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

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

Few could represent the cultural and religious diversity of Utah better than Neelameggham, who has adopted and embraced the state as her home ever since she emigrated from her native India in 1983 to be with her husband, Dr. Neale R. Neelameggham, who was a material science engineer in the magnesium industry. At first it was difficult, she said, because of the lack of extended family and a cultural community with which she was comfortable.

“I didn’t know any Indians here,” she said. “I was alone at home most of the day. There was no Internet then, no social networking, and I felt very alone. I would take the bus and ride downtown just so I could be around people, even though I didn’t know them.”

She remembers writing to her father back in India and saying, “I wish I could see people with dark hair.”

Instead of retreating into the loneliness of their house, however, she decided to reach out to others who were in a similar situation.

“Whenever there was a Hindu festival I would make a big celebration and invite all the Hindus I knew to my home to celebrate the festival,” she said. “Our home was always open to the Indian students at the university. It was always a place they could come to get a meal, or to sleep, or to just be with a family at home.”

The students started calling her “Indra Aunty,” a name by which she continues to be known by many in the local Hindu community. In those early days there were a handful of Hindus in Utah, and Indra and Neale knew them all. As the Hindu community grew, the Neelamegghams established a temple in their basement and invited their faith community to come to their home to worship. When the time finally came to build a temple, they were instrumental in the fundraising and public outreach efforts required to make it happen. Indra, especially, became for many the face of Utah Hinduism, speaking in schools, participating in the formation of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable in 2002 and representing her culture all around the state.

Today, Indra estimates there are about 5,000 Hindus from Brigham City to Cedar City.

“We don’t know them all anymore,” she said, indicating that since Neale retired from his work two years ago she has been backing off from her work with the temple so the couple could travel more. As they have traveled, they have considered the possibility of relocating to be closer to their nieces and nephews who are scattered all over the United States.

“We don’t have children, and so we have a lot of attachment to our nieces and nephews,” she said. They considered a number of cities, but she said none “ever compared to Utah for us.”

“This is our home,” she said. “We may find a smaller home, but we will keep our home in Utah” — although the unusually cold January weather this year has them thinking they may establish a winter home in a warmer climate.

“I’m a Hindu,” she continued. “Anywhere I go in the United States I’m going to be different. But where else can I go where there is so much respect and appreciation for other cultures? Where else can I go in America where we have so much in common with our neighbors — our focus on families and family values, our abhorrence of drinking, our peculiar food habits? We love it here. We feel comfortable here.”

Which suggests that she’s already living what she prayed for during Herbert’s inauguration: “May the divine inspire all to a life of contentment and happiness, and may we be enthused with greater joy to enjoy this most beautiful and bounteous land that is Utah and America.”

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