Joyous crowds dedicate Indian Cultural Center after Hindu Vastu Puja ceremony

Ghanshyam Dave applies the tikka symbol to a woman at Sunday's ceremony . ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Ghanshyam Dave applies the tikka symbol to a woman at Sunday’s ceremony . ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

By Tricia L. Nadolny, Inquirer Staff Writer

After he graduated from the youth program at his Hindu temple, Sapan Modi said, he was unsure how to keep contributing to South Jersey’s Indian community.

On Sunday – in a ballroom buzzing with a success 25 years in the making – he may have found his answer.

“This might be the next phase where people can give back,” Modi, 27, said as he and 600 others dedicated the Indian Cultural Center in Evesham Township. “I can’t contribute $20,000. But I can contribute my time.”

South Jersey’s burgeoning Indian community has been working to build the center for more than two decades. Now that the space on Route 73 is open, organizers said, it will continue to take shape as members bring their own talents to the table and fill the building with the best of Indian culture.

Modi said he could see himself teaching a music class there. Another member suggested the community’s many physicians could hold health screenings and blood drives. A gleaming stage awaits performances.

“We’ve been blessed with hardworking kids who have done well,” said Ravi Goel, an ophthalmologist who has lived in New Jersey since he was a child. “Now it’s our time to give back to South Jersey.”

The center has been developed to do that without promoting any one religion. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and other faiths are all welcome, organizers said. There is no temple, and much of the 20,500-square-foot building is split into community rooms, one of which will become a library.

The main ballroom can be used for religious events, but many said they were most excited the space will be a low-cost alternative for families who can’t afford to hold weddings or birthday parties at other banquet halls.

On Sunday, the room was used for a traditional Hindu Vastu Pujaceremony, a housewarming event where God is welcomed into a new home. Women and girls in saris in shades from pure white to crimson walked in a procession into the space holding coconuts – considered a holy fruit – in their hands or resting them on their heads.

“This place will be a landmark more and more in New Jersey, giving the community and mainstream U.S.A. a feeling of India,” Sailesh Chowdhur told the crowd. “India is not a country only. It is a theme which promulgates country to country to country. And today it manifests in southern New Jersey.”

The center was proposed in 1987, but the idea took hold in 2001, when internist Prahlad Patel and his wife, Kitri, donated the 18 acres just south of Ardsley Drive. The plot – part of a stretch of retail centers and restaurants – was valued at $1.43 million at the time, Prahlad Patel said.

“I felt that my giving the donation, it could jump-start the project and the community would jump in after,” he said Sunday.

He was right.

More than 400 families donated a total of $2.5 million in gifts ranging from $100 to tens of thousands of dollars, said Manu Dadhania, the center’s fund-raising director. A $2 million mortgage has covered the remaining cost of the $4.5 million center.

The project’s construction manager, Danny Parikh, came to the United States with his wife in 1974 and said he had long considered himself to have two home countries. The center, he said, has created a bridge between them. “We are not just taking something from this country,” he said. “We feel like we are bringing our values and culture here.”