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God Eats Veggie Burgers

by Natasha Thakkar

TODAY God will eat veggie burgers minus the onion and garlic. He will eat eggless cake, small deep-fried tortillas or puris, caramel apples, and a traditional rice pudding called kheer. He will eat pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches and gulab jamun, or condensed-milk dumplings fried to a golden brown and soaked in saffron syrup. In front of the Lord Swaminarayan, on the marble steps inside the new Chino Hills Cultural Center and Temple lies a spread of more than 100 special dishes made by the hands of over 500 Chino Hills Hindu Temple volunteers. Lord Swaminarayan surveys this offering. He is as tall as a three-year-old child and carved from glossy white marble. His arms are swirled with crystal tattoos of lotus flowers and other traditional designs. He is adorned in a light blue silk robe embroidered with golden thread. From His neck hangs a gold necklace so large it looks like armor. He is a king in His palace.

Lord Swaminarayan sits on His throne above and away from those who worship him. The food He has been offered is all around, garnished with flowers and fruit cut to look like fragrant bouquets. He looks out into the crowd; His innocent brown doe eyes are intensified by painted-on green eye shadow. His left hand is extended, upturned with His red painted nails hidden and henna-painted palm facing out as if to say, Welcome to my home, my Chino Hills palace. But this is not actually His Chino Hills palace. It is a temporary residence. His palace will be made of the finest Italian marble shipped from Italy, and pink sandstone from Udaipur, India. It will stand 71 feet tall. It will be carefully carved and assembled by the hands of professional carvers flown in from Rajasthan, India. And it will rise from the sand lot next door, which is currently fenced off by green plastic canvas and covered in caked dirt.


Approximately 200 Hindus have come to worship the Lord Swaminarayan on Hindu New Year’s Day at His makeshift home on the newly extended Fairfield Ranch Road in Chino Hills. When I first entered the reception hall turned temporary temple, my quiet steps must have made too much noise. Instantly, I felt all 200 pairs of intense ebony eyes on my comparatively white skin. Groups of women packed the reception hall draped in sequined traditional cloth or saris. Their bangles clinked in harmony and their chunky jewelry, studded with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds, caught the light as they shuffled around urgently trying to find a spot on the marble floor. Young girls, barely seven years old, ran around in chiming anklets, shimmering beaded leggings, matching short dresses, and sheer pieces of cloth or dupattas tied across their shoulders like beauty queen sashes. I made no such sounds, in my black leggings and dark blue shirt, and my minimalist silver heart-shaped pendant and stud earrings did not catch the light; yet my presence was felt.

I stood awkwardly in the reception hall and looked around. The entire hall appeared to have been blanketed in a dark-chocolate Burmese teak lace filled with flowers, peacocks and religious symbols. I find one that is familiar to me, the “Om;” it looks like a “3” with a tail attached to its midsection. With hundreds of my own kind around me, I should have felt more at home than ever. But I didn’t. Between the colorful food in front of me and the chocolate-colored arches behind me, I felt as if I had been transported to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. If only Wonka had been a religious Hindu, he might have liked this place.


The reception hall is now packed with people sitting knee-to-knee. I struggle to sit comfortably on the icy marble floors and wonder how the girl in front of me is sitting with silver anklets digging into her soft, brown flesh. My eyes move from her ankles to the grandmothers and mothers around me. I smile at the sight of Western influences that unknowingly taint the ceremony about to take place: grandmothers struggle to silence their fancy cell phones, a device still foreign to most of them despite its popularity; and mothers try to quiet their children with Halloween candy from two nights ago pulled from their purses as they crane their necks to watch the monk prepare for today’s auspicious prayers. Unlike priests in America who confine their wardrobe to the mundane black or white, the monk, or Swami as he is called by his followers, is dressed in bright-saffron robes; a boxy saffron hat covers his balding head, and a rosary is draped around his neck. He is careful not to face the crowd of women because it is against the rules. Looking at a woman poses a danger: one might feel desire, and a Swami must remain celibate.
Soon the clock strikes noon and the Swami starts ringing his small bell, signaling that the prayers for God’s New Year’s Feast are about to start. The last few women scramble in and sit down as the large wooden doors are shut. Hymns begin to play over the loudspeakers hidden in the wooden carvings, and slowly everybody closes their eyes. Everybody, that is, except me. They sway side-to-side with the melodies, like a calm river, clapping softly to the rhythms. I sit there, static, like a rock in this peaceful river, my hands clutching my notebook as if it were a lifesaver.
Never have I felt less Indian.



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