Rainbow of Temples Grows in Queens

CAPTION (Photo by Carlos Rodriguez/ Voices of NY)

Reclining Buddha at Elmhurst temple Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell/Voices of NY)

Riding through Queens Boulevard or the elevated LIRR that crosses it near 76th Street, it’s easy to miss a deep blue and golden rooftop amidst an unremarkable skyline of family homes and low-rise projects. But attentive commuters will be rewarded.

Part brick building, part ornately ornamented temple, the Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram is one of the best examples of the impressive array and beauty of religious temples in Elmhurst. Wandering into its courtyard, the burbles of a quiet fountain wash away outside noises. A massive horizontal Buddha sprawls out across the back of the outdoor enclosure amidst shrines and smaller Buddha statues.

The Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram located in Elmhurst at 76-16 46th Avenue, is part brick building, part ornately ornamented temple.

The Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram located in Elmhurst at 76-16 46th Avenue, is part brick building, part ornately ornamented temple. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell/Voices of NY)

Seven monks currently live at the temple located in Elmhurst at 76-16 46th Avenue, which serves the neighborhood’s Thai community. Each morning the monks walk around the neighborhood holding out alms bowls, massive bronze offering dishes.

Single file the monks march begging for food and water. This ancient Buddhist tradition aims to make concrete the pact between the community, that helps sustain the monks physically, and the monks, who provide for the community spiritually.

“It’s not only Thai that offer food to us,” Nathapong Pummit, a 25-year-old monk who lives at the temple, said. “Sometimes [they’re from] Tibet, sometimes China, and sometimes American. Some offer food, some offer water.”

“The country is different [and] the weather is different so we walk about at 7:30 a.m.,” he said, explaining that if he was a monk in a secluded “forest temple” in Thailand he would have to set out at 5 a.m. in order to make it to the village.

­­Queens, touted as one the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the world, has long been known for its endless variety of ethnic food offerings, from dim sum to samosa to bandeja paisa.

The Geeta Temple Ashram on Corona Avenue in Elmhurst. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/ Voices of NY)

The Geeta Temple Ashram on Corona Avenue in Elmhurst. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/ Voices of NY)

Perhaps because of Queen’s competitive land prices for New York City standards, religious centers have been able to convert regular buildings into physical temples that mimic the worship centers of their mother countries. Interspersed between two-family homes and brick apartment buildings, these temples infuse a regular U.S. urban landscape with sites more common in countries on opposite ends of the globe.

The nearby electric-orange Hindu Geeta Temple Ashram on Corona Avenue faces a Mexican grocery store and taquería. It’s creamy luminescence stands out from the grey-brown of nearby buildings and tarmac.

“Energy for happiness,” Vijay Sandhir, 56, who works at the temple, said. “That’s why it’s so colorful.”

Geeta Temple explodes with every imaginable color and texture. Statues cloaked in bright and golden garb, fake flowers and wreaths, holiday lights, and plastic necklaces drape, decorate and cling to every surface. Inside the temple, statues don brilliant colors, and soothing red carpet draw in worshipers.

While most of the attendees hail from India, Sandhir insisted that Geeta Temple is multicultural.

“We’ve had Spanish people coming for meditation, Americans…buses come from Texas, Atlanta,” he said. “This is a real world free church open to everybody.”

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A worshipper at Elmhurst’s United Sherpa Association. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

With two cultures literally on top of one another, the United Sherpa Association inhabits a building that was once a Lutheran Church on the corner of 41st and 75th Avenues. The temple provides for the Sherpa community coming from Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.

Stripped of pews, the temple boasts wide-open waxy wooden floors fit for knelled prayer and meditation. A flamboyant wooden adornment transforms the outside entryway from church to temple with keen Himalayan flair.

A microcosm of the borough, Elmhurst in the heart of Queens, is a kaleidoscope of ethnicity. According to the 2008-2010 American Community Survey, 86.9 percent of Elmhurst residents spoke a language other than English at home, compared with the New York City average of 49 percent.

Inside the Geeta Temple Ashram in Elmhurst. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

Inside the Geeta Temple Ashram in Elmhurst there’s every imaginable color and texture. (Photo by Gwynne Hogan/Voices of NY)

That diversity is reflected in the work of one of the nation’s largest public libraries. When a language population exceeds 3,000, the local library branch incorporates media in that language, explained Fred Gitner, assistant director of the New Americans Program at the Queens Public Library.

“We already had collections there in Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Spanish and Tagalog and Urdu in varying sizes,” Gitner said of the Elmhurst’s library. Now, according to the neighborhood’s shifting populations, the branch will incorporate Thai and Indonesian as both immigrant communities just spiked over 3,000.

The colorful New York Hindu Sanatan Mandir Inc., near LaGuardia Airport. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez/Voices of NY)

The colorful New York Hindu Sanatan Mandir Inc., near LaGuardia Airport. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell/Voices of NY)

Elmhurst residents are of course used to rubbing elbows each day from people of all different stripes.

“No one bothers us, there’s no fighting. We live tranquilly,” said in Spanish Hilda Cerrano, 74, who hails from Puerto Rico originally. “Everyone lives in their separate house.”

Tina Kekakis, 52, agreed. “They don’t bother us. Everybody’s got their own beliefs,” she said.

The Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam in Flushing. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez.)

The Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam in Flushing. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell/Voices of NY.)

The diversity of temples of Elmhurst, which includes the imposing, pagoda-like Jain Center and the colorful New York Hindu Sanatan Mandir Inc. near LaGuardia Airport, are easily reachable along the 7 train.

But it’s hardly the only Queens spot for temple sightseeing. In nearby Flushing, the array of Eastern temples is also impressive, including the spectacular Hindu temple Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam on Bowne Street, which was built in 1977 by artisans from India, and is home to the Hindu Temple Society of North America.

The Hanmaum Korean Buddhist Temple is crowned with a lotus flower and a golden balloon. (Photo by Carlos Rodriguez Martorell/Voices of NY)

The Hanmaum Korean Buddhist Temple is crowned with a lotus flower and a golden balloon. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell/Voices of NY)

Also worth a visit is the mosque Masjid Hazrati Abu Bakr Siddique, with its towering blue dome and minaret, and the Hanmaum Korean Buddhist Temple located at 144-39 32nd Avenue, a stunning structure made of wood and crowned with a lotus flower and a golden balloon.

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The mosque Masjid Hazrati Abu Bakr Siddique, in Flushing. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell/Voices of NY)

Many of those sites can be easily reached by bike, and are part of the bike tours of Queens included in a city brochure.

“With more than 47 percent of our population born abroad, Queens is the most multiethnic county in the nation,” Queens Borough President Helen M. Marshall wrote in the 2013 Queens Immigrant Services Directory.

This is precisely what attracted people like Natalie Oretsky-Cohen, a native New Yorker who has traveled extensively and worked for the Peace Corps in China. Orestsky now lives in Woodside.

“This place has more culture than any place on earth,” Oretsky-Cohen, a veteran English as a Second Language teacher, said. “That’s why I came here.”

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