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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Kavadi dancers of Tamil Nadu \— Vivek Natarajan, Karuppaiah Veerappan and Vatheesh Bharathi \— take part in a chariot procession around the temple.

With prayers that Mother Earth will forgive their planned excavations, members of Utah's Hindu community will celebrate the upcoming construction of phase II at their temple site in South Jordan today.

Plans for the new India Cultural Center have been in place for more than a decade at the Sri Ganesha Temple complex just north of 10600 South near 1300 West, which is home to a community of some 5,000 Hindu worshippers scattered from Ogden to Provo.

Since the group's temple was consecrated in 2003, it has done more than house religious rituals. Regular Indian festivals and cultural events that are integral to Hindu worship are held there.

The popularity of those events with the public, as well as the growing community of believers, is driving construction of the new center, according to temple administrator Indra Neeglameggham. She said architectural plans were submitted to the city in March so construction can begin as soon as possible, with an eye to provide space for large, indoor celebrations that have previously been held at LDS churches in the area.

Today's Bhumi Puja Vaasthu ceremonies begin at 10:30 a.m. and will include blessing the ground itself.

"It's a religious ceremony. We ask permission from Mother Earth to dig and disrupt her so the building can go up safely and there are no problems."

The priest will offer prayers asking Earth "to be kind to us" and seeking a blessing from specific points on the compass, asking them to be "guardians and not the evil omens" of the building.

"At every stage, we say let's be part of nature and the environment, so we're changing the Earth in a harmonious way," she said. Part of the ceremony includes an ancient fire ritual offering prayers to the fire god.

The simple, hour-long ceremony will include Hindus of all ages, men and women, including the architect, masons, administrator, fundraisers and others integrally involved with the new building.

The ceremony follows last weekend's "annual day" at the temple. That day's activities included a chariot festival, songs and dances from some of the eight regions of India, games, competitions and religious rituals. Food is always a major part of every celebration, and Neeglameggham said about 750 people were served vegetarian dishes at that event.

Spring and summer events are often held in the temple's garden area, but cold weather festivities have been limited because of the temple's size. The new cultural center will be a "multi-use facility," she said, to be used as an auditorium, dining hall and media center, based on the current need.

Indians are family centered and tend to gather in large groups, which underscores the need for the new center, she said. "Even when families get together, it tends to be 50 or 60 people," because extended family including aunts, uncles and cousins are considered on par with siblings.

Planners hope the new building also will become a gathering space for those in the wider south valley community, she said, with space for large receptions and other community events. Hindus "hope to repay the hospitality" they have enjoyed from their neighbors once the building and the surrounding green space is complete, though the center will have a specific code of conduct.

Because the center is located on the temple complex, only vegetarian food will be allowed, and no smoking or drinking will be permitted.

Though only 60 percent of the building's funds have been raised to date, venture capitalist Dinesh Patel has served as the major fundraising force for the building, and he will help host a gala next Saturday at the South Towne Exposition Center that is scheduled to include "a number of corporate friends," Neeglameggham said.

"We think we'll raise at least $200,000 during that event and believe it will be one of the most successful fundraisers in the valley this year," she said. The temple is fast becoming one of the West's recognized centers for Indian culture, rivaling Denver and Los Angeles as a performance venue for Indian dancers, musicians and other artists on tour in the United States.

The new facility will attract not only larger crowds but prominent entertainers and artists, and plans have already been made to expand the center's auditorium at some point in the future to include tiered seating and upgraded staging.

The Indian community in Utah tends to be well-educated and fairly wealthy, and it includes several high-profile business leaders, university professors, doctors, attorneys and small-business people. Most are determined to hang on to their cultural heritage and have found Utah a "great place to raise their families," because the population at large shares their values, she said.

Even though ground is just being prepared for the new center, Hindu leaders have planned for additional development in the future, she said. Phase III of the temple complex includes a large "temple tower" typical of architectural features in India. It won't house anyone but "will be a big showpiece and attraction in Utah. There is nothing like it in the Mountain West at all."

But that won't get underway for the foreseeable future, she said. "We build as we pay, so we let the community collect the funds before we start it." Phase IV at some point will include the upgraded auditorium with tiered seating. Planners see it as "the Kennedy Center of the West, attracting top-notch artists."

It may sound like lofty talk to some, but the community has learned its dreams can come true. Those later phases "may not be there in our lifetimes, but the next generation will take care of it. Our families living here are committed to Utah."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com