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Holding on to Their Heritage

IACCT members, clockwise from top left, Brij Bhargava, Vijay Mehta, Vijay Sood and Sujatha Krishnamurthy, pose outside the temple in Portage.
Indo-Americans preserve, practice and share their traditions

Roughly 2 percent of Kalamazoo County’s population is Asian Indian, but when it comes to preserving, practicing and sharing their culture with their adopted community, this small group is quite mighty.


From Diwali festivals to religious observances to classes, the hub of this activity is the Indo American Cultural Center & Temple (IACCT), at 2002 Ramona Ave., in Portage. The organization serves as a religious and cultural center for 600 families and for 450 university students from India and Nepal who are living in the Kalamazoo area and is also a principal gathering place for three other related organizations: The India Association of Kalamazoo (IAK), The Kalamazoo Satsang Mandal and the Gujarati Cultural Association of Kalamazoo.


IACCT is a nonprofit organization supported by the community it serves, according to its board officers. Its purpose is to establish and maintain a place of worship for people who have religious persuasions of Asian Indian origin and to promote and preserve the rich social and cultural traditions of India.


It also presents Indo-American cultural identity to non-Indians by opening religious ceremonies and festivals to the public, offering yoga and meditation classes, fundraising for humanitarian causes, and opening the temple facility, including the kitchen and dining hall, to the public.


“We are part of America. We are Americans too now,” says Sujatha Krishnamurthy, outreach coordinator for the IACCT.


Temple board President Brij Bhargava, who came to the U.S. in 1971 at the age of 26, says each word of the Indo American Cultural Center & Temple name is significant, reflecting its various goals: “To include the American part for our kids who are born here, … to have cultural identity with our homeland, … and to have a temple for religious needs.”


For the most part, the organization’s celebrations and rituals relate to Hindu traditions, but Indo-Americans also honor other religions that originated in India: Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism


“I get joy in keeping connected with my traditions and cultural values, but when I came here from India at age 24, in 1969 (before the temple), I didn’t have a place to keep those cultural connections, especially for our children, our future generations,” says Vijay Sood, IACCT board chair. “I asked, ‘How are we going to fulfill their religious needs?’”


Sood taught her children at home, “but it was not the same as celebrating together at a common place,” she says.


Teaching youth is a mission carried out throughout the organization. “I take pride in teaching Bal Vikas (Sanskrit for “Blossoming of the Child”), which is like Sunday school, with an emphasis on scriptures and bhajans (hymns),” says Krishnamurthy, who emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1984. “Others teach classical dance, music, and languages such as Hindi and Telugu.”


This emphasis on youth also extends to many international students from India in the Kalamazoo area, most of whom attend Western Michigan University. “We are blessed when students who are out of their homeland come to the temple to participate, socialize and possibly make some friends,” says Bhargava.

For several years, IACCT has also taken Indo-American culture to local schools, presenting Indian religion and traditions to students at WMU, Kalamazoo College and Gull Lake High School and participating in Cultural Day at Moorsbridge Elementary in Portage.


Of course, food is also a central way of sharing the culture as well. At the temple, food is usually a principal component of celebrations. “It’s a part of our Indian culture,” Sood says. “It is our way to say thanks to God for providing us with all these opportunities, and it is a time to socialize and meet new people.”

Visiting the Temple
Interested in visiting the Indo-American Cultural Center & Temple? Learn what you might experience in our exclusive online story here.


The temple’s facility manager, Vijay Mehta, is a pillar among Indo-Americans in this area. Mehta left India in 1960, at age 19, to study in London and in 1965 came to the Kalamazoo area, where he was employed for 30 years as a superintendent at the Vicksburg paper mill. For more than 50 years, he has served in various positions within the Indo-American community, including as president of the India Association of Kalamazoo (IAK). The IAK was formed in 1968 to provide social and cultural events for Indo-Americans and met at various places on the WMU campus for movies, art exhibits and concerts.

“There were no Indian restaurants then. We used to have a Diwali festival (a festival of lights) at the Kalamazoo Expo Center, and we would invite the public,” Mehta says of the IAK’s early years. “Several hundred people came, (including) Americans came who had never tasted Indian food before.”


The creation of the IAACT came about in the 1990s because many members of the IAK saw “that our families wanted a place to celebrate the religious festivals that are celebrated in India,” says Bhargava. Some people hosted gatherings in their homes, but, he says, “They were asking, ‘Why can’t we have a temple where we can celebrate all these festivals together?’”


Thus inspired, a search began for property on which to build a temple with the architectural design of traditional Indian temples. “We worked out the details — what it should look like, how big it should be,” says Bhargava. “We looked at different localities and lands all over the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek area, and we estimated the cost to build to be about $1 million.”


The community decided, based on its size then, that they could not raise that much money. Instead, they searched for an existing structure and in 1996 took ownership of the First Missionary Baptist Church on Ramona Avenue. During renovations that included painting murals of Hindu deities, the temple was open for prayer a half hour each day. As the group’s financial support grew, they purchased marble statues from India that were installed in the prayer room during a week-long celebration in 2001.


A major addition in 2008 expanded the structure by 3,300 square feet, providing space for an entrance foyer, elevator, updated kitchen and dining area, a classroom and a multi-purpose activity room.
The building’s brass sikhara tower, crafted in India, was installed in 2009, replacing the former church’s steeple, which was donated to a church in Three Rivers.


Sood explains that the membership of both the IACCT and the IAK are basically the same people. “The IACCT serves as a place of prayer and worship that meets the religious and spiritual needs, whereas the IAK focus is on social, entertainment and cultural activities,” says Sood.


Traditionally, IACCT celebrates poojas (prayer and worship ceremonies) on the days designated by the Hindu lunar calendar, while IAK hosts major events primarily on weekends. All these events are open to the public.


For example, this month IACCT will celebrate Diwali — the Festival of Light — which symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance — with a ceremony at the temple on Nov. 12. The pooja will start at 6 p.m. and will last about 45 minutes.


IAK will celebrate Diwali with a dance recital performed by Indo-American children and adults dressed in colorful saris (women’s outer garments that are draped around the body), salwar kameez (a combination of trousers that narrow at the ankle and a long tunic), and kurtas (loose, collarless shirts or tunics) from 4:30-7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at Chenery Auditorium. Admission is $10 for non-members ages 12 and up and $5 for members. Approximately 500 people attended this event in 2022.


Regardless of the distinctions between IAK and IACCT, the two organizations complement and synchronize with each other.


“We are all one Indo-American community,” says Krishnamurthy.

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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