At the gate to the yard there are thin green grasses, undulating leaves, scented herbs, and bright flowers. They are Hindu holy plants. Some are in Terracotta pots neatly lined up next to the cement steps. Others are hanging in the driveway. Their sacredness gives these plants power to cast away unwanted evil spirits, obtain enlightenment to living souls, and send off departing ones to heaven. About 36 different varieties of holy plants guard the entrance of Priest Valamiki Sahadeo's home temple, "Sharana Gatti Ramayan and Kirtan Mandali."
Sahadeo is one of the many Guyanese immigrants who have been moving into the Rochdale area of Jamaica, Queens. According to U.S. Census’ American Community
Survey, people who mark their first ancestry as Guyanese have increased their numbers in the New York metropolitan area about 250% in ten years. New York City now has the 2nd highest Guyanese population in the world, just behind Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.
Although no exact data exists, community leaders estimate that over 50% of the Guyanese of Indian descent practice Hindu religion, totaling over 100,000 individuals. Only a few have a home temple with gardens as elaborate as Sahadeo’s.
Sahadeo’s gardening is an example how growing a garden in New York City can be a catalyst for a sense of purpose in life. The gardens create an meaningful order for life in America and a vivid remembrance of home country traditions and beliefs.
Among the collection of what Sahadeo calls his “highly worshiped plants” is the tulsi basil, which is seen as an incarnation of a god and the foundation of any Hindu garden. In the classic Hindu myth, “The Churning of the Cosmic Ocean,” the Lord Vishnu spawned Tulsi Basil from the turbulent seas as an aid for all mankind. At home the herb purifies, pacifies and harmonizes. Indian lore also teaches that the plant drives away mosquitoes and is a cure for blood and skin diseases. Hindu teachers say that Tulsi Basil helps keep the mind healthy and free of worries so that a worshipper at a temple can concentrate on the gods. It is given to the dying for a blessing and to raise their souls to heaven.
Sahadeo also raises durva grass which is essential for Hindu worship. It is seen as a powerful symbol of regeneration and prosperity. After the elephant god Ganesha swallowed a demon to keep him from destroying the world, he developed indigestion. A few scoops of durva grass took away his pain. So, today, garlands of the grass are draped over images of Ganesha at certain times of the year.
More common flora like banana plants, jasmine, and marigold are also in the garden. To complete his temple, Sahadeo is building a greenhouse behind his two-family house in the working-class section of Rochdale in Jamaica, Queens.
Sahadeo, a Lord Vishnu devotee (Lord Vishnu is one of the most important of Hinduism's 330 million religious entities), came to New York City in 1996 with priesthood running in his bloodline. His grandfather and father were Hindu priests in Guyana. After getting settled, he decided to take up his heritage as a priest and to build an elaborate home temple and garden.
During 2003, Sahadeo moved “from house to house” in Far Rockaway. Finally, in July 16, 2008, he bought his current property in the working class neighborhood of Rochdale in Jamaica, Queens. He put a small sign announcing the temple and singing center, home for about 200 Guyanese Hindu devotees. After he completes a greenhouse next year, he will have a full supply of Holy Plants for ministering to devotees. To his neighbors, Sahadeo seems like just another religious gardener, like Catholics putting statues of the Virgin Mary in their yards. To his followers, he is a Guru on a mission.
As his Holy Plants grow, Sahadeo says devotees can contemplate their place in the universe. “Most of the Hindu temples have not considered growing religious plants, so this temple is special,” Sahadeo claims. In addition to plants and flowers, Sahadeo will also have “all the different images of Gods” in his greenhouse.
The plants serve as illustrations of the theology of Hindu reincarnation. To Hindus, humans, animals, and plants are all part of the life-force. But humans are different, “Humans know the difference between good and bad. Plants and animals don't know that.” Animals have life too, but “they don't have mercy like humans. All these are living entities that were once just like me and you, but because of what they have done they don't have mercy or feelings. This is the cycle – birth and death,” reflects Sahadeo as he motioned circles with his finger.
The plants rely on those who are higher up in the cycle of reincarnation to give them sustenance. So, as a righteous human and devout Hindu, Sahadeo believes it is his duty to take care of these plants. “As a human being, you are in authority for these plants, so why destroy them?” said Sahadeo.
