Outside a former church in Farmington, hundreds of people danced, their faces smeared with colorful powder.

The church is now Hindu Milan Mandir, and this month it hosted a spring Holi celebration. Revelers playfully smudged the powder called "gulal" on each other's faces — yellow, pink, orange, blue — and tossed it in the air. They ate biryani and kheer, among other dishes. A DJ spun dance music.

According to temple president Omkar "Bobby" Ghamandi, the rubbing of colors symbolizes a forgetting of differences and celebration of universal brotherhood, as everyone looks similar coated with powder.

It is also a festival meant to celebrate love and rejoice in spring.

"It's a very jolly time," said Satya Balroop, general secretary of Hindu Milan Mandir, Farmington's new temple. "Everyone's in a mode of hibernation, and a spark of spring comes. Spring brings life and color and beauty."

This was the temple's third year hosting a Holi celebration in Farmington, but its first since officially opening its doors in July. And it was the largest turnout by far, drawing 400 to 500 people, members said.

"Each year, it's getting larger and larger," said Ghamandi.

The temple got its start 15 years ago, when Balroop, recently moved from New York, started hosting prayers in her Eagan living room. But the gathering outgrew that space and Balroop moved it to the family's detached garage, a location roughly the size of the new temple's lobby. It was so small they struggled even to find a place to put people's shoes, said Tara Jeffrey, of Apple Valley, a member of the executive board.

"This is humongous compared to that," she said of the new temple. "We were waiting a long time, looking around."

Several years ago, Balroop had been working at Lockheed Martin when its Eagan location closed.

"After that happened," she said, "I decided it's time for me to get the temple out of the yard and into the public."

She devoted her time to looking at churches for sale, most of them way too pricey, until she came across the former church at 501 Walnut St. in Farmington that had sat empty for three years.

Balroop said she "couldn't believe a church was in this condition."

The sanctuary's roof leaked, the basement was damp, and the auditorium needed new flooring. Still, the 18,000 square feet would give them plenty of space.

"There's so much potential," said Jeffrey. "This was like a gift to us."

Temple volunteers organized fundraisers and solicited donations from the congregation. They managed to raise $40,000 while a generous contractor who said he could wait a year for payment worked on the building.

'Local feeling'

While there is a large Hindu temple in Maple Grove, Hindu Milan Mandir is the only one of its kind in the south metro.

"We needed one," said Sunil Somani, of Eagan. "This gives a more local feeling. We can bring the family more often. The community is also expanding in this area."

The temple holds weekly Sunday services and is open every day, as it is common practice for people to stop by and say a prayer at various times during the week.

On evenings and weekends, the temple offers classes on topics like playing the sitar, Hindu language, and meditation. In their previous location, classes like yoga had to wait until warmer months "when we could spread out on the lawn," said Balroop.

The temple also has plans to do cultural shows with dancing and singing several times a year. The next one happens April 25 at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis.

Ghamandi said Hindu Milan Mandir would eventually like to open a soup kitchen for the general public on the last Sunday of every month.

The temple also has a worship area with bibles for Christians.

"We feel God is one," said Balroop, who went to a Lutheran school in British Guiana as a child. "We're all trying to get to that destination. We just all choose different routes."

Ghamandi admits the congregation is small, especially during cold months. The building requires five furnaces to heat it, so they close the main sanctuary and hold services in the smaller library to save on heating costs in cold weather.

But Ghamandi said some of the larger spiritual celebrations tend to draw crowds of 100 to 200 people.

"You grow slowly, you know," he said.

"We're still new," said Balroop. "We're still in the baby stage."

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer. Her e-mail is lizannrolfsmeier@gmail.com.