'Indra Aunty' prays for Utah — and Utah's Hindus

Published: Saturday, Jan. 19 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah's Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SOUTH JORDAN — When a member of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s staff first contacted Indra Neelameggham about giving the invocation for the governor’s inaugural ceremony earlier this month, one thought came quickly to her mind.

“You must be looking for our priest,” said Neelameggham, one of the stalwarts of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah, which is located just a few blocks from her home in South Jordan. “I can give you his telephone number.”

“No, we’re looking for you,” the aide told her. “In fact, we got your number from him.”

“I was stunned — I still am,” she said more than a week after the inauguration. “I kept asking them, ‘Why did you pick me? I’ve never met the governor. I’m nobody important. Why me?’ ”

She was told the governor wanted a lay person, not a pastor, to say the invocation. Staff members sent out feelers to Utah’s faith community, and Neelameggham’s name kept cropping up as an exemplary person of faith. A list of several possibilities was presented to Herbert, and he personally selected Neelameggham for the honor.

“I have been told that I am the first Hindu and the first woman to offer a prayer at a Utah governor’s inauguration,” she said, noting that President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on Jan. 20 will also feature a prayer by a woman who is, like her, a lay person.

“Perhaps this is a trend,” she said. Then she leaned forward and added: “But we did it before him!”

Neelameggham said she was “very, very touched” by the honor. And nervous — especially when she found out what a big deal the inauguration was.

“I thought it would be a little private ceremony in the governor’s office,” she said, smiling broadly at the memory. When she found out it was a big ceremony, attended by hundreds of people in the state Capitol rotunda, she was thrilled.

“The rotunda is so beautiful, so elegant,” she said. “To be there with so many dignitaries, and to participate in the program with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a beautiful children’s choir and the governor — it was a great honor.”

She said she took several lines from several Hindu prayers and then included some language of her own in her invocation.

“It is a prayer for peace, happiness, harmony and contentment,” she said. “Sen. (Orrin) Hatch and (former) Gov. (Jon M.) Huntsman both told me after the ceremony that they thought my prayer was inspiring, so I guess it went pretty well.”

And she finally got a chance to meet Gov. Herbert.

“He said, ‘I’ve heard a lot of good things about you,’ and I said, ‘That is very pleasant,’ ” Neelameggham said. “I invited him to come to our temple, and he said he would come.”

For Neelameggham, being asked to offer the inaugural invocation was an acknowledgement that “we are a very diverse state.”

“So many people believe that in Utah we are just a Mormon community,” she said. “Certainly that is the predominant religion, but we are so much more than just that. And I think they wanted someone to represent that diversity.”

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