Fifteen years ago, the Twin Cities Hindu community built an elegant temple in the cornfields outside Maple Grove, a $9.5 million architectural gem that it hoped would attract the state's small but growing Hindu faithful.

Since then, the Hindu Society of Minnesota temple has become a religious, social and cultural center for the state's 50,000 Hindus, as well as a popular destination for student groups, tourists and ordinary Minnesotans who want to learn more about one of the state's least-known faiths.

A three-day celebration to mark the temple's 15th anniversary is slated for this weekend, and organizers are inviting the public to learn more about a religion embraced by 1 billion people around the globe.

Building the Maple Grove temple, one of the largest in the nation, was a leap of faith, members admit.

"When we built this, we didn't know if there would be a lot of people coming to visit," said Raj Balasubramanian, a Hindu society trustee. "And we wanted to leave a rich legacy for the younger generation, but we didn't know if they would be interested."

But the younger generation indeed has been interested, he said. That, along with the growing Indian community in the Twin Cities, has resulted in the temple's success "beyond our expectations," he said.

Balasubramanian, who moved to the Twin Cities in 1968, is still amazed at the transformation that has occurred over the past decades in the metro area. Fifty years ago, he belonged to a small group of Hindu families that met inside a house to worship and pray. There were no temples.

"There were so few Hindus that we would go through the White Pages and look for Indian names, trying to find others," he laughed. "We'd call and say, 'Hi. I'm so-and-so. Would you like to get together some time?"

One God, many faces

A visit to the temple offers a glimpse into Hindu religious life. The ornate building contains mini-temples to 21 deities, adorned in brightly colored clothing and reflecting regional traditions across India.

On a recent Sunday morning, several Hindu priests were performing a ritual before an icon of the deities Vishnu and Garuda. They stood in front of the 8-foot figure, chanting and offering flower petals, water, a breeze from a fan in an ancient tradition. The icon was later hoisted on the shoulders of a half-dozen men and carried in a procession around the building.

All the icons in the temple were crafted by artisans in India and transported to Minnesota. They represent all parts of India, so that people can pray to the same deities they grew up with back home, said Pooja Bastodkar, president of the Hindu Society of Minnesota.

With so many gods and goddesses — and there are thousands — many people have misconceptions about the Hindu faith, said Bastodka.

"The main misconception is that Hindus worship a lot of different gods," she said. "We tell people that we worship just one God, but that there are different manifestations of divine energy."

Another mistaken belief, she said, is that all Hindus are alike. But Hindus, much like Christians, Jews and Muslims, often differ by region and maintain their own unique traditions.

The Maple Grove temple is the centerpiece of a broader complex on the 60-acre property.

"Here we have our auditorium, where we hold cultural events," said Sita Kantha Dash, Hindu Society chairman, pointing out a 1,200-seat auditorium in a building attached to the temple.

"This is our dining hall," he said, gesturing to a large room across the hall. "These are the classrooms we're using for Sunday school." He noted that the number of children has increased from about a dozen in 2006 to as many as 300 today.

Outside the building, Dash set his gaze on a row of condominiums built for the temple priests, a large solar array that generates power for the property, and a new smaller temple — the Gundicha Mandir — that will be inaugurated next weekend on the property.

The Hindu Society's master plan, extending 10 to 15 years, also calls for building 24 to 28 units of community housing, a larger auditorium, an education center and a yoga center.

Balasubramanian is particularly proud of the solar array, which he said is one of the largest in the Twin Cities.

"One of the philosophies of the Hindu religion is 'Do no harm,' " he said. "Not just to living beings, but to the environment. If you go to our kitchen area, you'll see the things we have are biodegradable or reusable. We want to make sure our carbon footprint is small."

Celebration ahead

The kitchenware and cooks will be in big demand next weekend, as the Hindu Society hosts its anniversary celebration on June 11-13.

Gov. Tim Walz is scheduled to attend the Saturday morning event. He's among many political and civic leaders that the temple has developed relations with over the years.

Visitors will have the chance to see the temple, sample Indian meals, attend a Saturday classical dance performance and participate in other events.

During the last temple anniversary celebration in 2019 — last year's event was canceled due to COVID-19 — about 5,000 people a day came to the temple, including Hindus from out of state, Balasubramanian said. "There's a lot of excitement" right now, he said.

"Minnesota has been good to us," added Dash.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511