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New York temple becomes Jain pilgrimage

By Arthur J Pais
July 22, 2010 21:22 IST
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On June 20, the Jain temple in Elmhurst, Queens, New York, ceased to be just another temple.

"Now, it is a tirth (pilgrimage)," said Ashish Ajmera, an organiser of the events that culminated in the installation of idols of the 24 Jain tirthankars.

"It will be a pilgrimage center for Jains not only from across America and Canada, but also from across the world," he added.

The idols were installed in the presence of hundreds of devotees at the end of nearly 10 days of prayers, rituals and cultural events of the Ashtapad Pratishtha Mahotsav.

Also installed was an imagined replica of the sacred Shri Ashtapad mountain, mentioned in many Jain books and which reputedly disappeared over 30 centuries ago.

Many believe it stood in the region of Mount Kailash in Tibet. "We are also committing ourselves to sponsoring research to find out where the mountain was located," said Jawahar A Shetti, chairman, Jain Center of America, which manages the temple.

The JCA was founded 45 years ago in New York and was among the first Jain organisations in North America.

"Our temple has the distinction of honouring all five Jain traditions, and now it has even more distinction," said Hemant Shah, former president of the temple board.

Under his presidency five years ago, efforts to acquire precious stones from around the world to make the idols began. "There is no such temple in North America with idols decorated with precious stones. I think there could be just about two or three mandirs like ours worldwide," he added.

The event brought together Jains from across America, the United Kingdom and India. At least a dozen religious leaders, thinkers and priests and nuns came from India.

The installation of the idols will enhance the knowledge of Jainism, believe the community leaders. "Young people want to know why this mountain is so sacred, and why there are 24 beautiful idols," Shah said.

Teenagers were seen seeking blessings. "We don't get an opportunity like this everyday," said one teenage girl. "When she (a nun) blessed me, I thought of all my friends and wished God blessed all of us."

Another teenager added, "They (the holy men and women) have come all the way from India, and they travel without knowing any English. This is a special occasion."

Community leaders in New York say that part of the mission of the new tirth is educating non-Jains about the faith. They believe even many Indians don't know Jainism existed for centuries before the birth of Mahavir, the last of the tirthankars.

"What is also important about a project like this is that it brings the community together," said Chintan Dholakia, who served on one of the nearly two dozen committees involved in the project.

"We learned a lot from the elders. Many of them have vast experience in being community leaders as well as business leaders," Dholakia added.

The new tirth, he said, could also inspire other Jain centers across the world to go after something they have wanted to do for a long time. "If anyone wants our insights and help, we are there for them," he added.

For Shah, the installation was the beginning of a new phase for the center. "The pilgrimage to our tirth has just begun," he concluded.

Image: Devotees from across the World throng the Jain temple in Elmhurst, NY

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Arthur J Pais in New York