From A Spectrum of Faith, our student-written, photo-narrative about religion in Des Moines
Written by Taylor Donaldson
Photo by Bob Blanchard (http://www.bobblanchardphotography.com)
In the basement of a home in the neighborhood of Easter Lake, a little girl smiled at me and placed a rainbow-colored lei of flowers around my neck, a symbol, she said shyly, reserved for welcomed guests. Live music with a steady drumbeat accompanied by chanting and bells animated the space with color and movement and sound. It was not my first experience at bhajan—worship through song and dance. But it was the first time one of the young women of the group succeeded in pulling me up from the floor where I sat and into the circle of dancers.
I had no idea how to dance like that, I protested. But everyone cheered when I joined in. Out came a slew of phones pointed in my direction with much laughter and merriment. Dozens of dancing bodies can generate a lot of heat, especially in a basement filled with live music and drumming, along with bells and gourds, chanting and clapping. But I decided that being “on-stage” wasn’t so bad, after all. In fact, at that moment, even with my face red from both heat and self-consciousness that I was doing it all wrong, I realized I felt something new: finally, I’d become more of an insider than an outsider among the Bhutanese Hindus of Des Moines.
A shrine adorned with posters of deities and religious leaders sits at the front of the basement room when members arrive for bhajan. They lay offerings of fruit and flowers. Incense is lit. Some of the faithful kneel at the altar before the Hindu gods and goddesses whose presence they anticipate when worship begins. The Bhutanese Hindus don’t yet have a permanent place of worship, so the faithful take turns hosting the service in their own homes. Each week the basements change, but the service is always the same.
“Namaste,” they say—hello—greeting one another with affectionate warmth. Some stop to chit-chat or laugh together as they seat themselves on the floor, creating a vibrant visual mix of colors and sequins among the bright saris and tunics, blouses and T-shirts, sweatpants and skinny jeans. Many women wear the traditional bindi, a small red dot on their forehead, while married women wear an additional forehead marking called a sindooram. Men occasionally wear a topi, a Nepali hat adorned in a traditional pattern, worn for worship or special events.
After announcements and greetings, the priest and musicians gather at the altar. Soon, singing, dancing, and clapping keep time with the music’s driving rhythm. Bells jingle and tock, welcoming forth the gods. Joy and movement fill the room, but still an air of serious devotion reigns. This is not a party, my friend, Tanka, explains. Yes, it is jubilant celebration, but it is also the practice of religion free from persecution.
Now that this community has begun to settle into their new country, they seek a more permanent worship and education space. The Hindu temple in Madrid, Iowa, is one option, but many of them can’t make the forty-minute drive each week. That’s why the group recently founded an organization in Des Moines to promote outreach and educate the community about Hinduism. Now they are looking to the future with two grand projects, first a Multicultural Center, then a Hindu Temple, both on a newly acquired plot of land in southeast Des Moines.
“The refugee camps were crowded,” shares 21-year-old Pratima. She remembers how she and the other children made the most of their time there despite camp conditions—“going to school, playing outdoors, and helping our parents when needed.” Pratima was born in the camp in 1995 and lived there until the age of 14 when her family moved to the United States. Because her parents had lost their state and nationality, they were motivated by the prospect of moving to a country full of opportunity. Only after many tumultuous moves across the globe did they secure the chance to build a life for themselves in Des Moines. The transition from life in the small, cramped houses of a Nepali refugee camp to life here hasn’t been easy. But through hope and through their connection to one another, this community perseveres.
What made them refugees in the first place? According to Tanka, the government of Bhutan aligns itself with the concept of “One Nation, One People.” As such, it is under Buddhist control. In hopes of unifying its people, this mantra made mandatory the practice of Buddhism, and the Bhutanese language spoken by only a small group of people became the official language. These requirements left the Nepali-speaking Hindus of Bhutan marginalized. Things turned ugly when Hindus were physically punished for failure to comply with the unification. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus fled for their lives from the south of Bhutan, making their way through India and into Nepal. But there, they faced equally harsh, albeit different, judgment because, being from Bhutan, they were not accepted as Nepalese. It was a choice between persecution or statelessness. That was when they achieved refugee status, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees relocated them into the camps in the eastern part of Nepal.
