With its high, ornate towers and gold-tipped cupolas jutting out from the floor of the sloping canyon in Malibu, the building seems like the wild vision of a Hollywood set designer.
But the sprawling creation is real, a shrine for thousands of Hindu followers throughout Southern California. It is a temple where East meets West and where ancient architectural forms collide with modern building codes.
Today, seven years after it was begun, the Sree Venkateswara Temple is nearly complete, the largest Hindu shrine of its architectural style in the Western Hemisphere. The temple, which was consecrated in October, is the gathering spot for an estimated 10,000 Hindus in Southern California and hundreds of other curious onlookers, who have been skidding their cars to a halt for years as they pass the spectacular site along Las Virgenes Canyon Road.
Officials of the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California, which was formed in 1977 to raise money for the complex, say the only work remaining involves the completion of a separate priest quarters, which may be finished by the summer.
More than a thousand people are expected to gather at the temple Saturday for the Sri Rama Navami festival, which will celebrate the birthday of Rama, one of the three incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu and the hero of the Indian epic "Ramayana." The ceremony will include a traditional bath for the Rama deity, a Hindu chorus singing hymns, Indian music and dances and other festivities.
Located on a 4.5-acre site, the temple was built almost entirely by Hindi craftsmen known as silpis, who came from southern India to shape the temple according to strict religious documents that originated around the 10th Century. More than two dozen specialists have worked on the temple since 1981 to make certain that the dimensions of the shrine, the shape of the cupolas and the placement of the nine deities fit the rules laid down in the documents, known as the Shastra .
The silpis were handpicked by S.M. Ganapathi, a prominent Indian architect who has designed other temples in New York, Chicago and West Virginia and numerous Hindu shrines in southern India. Each of the temple silpis must pass a grueling, seven-year apprentice program, strictly adhering to the Shastra code.
Like those temples, the one in Malibu follows the Chola style, which is named after the Chola Dynasty (AD 900-1100), which Hindu scholars said gave India many of its greatest temple builders.
"We wanted to build something for future generations (of Hindus) who maybe would never get the chance to go back to India to see similar temples," said M. Parthasarathy, manager of the temple. "The Indian population was increasing, but we didn't have anywhere to meet. So we decided to build something that could follow in the Hindu tradition. This is it."
The mortar and brick walls are covered with intricate carvings of dragons, lions, elephants, idols and lotus blossoms. There is a central meditation hall, a multipurpose auditorium and nine domed towers encasing carved statues of the Hindu gods. Each statue was imported from India and installed by temple priests, who carefully decorate the deities with flowers and garments each day.
Financed by the State Bank of India and contributions from members of the area's Hindu community, the 13,000-square-foot complex cost more than $3 million to build.
The priests rarely venture outside the grounds, claiming little interest in the mysteries of modern urban society in Los Angeles. The temple is untouched by the frenetic rhythms of big city life, they say, and their only contact with local residents comes when the curious stop to gawk.
"I don't like to go out because it interferes with my thoughts," said R. Narasimha Bhattar, the temple's chief priest. "There is nothing for me out there. This is where I belong."
Bhattar, 36, and the other two priests spend their days engaged in the elaborate rituals of the Hindu religion, offering food to the gods and counseling worshipers who stop for spiritual comfort. For Bhattar, like many of the Hindu priests, it is the continuation of a family tradition--both his father and his grandfather were priests.
His day begins at 6 a.m., when he chants to the rising sun "to awaken the God," he said. Often, the work runs well into the night, when the temple is bathed in floodlights and casts an eerie glow in the dark canyon.
Its lavish presence has often made it a target for vandals. At various times during the past seven years, the temple has been stained by graffiti and was once splattered with eggs.
"This is a holy place," said Bhattar, who joined the temple last fall when the 52-foot entrance tower was consecrated. "We never react to anything that people do because nothing bad can happen here. God does not allow it."
For the most part, the temple remains a well-known oddity in Malibu, a place filled with the well-known and the odd. Parthasarathy said that since the temple leaders used local building contractors for much of the foundation, plumbing and electrical work, they established friendly ties to the coastal community.
The choice of Malibu as the temple's home came after Hindu leaders scouted sites in the Hollywood Hills, San Dimas, Diamond Bar and Walnut. In typical fashion, leaders of the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California prayed to reach their final decision.
"Why Malibu? That was God's decision," said Parthasarathy, who lives in a trailer next to the temple with his wife, Lakshmi. "We wanted a place that would provide tranquility. And this was the best place for that."
Although some people in the community fought the project when it started, it was because they believed that the temple was an inappropriate use of land in one of the last remaining open spaces in Los Angeles County. At the time it was proposed, one homeowners association president said he would have objected to any building in the area.
"I wouldn't be any more pleased if the Catholic Church put up a cathedral there," writer-producer Garner Simmons said at the time. But the county Regional Planning Commission and the California Coastal Commission approved the project, after scaling it down in height about 25 feet. Compared to Chola temples in southern India, the Sree Venkateswara Temple is tiny, but it is still larger than others built throughout the United States.
Parthasarathy said the size of the temple was never a prime concern among the Hindu leaders. Instead, they wanted to see the elaborate detail of the Chola style maintained for the future.
"We knew we could never be as big as some of the temples back home in India, so we focused on the quality," he said. "When you take your time and go step by step, you can build exactly what you want. And this is what we always wanted."