PITTSBURGH | Seated in front of the floodlit, intricately sculpted facade of their Hindu temple in Penn Hills, Pa., hundreds of people recently looked into the October night sky, their faces glowing with the colors of fireworks bursting overhead to mark Diwali, a sacred festival of lights marking a god’s victory over darkness and ignorance.
People travel from across North America to make pilgrimages to the Sri Venkateswara Temple there.
Built in the mid-1970s and based on a much larger shrine in South India, the Pittsburgh version is renowned for its pioneering role in recreating on American soil the architectural grandeur and sacred sense of a major shrine in Hinduism’s native land.
Being able to make the regular trip there from his home in suburban Pittsburgh is so important to Srini Bellamkonda that the software engineer _ who was transferred by his company to the United States from his native India in 2001 and came to Pittsburgh in 2004 _ hasn’t sought transfers anywhere else since.
In fact, he knows of fellow Indian immigrants who left Pittsburgh for jobs in Texas or Florida _ only to return.
“This is important to us, definitely,” said Bellamkonda, 40, after he helped a neighbor’s young son light a sparkler to celebrate Diwali. “They might not like the weather so much (but) the temple is one reason why people want to stick to Pittsburgh.
Of all the Pittsburgh area’s immigrant groups, its 10,000-strong Indian-born community has made the most visible imprint on the city’s diverse religious scene. Many immigrated since the 1960s to work as engineers in corporations such as Westinghouse and in the city’s academic and medical centers.
Indian-Americans have organized two major Hindu temples and other smaller Hindu institutions, as well as a Jain shrine, a Sikh temple and small Christian congregations, including a Catholic group worshiping in the ancient Syro-Malabar tradition. Muslim immigrants from India are also active in the region’s mosques.
Earlier in the Diwali festival at the Sri Venkateswara Temple, the full, sensory worship experience of Hinduism was much in evidence. Priests chanted in urgent tones to the backdrop of bells, drumbeats and declamatory notes from wind instruments known as nadaswarams.
Worshipers prayed before the idol of the deity to whom the temple is dedicated _ Sri (Lord) Venkateswara, an incarnation of Vishnu, surrounded by consorts Lakshmi and Bhoodevi, goddesses of wealth and the earth. The deities were surrounded by such gifts as floral garlands, mango leaves and rice.
From the temple’s modest origins, “it’s grown, grown and we have a lot of devotees from all over the country now,” current temple Chairman Ashok Sarpeskar said.
In Monroeville, Pa., a few miles from the Sri Venkateswara Temple, the Hindu Jain Temple features elaborate turrets and other architectural flourishes.
Inside are five major shrines to deities primarily venerated in northern India, one of them especially by Jains, followers of a religion historically connected to but distinct from Hinduism.
Young people learn Hindu basics at temple Sunday schools and a summer camp.
“When we were young we never asked why,” said Indian native Vijay Shah of Upper St. Clair, Pa., who is active in the Hindu Jain Temple. “Today we have to explain, ‘What’s the significance of this god? Why do I put a dot on my forehead?’ There is more value in that.”
Closely overlapping with the role of the temples are various Indian ethnic associations and educational institutions teaching classical Indian dance.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Indian culture and heritage by learning to dance,” said Anika Roy, 16, of Monroeville at a recent Bengali Association of Greater Pittsburgh festival at the Hindu Jain Temple, where she performed an elaborate, ancient choreography depicting the goddess Durga’s triumph over evil.
The Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara was formed in the 1970s, also in Monroeville, by followers of the monotheistic religion, which emerged in India in the 15th century with distinct Scriptures, worship and traditions of dress.
Indian religious leaders say they have been involved in interfaith efforts and find the climate generally friendly despite isolated incidents of prejudice. But national events, such as a massacre committed by a lone gunman at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012, have prompted heightened security and educational efforts, such as giving temple tours and speaking to school and church groups.
“We need to work a little more on telling people who we are,” said Chitratan Singh Sethi, who is active at the Sikh gurdwara. “We definitely try our best with whatever opportunities come our way.”