“I think it was hard for my parents because they had to work and take care of us,” Pratima continues. “We lived in a hut that was too small for our family, and we would always share a bed.” But children will be children. Pratima remembers running, laughing, and playing games like any little girl. She also recalls early mornings at the Temple where murtis—statues of Hindu deities—lined the walls. In the camps, they learned about their religion and the Sanskrit language. They also learned the ritual of bathing, robing, and offering food to the murtis—theirs depicted on posters rather than statues, given their temporary surroundings. The priest recited passages, Pratima recalls, which the children would repeat and commit to memory. Pratima, along with her family, now holds tightly to her traditions and attends weekly services despite—or perhaps because—life is so different here.
While many of the Nepali Hindu community re-settled in Seattle, the state of Iowa’s job opportunities, lower living costs, and the chance to live close together attracted many of the refugees. Imagine adjusting to life permanently in a country whose official language is foreign to you. No matter their high education levels or abilities, relying on others for assistance became the only way to adapt. Children and teenagers were placed in school shortly after arrival. When possible, adults obtained jobs through local refugee services and took advantage of English as a Second Language (ESL) courses offered through refugee assistance programs such as the Lutheran Services of Iowa (LSI). The group has been fortunate in this way, but that hasn’t made it easy.
Everyone scoots closer to the head of the room to be near the musicians and altar as the Bhajan service begins. The first song is always about Ganesh, the Hindu god of auspicious beginnings, but after that any member of the typical crowd of 30 to 70 people can choose to sing a piece about any deity. To accompany the religious songs, musicians play several instruments including the harmonium, tabla drum, and hand-held cymbals. And, of course, there is dancing. As the music begins, the lead priest starts to sing a set of call-and-response phrases, to which the audience eagerly responds in rhythm.
A handful of priests and regulars sing most of the songs—the languages vary from Nepali to Hindi to Sanskrit—but other singers are always welcome to lead. Few in the group understand every language being sung or spoken, of course. Music is what connects them. And as the beat settles into a steady rhythm, women, girls, and sometimes men get up and form a loose circle as their dance area. In lithe, free-form movements, they twist and turn to the beating of the drums and the jingling of the bells, calling forth the presence of the gods. The particular gods they’re dancing for during any given song matter less than the time they are taking for praise and devotion. Anyone can join in. Worship that takes the form of chanting, music, and movement makes plain why many of the songs are devoted to Krishna: He is the God of love, movement, and song.
More and more dancers get up, while others sit down to rest and watch for a while. Some songs are especially popular, and dancers crowd the floor. At the close of each piece, the priest says a short prayer into the microphone, his voice blasting throughout the room. Jaiye, he calls out in praise, followed by the group’s echoes of response.
After two hours of singing, dancing, and music-making, people are ready to eat. The priests close with a group prayer. Members of the hosting household then serve Prashad—offerings of food made to the gods who have been invited into the space—which is subsequently enjoyed by the congregation. The musicians pack up their instruments, friends and families visit and share laughs, and the feasting begins.
Delighted to learn I am vegetarian, Tanka and his wife, Purna, served a traditional Nepali meal of white rice, cooked green beans, and greens, with a clear broth poured over the top. Did I like spicy food? They smiled when I nodded yes and brought me some hot and flavorful sauce mix for my rice and veggies—delicious! But even better was the sense of belonging that I felt as a welcome addition to their entourage.
