Bells start ringing, chanting begins and smoke slowly rises in the air as second-year University of British Columbia student Akhil Jobanputra offers prayers to the goddess Saraswati on the occasion of Vasant Panchmi — the arrival of spring.
But rather than taking place in what you might consider a traditional Hindu temple, this ceremony is occurring in Jobanputra’s Iona Drive apartment on the UBC campus.
The flat-screen television, piles of books and Settlers of Catan board game in the living room are a stark contrast to the full-fledged Hindu temple he has set up inches away, where idols of several gods and goddesses can be seen through the wisps of smoke.
Jobanputra regularly opens his house as a Hindu temple where pujas — Hindu prayer ceremonies — are held on certain occasions.
As there are no Hindu temples close to UBC, Jobanputra has helped the Hindu community in and around UBC remain close to their faith without having to travel too far.
“A few of my friends on campus were complaining that, for Diwali or for any big festivities, they had nowhere to go and all the temples are far from here,” he said. “I have my own apartment on campus and, either way, I perform the pujas and that’s when I thought it would be good to open it as a temple.”
The Saraswati puja on this day took place over almost two hours and included chanting and singing. The next puja is on Feb. 13 on the occasion of Shivaratri — in honour of Lord Shiva — and is expected to take up to five hours.
Building a community
Along with a few friends, Jobanputra started the UBC Mandir group on Facebook to share information about the Hindu tradition and the pujas he performs. This group is open to anyone interested in learning more about Hinduism.
Amongst those present at the Saraswati puja was Abhishek Dutta, a civil engineering PhD student at UBC who learned about Jobanputra’s temple through the group.
“I found out about this temple before coming to UBC through the UBC Mandir group,” he said. “I was interested in knowing about what kind of pujas happen and where it happens.”
The Saraswati puja is dedicated to the goddess Saraswati — the goddess of knowledge, music and art. On this occasion, students are coming together to seek her blessings for their endeavors in the year ahead.
“It’s the time when students — whatever they’re students of — come together to perform ceremonies to honour the goddess Saraswati, who brings a new knowledge during the spring time to bestow good strength and power going into the academic year for academic pursuits,” Jobanputra said.
Religion as identity
Jobanputra has been performing pujas since he was very young.
“I’ve been doing them ever since I was quite little very casually with my grandparents at home,” he said. “We did a small one every day, and then I started going to the temples.”
He says religion is now an important part of his identity.
“I think a part of it just formulated a part of my identity since I started on it so young,” he said. “I get a very homely feeling when I conduct a puja. I feel a connection to the past, to my culture, and all of that.”
Jobanputra says that pujas are elaborate ceremonies and require immense research.
“Depending on the tradition they come from, they have various different types of steps for unravelling the divine to enter the space in which the puja is being performed,” he said.
Jobanputra also teaches people how to perform these rituals.
“For each puja, I always have one or two other people who come and help me out,” he said, “They can also learn how to do it so that they could do it at their own homes.”
Focus and religion
Jobanputra says that performing pujas helps him focus.
“For me, it’s a way I can gain a lot of focus. It has served as a meditation technique for myself,” he said. “I also get a feeling of tranquility, peace of mind, and you just feel refreshed afterwards.”
He fasts on the day of the puja and believes that helps keep his mind on track.
“On the day that I conduct the puja, I also fast,” he said, “So my mind is very in the moment and it’s a good way to kind of just hone my thinking.”
Apart from just being religious ceremonies, pujas are also social events, he said
“It’s also social because it forms a means of bringing people together.”
Jobanputra says there are a few families who attend pujas at his place, but a majority of those who attend are students like Dutta.
“It’s definitely good motivation to go and pray if there’s a temple on campus,” said Dutta.
“I’m not somebody who can have a puja room at home, so it makes it easier to go and pray when there’s a temple in such close proximity,” he said. “At the same time, I think the feel that you get when you are in a holy surrounding is totally different.”