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'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.”

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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