Alagappa Alagappan, 88, Dies; Founded Hindu Temples

alagappan-obit-1-master180In 1968, on a trip to his native India, Alagappa Alagappan dreamed that an ancient Hindu god told him to visit a medium. So he did, and on his first visit the medium read palm leaves to tell him that the Lord Ganesha — another deity, this one beloved for his laugh and his elephant head — wanted to settle in a city beginning with the letter N.

On the medium’s instruction, by his account, Mr. Alagappan returned the next day, and he learned that Ganesha had asked for more: He wanted temples to be established throughout North America. On the third day, the medium told Mr. Alagappan that it was his job to arrange that. So he did.

By the time of his death, on Oct. 24 at the age of 88, Mr. Alagappan, a retired United Nations official who lived in Queens, had become “the father of the temple-building movement in North America,” as a Hindu leader in Texas wrote in an email to Mr. Alagappan’s family.

His work began in the wake of a landmark change in American immigration law in Congress in 1965: the replacement of a national-origins quota system, which had been in place since the 1920s, with a preference system, which favored immigrants with skills or with relatives in the United States.


Mr. Alagappan helped form the Hindu Temple Society of North America, which in 1977 opened a temple in Queens, shown above in 1991. CreditFred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Today there are 700 Hindu temples in the United States, serving a Hindu population that since 1965 has increased thirtyfold, to about 1.5 million.

Mr. Alagappan started the project close to home, in his adopted city whose name began with N.

“With nothing but faith, I began the task of getting a temple built in New York,” Mr. Alagappan told Madras Musings, a newspaper published in Chennai, India, in 1998.

Meeting in his living room, he and others, some of them also United Nations officials, formed a planning group with the aim of making the increasing number of immigrants from India feel at home in their new country. In 1970 they founded the Hindu Temple Society of North America.

Seven years later the society dedicated the Maha Vallabha Ganapati temple in Flushing, Queens, on Bowne Street, on a site once occupied by a Russian Orthodox church. It was one of the first two Hindu temples in the United States.

Designed by an Indian architect, the Queens temple has tiered conical towers embellished with intricate figures of monkeys, peacocks and eagles. Mr. Alagappan enlisted 150 artisans in India to devote two years to carving the sculptures; a massive granite representation of Ganesha weighed 16 tons. For a ritual blessing he brought priests from India to bathe the statues of gods in milk, honey and sandalwood paste.

He added a community and cultural center to offer classes in scripture and dance, and programs to help the needy.

Worshipers have continued to stream to the temple over the 38 years since it was built, to breathe in the fragrances of flowers and incense and to sway to traditional music. (There are no scheduled services.)

The journey was not always easy. Neighbors at first resisted the temple’s presence in their mostly white, middle-class residential neighborhood. As recently as 2002 vandals burned the chariot the temple used for an annual public procession.

But Mr. Alagappan never strayed from his commitment to ecumenism and tolerance. The circular logo he designed for the temple shows a Christian cross, a Star of David and an Islamic crescent and star, demonstrating what the temple’s website calls a belief in “the totality and fundamental unity at the core of all religion.” At the top of the circle is the symbol for “Om,” which Hindus consider the primal sound of the universe.

He lived in Jamaica Estates, Queens, and died at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, his son Arun said.

Mr. Alagappan was born on Dec. 3, 1925, in Kanadukathan, a town in southern India. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Presidency College in Chennai, which was then known as Madras. He went on to earn a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also studied law and became a member of the British bar. While studying in London, he worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation and once interviewed a pope.

Returning to India, he became a reporter for the newspaper The Hindu. He then went to work for the United Nations, first in Bangkok. He transferred to New York in 1961. His positions included deputy director of the natural resources and energy division. One of those who joined him in starting the temple society was C. V. Narasimhan, the under secretary general. The group dedicated a temple in Pittsburgh around the same time as the one in New York.

Mr. Alagappan helped start temples at first by contributing $51, following the tradition that one extra dollar (or one extra rupee in India) is a good-luck charm to ensure that another $50 will materialize. In later years, he gave contributions of $1,001. He went on to start temples in India as well as in the United States.

Besides his son Arun, Mr. Alagappan is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Visalakshi Vairavan; two other sons, Kumar and Vairam; a daughter, Meena Alagappan; and seven granddaughters.

Mr. Alagappan resigned as chairman of the Queens temple in 2000 in a dispute over bylaws. “In blunt terms, the older generation was being transitioned out,” Arun Alagappan said.

But he saw the temple become ever bigger and richer, adding an auditorium and yoga classes and marrying more and more people. “He was very proud of it,” his son added.

Mr. Alagappan chose Bowne Street as the temple’s site because the man it was named after, John Bowne, had fought for and won the right of Quakers and followers of other religions to worship freely in New York in the 17th century, when it was still a Dutch colony. Mr. Bowne’s house still stands in Flushing and is open to the public.

“John Bowne was a great religious freedom fighter,” Mr. Alagappan said in talking about the Queens temple in an interview with The New York Times in 1991. “Somehow all these things come together here.”

Source: The New York Times