The holy plants also signify a deep sentiment brewing in the hearts of Hindu immigrant parents. The presence of the plant represents the fundamental religious bent of a Hindu family. Apprehensions abound among parents about the retention of traditions and religious beliefs as their children grow up. Separation stands between the older generation who have emigrated to the United States and the younger generation who were born here.
Every Sunday, Sahadeo has service for the children. The classes, called bala vihars, are on “any aspect that concerns life.” This includes Hindu theology, languages, dance, and music. “Our kids have to grow in some cultural background,” he said. More and more Hindu parents are relying on gurus and other spiritual leaders to not only transmit religious teachings to the second generation, but also hand down cultural history. Hindu summer camps have also sprung up to pass on family religious traditions.
Another way to impart culture and religion to the 2nd and 3rd generation is through house temples. House temples are a long standing trend throughout the Hindus of India and Guyana. With immigration, this trend was brought into the United States. Sometimes domestic worship encompasses a small altar in a bedroom or kitchen with images of deities and spiritual leaders. For others, it can mean a separate prayer room.
In the Springfield Garden section of Jamaica, Queens, the Singh family has also created a house temple to Shiva within their neatly landscaped front lawn.
When the Singhs emigrated to the U.S. from Guyana twenty-eight years ago, Mr. Singh constructed a personal temple dedicated to Lord Shiva in the front lawn of his home on Pineville Lane, a quiet residential block with neighbors who “watch out for each other.” The Singhs are avid gardeners
and their temple nestles amidst flowers and bamboos.
The cylindrical structure has an exterior made completely out of cement. The interior is painted bubble gum pink and matches the flowers stringed like a necklace around the temple. A Lord Shiva statue adorns a tiny altar, with enough room for one person to kneel in front of it. Behind the altar is a silver bowl of offerings, filled with ripe bananas and dollar bills. Though the interior space is small, the roof makes a big statement of its presence.
Towering at about 8 feet high and 6 feet in diameter, the roof looks like a cement cone sticking out somewhat jarringly from the beautiful yard. Mrs. Singh defends the roof as a sign of Hindu worship that neighbors are curious about.
“It belongs to God,” said Mrs. Singh in defense of the roof. “The neighbors understand. They ask questions, so I tell them what it is.”
Mr. Singh prays in the temple anywhere from 2 to 3 hours a day each morning. Even in cold winter days, a small white space heater keeps him warm.
He is a strict vegetarian, abstaining from meat and fish. Mrs. Singh is not so diligent and prefers to consume meat. Together, they also attend their community temple, but a handful of times a year. Their personal temple at home provides the Singhs with a more constant space for their faithfulness.
Like Sahadeo, the Singhs see their temple as an aid in raising their 3 children. Mrs. Singh said their family is close knit, and the children are Shiva devotees as well. “A family that prays together stays together,” said Mrs. Singh.
Last time we checked, Priest Valamiki Sahadeo's gardens of Vishnu and Shiva were flourishing. His potted plants in front of the house were blooming and had grown three feet since our first visit in 2011.
The study of home temples and religious gardens is part of the “vernacular landscape” of New York City. For further reading see:
Joseph J. Inguanti. 2010. “Landscapes of order, landscapes of memory: Italian-American residential landscapes of the New York metropolitan region,” in Joseph Sciorra, ed. Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American lives. New York: Fordham University Press, 83-107.
Jerome Krase. 2004. “Italian American urban landscapes: images of social and cultural capital,” Italian Americana, 22, 1, 17-44.
Jerome Krase. 1997. “Polish and Italian vernacular landscapes in Brooklyn,” Polish American Studies, 54, 1, 9-31.
C.V. Prorok and C.T. Kimber. 1997. "The Hindu gardens of Trinidad: cultural continuity and change in a Caribbean landscape," Pennsylvania Geographer, 35, 98-135.
C.V. Prorok. 1991. "Evolution of the Hindu temple in Trinidad." Caribbean Geography, 3, 73-93.
Jerome Krase. N.d. Navigating ethnic vernacjular landscapes, pdf, Brooklyn College
Joseph Sciorra. 1989. “Yard shrines and sidewalk altars of New York’s Italian-Americans,” in Thomas Carter and Bernard L. Herman, eds. Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture III. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 185-198.
Jospeh Manzo. 1983. “Italian American Yard Shrines,” Journal of Cultural Geography, 4, 119-125.