It was a warm Sunday morning and churchgoers dressed in their springtime clothes were attending Palm Sunday services at churches along Bellflower's Bixby Street, a quiet, tree-lined avenue.
On the corner of Bixby and Palm streets, gospel music wafted from an open door at the Bellflower Faith Temple. The sermon was a lively one, but the music was not loud enough to drown out the hypnotic sound of chanting coming from another door in the same building, the Hindu cultural center that leases space to the Faith Temple.
The pungent scent of camphor and a haze of blue smoke drifting toward the sidewalk caught the attention of a few passers-by who walked toward the doorway of the center for a better look.
Inside, about 50 Hindu worshipers, dressed in brightly colored saris and silk pantsuits, sat barefoot on the floor around a small fire chanting and tossing an assortment of herbs into the flames.
A man wearing beige kurta payjama, a traditional Indian dress, turned toward the door for a glimpse of the intruders who had poked their heads in the doorway.
"We get some curious people," he whispered to a guest and smiled.
The attention did not seem to bother the circle of worshipers. Since last May, Temple Arya Samaj of Southern California, a Hindu sect founded in 1883 that has 450 members in Los Angeles County, has been holding services in Bellflower with little notice except for a few puzzled neighbors who occasionally wander up to their doorstep.
Every Sunday morning the ceremony, called Havans, is performed in the Om Center, which is used for various Hindu cultural events during the rest of the week. Last Saturday, about 300 Hindus from the Los Angeles area gathered at the center to celebrate the birth of Ram Nomi, a Hindu god.
During the early 1970s, chapters were formed in Canada, New York and Southern California, said Dwarika Prasad, secretary of the local Arya Samaj. The Southern California chapter started in 1974 in Cerritos with about a dozen members, Prasad said.
As the Indian population in Los Angeles and Orange counties grew, so did the membership, forcing the congregation to hold services at various halls in Artesia, Cerritos and other nearby cities before buying a building in Huntington Park in 1979. They eventually outgrew the Huntington Park facility and moved into the center in Bellflower.
There were about 24,000 Indians living in Los Angeles and Orange counties at the time of the 1980 census, accounting for more than one-third of the state's total Indian population.
"The flow of Indian families into this area is very rapid," said Prasad, who publishes The Vedic Light, the group's monthly newsletter. "Most have settled in Cerritos and Norwalk, so this seemed like a convenient location for us."
Like all Hindus, the Arya Samaj believe in the four Vedas--the holy books on which Hinduism is based, Prasad explained. But unlike other Hindus who adhere to the caste system, which is based on the belief that man is born into a particular social class, the Arya Samaj believe that each man controls his own destiny, he said.
"The major difference between other Hindus and us is that we believe classes are formed according to how hard each person works. Arya Samaj followers have done very well here professionally," Prasad said. "We have many doctors and engineers and other professionals."
As she sprinkled a vial of oil over the fire, Santosh Rani, the priestess who performs most of the ceremonies at the center, explained that fire "is the medium used to reach Om." Om, she explained, is their God.
"This ceremony has many meanings," she said as she tossed a handful of red and yellow rose petals toward a young couple sitting in front of the fire. "We throw the rose petals . . . to wish them a life as fragrant as the rose."
Rani, who moved to the United States in September, is taking a three-year leave from her duties as a college principal in New Dehli to preach at the center. She said she is impressed at how well Hindus here have adapted to Southern California life and yet maintain their customs.
"Indian community has done very, very well here," she said. "They (Arya Samajs) are the intelligentsia in my country. Most importantly, they continue to fulfill their spiritual life."