A time of year when members gather for a more solemn focus happens during Puran. For this memorial ceremony, held over several days in the spring, members gather to pray for those who have passed away. This year’s hosts, Tanka and Purna, have transformed their basement into a worship space with a large altar laden with fruit, spices, candles, flowers, and money. Ringing bells and cymbals accompany the chanting of Sanskrit texts, and the priests offer their gifts to the gods, praying for peace for the assembled and for the world.
Over the next several days, people take time to enjoy traditional Nepali food and socialize with friends and neighbors. Come afternoon, festivities continue while workers prepare a bonfire for the evening Homadi fire ceremony. Smoke from the fire contains healing energy that cleanses the atmosphere of negative karma, purifying and replacing it with positive karma that will guide practitioners to their highest spiritual devotion. All are blessed with holy water and also receive a tika marking on the forehead, showing that they are Vashnaivite Hindus, devotees of the God Vishnu and his ten incarnations, or avatars, especially Krishna.
Because the priests recognize that Bhutanese Hindus have families, work, and school just like the rest of us, they can alter the timing and length of Puran to fit the hectic schedules that accompany American life. But the worshippers wouldn’t miss it: taking time out from regular life to deepen their devotion rejuvenates the spirit as well as their connection to one another. For Pratima, religion is “love and hope and faith. It’s something that combines us all for who we are today and what we can be in the coming days. It’s definitely family as well; it unites us all.”
Each week as I sit and enjoy the service, a little girl about two or three years old dances freely among us, bestowing smiles and kisses on her favorites, like Pratima. Although Pratima didn’t know her before she started attending services, the two became fast friends, and now they sit together every week. With me, the child is still a bit wary. We don’t speak the same language, after all. But recently, she began a game of peek-a-boo with me. When I finally got up to dance, she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed my cheeks.
When I think about this girl’s future in the United States, I can’t help but contrast it with some of the community’s older members, the ones who often have the toughest time adjusting to life here. Tanka is familiar with everyone; he knows the issues. And he put it frankly: the suicide rate among Bhutanese refugees is extremely high. Pratima explains that while local agencies provide resources and assistance when families arrive, those families don’t automatically know how to use these programs and services. Like many, her own family preferred to seek the help of others in their own community. “Our neighbors offered to help us,” adds Pratima. “If they wouldn’t have been so willing to teach us, we would be starving.” That’s why attending weekly religious services is not just a spiritual practice for the Bhutanese. It’s also the opportunity to have fellowship with those who understand their customs and speak their language. After having been uprooted many times in their lives as refugees, that time together helps them adjust to life in the United States. As Tanka puts it, “People sacrifice for their religion, so we must preserve our practices for ourselves and our community.”
Will the young people grow up not knowing their religion, customs, or language? Worse—will they not be interested to know? Parents have expressed that fear to me. In the United States, busyness is part of the culture. With work and school, so much goes on in the lives of families that some get pulled away or don’t take the time to attend services. To counter this, parents want to establish not just a temple, but a community center as well, so that children can be educated in both the religion and the language—and have fun, as well.
A small space provided by the Lutheran Services of Iowa (LSI) headquarters in Des Moines currently acts as the Hindu Cultural and Educational Center’s location for Nepali, Sanskrit, and culture classes, which are split by age for children of refugee families. Each week between 15 and 40 students gather in a crowded classroom working to improve their language skills and sustain cultural practices for the next generation. The teachers know that learning Nepali is difficult for the children since they are being raised in the United States; still, they hope the cultural tie of language will help these children remain close to their family, their community, and their religion.
Plans are underway to construct this center and a temple in the Des Moines area on land purchased off of East Army Post road. The community hopes to attract more Bhutanese refugees but also to provide outreach for anyone interested in learning more about Hinduism and their culture. Already, they offer cultural and religious education as well as services such as citizenship preparation and case management, greenhouse and farmers-market opportunities, and ESL classes. As Tanka puts it, Hinduism, like any religion, inspires people to do good with the limited time they have in their life by guiding them on the proper path. It’s the path he hopes to lead his own children down throughout their lives, wherever they may go.