contrast with the architecture of this structure. Unfortunately, they are a bit hard to see.

As the sun cast its solar ebullience toward earth, and I took in the last bits of the Temple complex, I felt pleased with my afternoon sojourn, with the chance meetings of people from near and afar, with spice-filled sinuses still numb from a cocktail of airborne tamarind, turmeric, and curry. And most of all, with a delightful encounter with a library, out of the way of most seasoned travelers, but a library nonetheless: colorful, bountiful, and educational. Nowhere else do I have the chance to keep repeating the name "Guru Har Gobind." Go ahead, you try it too. It will clear the heavens and your sinuses just as well as any spices in the air.


  1. Your detailed descriptions makes one feel as though they have journeyed along with you. I am indeed absorbed, maybe mesmerized, by your writing and think your photos are great as well.

  2. I didn't realize that there were such elaborate Hindu temples here. Thanks for the informative blog. Guru Har Gobind, Guru Har Gobind, Guru Har Gobind... Ahhh, I feel better already. Really. Thanks!!