TAMPA — Motorists rounding the bend on Interstate 275 in Tampa will soon look west over a piece of India now that construction has begun on the Sanatan Mandir Hindu temple, with towers — called sikharas — rising six stories into the sky.
Members will start using the $1.5 million, 10,600-square-foot temple at 311 E. Palm Ave. within a year. It is scheduled for completion in two years.
The current Sanatan Mandir, a refurbished Jewish community center, will revert to a community center for the temple. But the old building will always stand as a symbol of how far Tampa’s Indian community has come since the first wave of immigrants arrived in the 1970s.
In those early days, Tampa lacked a temple for Hinduism, the dominant religion in India. The few hundred local Hindus took turns opening their homes for worship. Visitors brought their own sheets for kneeling.
As the population grew, school cafeterias and gymnasiums were used and plans eventually were drawn up for a temple. It opened in 1991.
Obstetrician Pawan Rattan said the new temple traces back to a challenge his father issued him.
Rattan delivered six babies in one day and told his father about this busiest day of his life. His father’s response: “And what have you done for your community today?”
Rattan was raised in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. His father was not one of the richest men in the village, but he was among the most respected because everything he did was for the community.
His father was a teacher and a tutor, a farmer and a post master.
Rattan said he realized he had become so caught up in furthering his career he forgot about helping his community. Looking to replicate his father’s good deeds, Rattan said he searched his heart for what Tampa needed the most.
“I decided we needed a Hindu temple,” Rattan said.
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Soon afterward, Rattan found the property at 311 E. Palm Ave. — an abandoned Jewish synagogue, a community center and two homes.
Rattan joined with the late Yogi Raj Shastri, a spiritual leader in those early days of the Indian community in Tampa, and Shastri’s protégé, Vishnu Sharma.
They formed a nonprofit to raise money, and Rattan turned the land deed over for nothing.
In India, Hindu temples are among the most grandiose structures in a community.
In Tampa, where Hindus are small in number, the design is more frugal. Temple leaders will emphasize spirituality over the material trappings of worship.
The houses and the synagogue were unsalvageable. The interior of the 4,000-square-foot community center was a shambles. But the exterior was sturdy.
To save money on building from scratch, temple leaders chose to renovate the old community center.
Rats and other vermin lived there and it had served as a part-time shelter for homeless people and drug users. It had no electricity or plumbing and the paint was peeling from the walls.
“We needed to make it work,” Rattan said.
Rattan said his father walked into the community center, said a prayer, blessed it with water from the Ganges, the most sacred river to Hindus, and everyone got to work.
Rattan estimates the work cost less than $100,000, a combination of cash and in-kind services.
Cash donations were used to hire professionals for electric and plumbing, and to purchase authentic altars and deities from India. Paint, carpet and wood to build the temple interior were provided by members.
“It was an awful dilapidated building,” said Ram Ramcharran.
Ramcharran was a 19-year-old student at Florida State University when the temple was being built. His parents were founding members and he would return home to Tampa each weekend to help with construction.
He was one of dozens, he said, who spent much of their free time working on it.
“I would pick up debris one day and paint the walls the next,” he said. “It was a real community effort. People gave what they could and did what needed to be done. Everyone was just excited to have a temple.”
“A lot of that help was due to Pawan Rattan,” said Mahendra Patel, who has been friends with Rattan for 30 years. “His leadership inspired many people to support his dream.”
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When complete, it resembled a community center outside but the inside was an authentic Hindu temple.
In mid-1991 it officially became a Hindu place of worship under the name Vishnu Mandir.
A dozen years ago, the membership split over philosophical differences on how the temple should operate.
A new and spectacular Vishnu Mandir temple was erected on Lynn Road next to the Hindu Temple of Florida.
The temple on Palm Avenue changed its name to Sanatan Mandir and Rattan and its leaders began planning its own new center, where ground was broken Feb. 22.
Rattan is also one of the founders of Tampa’s Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which pegs the economic impact of the Indian community on the Tampa Bay area at an estimated $3 billion a year.
The temple will be his greatest accomplishment, he said, because it provided the first true gathering place for the Indian community.
Despite the separation, those who attended Hindu services at the original temple but moved on to the one on Lynn Road are excited for the Sanatan Mandir.
Among them are Ramcharran and Sharma.
“This is excellent,” said Sharma. “It is a celebration for all Hindus when such a temple arrives.”
“It shows how much our community is growing,” said Ramcharran. “To be there for the initial days and to know what kind of building will be standing there in a few years is amazing.”
Ramcharran said he is pleased the original structure will find continued use.
Today, he said, there are an estimated 10 temples in the Tampa Bay area, each designed in the grandiose manner of India.
The local Indian population in the area has grown from a few hundred to 30,000.
“We got to this point through hard work and a common desire to build a community, the same two things that built that first temple,” Ramcharran said. “I’m very proud of us.”