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How a spectacular Hindu temple in Hawaii began as a dream in San Francisco

A white temple made of granite and topped with gold decorations sits in a tropical clearing.
The sun shines down on the golden spires of the Iraivan Temple at Kauai’s Hindu Monastery in Kapaa, Hawaii. The temple is made entirely of hand-carved granite and took 33 years to build. | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

It is the only all-granite, hand-carved Hindu temple in the West built without power tools or electricity, and it’s nestled on one of the smaller islands in Hawaii surrounded by lush gardens and forests.

On the island of Kauai, the presence of the Iraivan Temple—a white granite edifice with gold-leafed domes modeled after millennia-old temples in South India—is unexpected and stunning. Fewer than 1% of Hawaii’s 1.4 million residents are Hindus, and on Kauai, the number of Hindus may not even exceed 50, according to some estimates.

Perhaps even more unexpected and stunning is the story of how the temple came to be.

It began with a man named Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, who was born in 1927 in California as Robert Hansen. From an early age, he was interested in yoga and dance, and joined the San Francisco Ballet at age 19.

A man in an orange robes climbs rocks alongside a river in a tropical jungle.
Paramacharya Sadasivanatha Palaniswami climbs the rocks along the Wailua River, which is sacred to many Native Hawaiians, at Kauai's Hindu monastery. The monastery was founded by guru Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami in 1970. | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

But he didn’t stay long. World War II was coming to a close, and Hansen got on a ship for India.

In northern Sri Lanka, he sought out a spiritual teacher, and Guru Yogaswami initiated him into Shaivism, a major tradition within Hinduism that holds Lord Shiva as the supreme being. Yogaswami instructed him to build “a bridge between the east and west,” said Paramacharya Sadasivanatha Palaniswami, a monk who studied with Subramuniyaswami.

In the late 1960s, the two men came to the Kauai community of Kapaa. Subramuniyaswami “felt the sacred pull” of the Kauai property while on a retreat there, the monk said. It was a rundown Tropical Inn resort at the time.

Two men in orange robes on the veranda of a temple.
Paramacharya Sadasivanatha Palaniswami listens to Pravinkumar Vasudeva, right, who serves as priest of Iraivan Temple in Kapaa, Hawaii. | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

33 Years to Build, All by Hand

The Iraivan Temple was inspired by the founder’s mystical vision of Lord Shiva seated on a large boulder. Construction began in 1990 and continued after the founder’s death in 2001. The word “Iraivan” means “he who is worshipped” in Tamil, a language spoken about 8,000 miles away in southern India.

The monks created an entire village in India for the artisans who hand-built the temple over the last 33 years, said Palaniswami, who has spent decades supervising the temple’s construction and tending to its gardens.

“Our guru believed that electricity brings a magnetic force field and a psychic impact,” he said. “It’s like when the power goes out during a storm, something different happens when there is no electricity. There is a certain quiet, a calmness.”

Illuminated only by oil lamps, Iraivan has no fans or air-conditioning. Its architectural style is from the Chola Dynasty, which ruled parts of what is now South India and Sri Lanka for about 1,500 years, starting in 300 B.C.

About two dozen monks live at the all-male temple-monastery complex, which draws pilgrims and seekers from around the globe.

A man in a white top and pants works in a woodworking shop.
Acharya Kumarnathaswami shapes a piece of wood at the Hindu monastery. | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

The main deity is the 700-pound quartz crystal shivalingam, an abstract representation of Shiva. The campus also houses Kadavul Temple dedicated to Shiva in the cosmic dancer form, or Nataraja.

Priest Pravinkumar Vasudeva arrived in March, when the temple—3,600 stones, pillars and beams made with roughly 3.2 million pounds of granite—was consecrated. He is still amazed it stands on this tiny island.

“In India, you could possibly build something like this, but it hasn’t been done,” he said. “Here, it is nearly impossible, but it has been done.”

Aligning With Native Hawaiian Spirits

To Native Hawaiians, the plot of land was known as Pihanakalani, or “the fullness of heaven.” Cognizant of that connection, Subramuniyaswami wanted to make sure the new temple aligned with Native Hawaiian spirits.

So 35 years ago, he reached out to Lynn Muramoto, a local Buddhist leader who had navigated a similar situation. She is the president of the Lawai International Center on Kauai, which is home to 88 Shingon Buddhist shrines on an ancient sacred site where Hawaiians once came for healing.

She visited the temple site with the late Abraham Kawai’i, a revered Hawaiian spiritual practitioner, or kahu, and witnessed the “deeply moving” moment when Kawai’i called the location “perfect.”

A gray statue of an elephant god stands in a lush forest.
A statue of the Hindu god Ganesha stands in the forest of Kauai's Hindu monastery. | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

Sabra Kauka, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner on Kauai, said she was “a little aghast” in the beginning, but then consulted Aunty Momi Mo’okini Lum, her calabash aunt who is descended from Moikeha, the chief from Tahiti who built Pihanakalani some 1,000 years ago. Lum told her the monks had the means to take care of the land in perpetuity. “And so I laid down my concerns,” she said.

Kauka praised the monks’ landscaping, from plant choices to controlling invasive species.

“The very fact that we have people on this island who care for our historic places, realize the value of them and are taking care of them in an exquisite way is remarkable,” Kauka said.

Subramuniyaswami prioritized fostering connections across the island’s faith traditions. These relationships have stretched beyond Kauai, and continue today.

Following the deadly Maui wildfires in August, Palaniswami said, the temple helped connect Hindu donors to local groups leading recovery efforts.

People sit cross-legged on a veranda.
Devajyothi Kondapi, right, a pilgrim who visits from Oregon a few times a year, meditates in the Iraivan Temple as her husband practices a chant. Kondapi believes the monks, their discipline and authenticity make it "a divine place." | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

Finding the ‘Center of Yourself’

The monastery-temple complex, accessible via a public gate, also helps connect visitors to something greater. Devajyothi Kondapi from Portland, Oregon, has only heard stories about great saints and sages in ancient India who blessed and sanctified the land.

“Here, I feel their presence,” she said during a recent visit, a trip she makes a couple times a year. “What makes this a divine place is the monks’ discipline.”

The monks, who take vows of celibacy, nonviolence and vegetarianism, are guided and inspired by the philosophy of Shaivism. They live in huts and begin their day with 4 a.m. worship and meditation, followed by gardening, woodworking, cooking and other tasks. They do not speak about their prior lives.

Small brick huts surrounded by tropical trees.
The monks of Kauai's Hindu monastery sleep in 10-by-10 huts. Their day begins at 4 a.m. with temple worship and guided meditation. | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

Beyond the temple itself, one of their most significant projects took eight years to complete. In the 1990s, the monks digitized agamas, or ancient Shaivite texts etched on palm leaves, Palaniswami said.

They preserved these fragile texts, or as Palaniswami calls them, a Shaivite “user manual of sorts,” and made the digitized version public. Now anyone can read Shaivite instructions on everything from running a temple and celebrating festivals to preparing meals and managing a family.

The Shaivite tradition is one that blends theism (belief in gods) and monism, the belief in one supreme being, said Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, the order’s current leader. The end goal is to attain oneness with the supreme being.

“A beautiful, holy place has the catalytic power to help you find that sacredness within.”

Sannyasin Tillainathaswami, a monk who has lived here for more than a decade, said the ancient practice drew him in because it delves deep into the meaning of one’s existence.

“If you find the center of yourself, you’ve found that which is the center of everything,” he said.

A stone sculpture is surrounded by thick tropical trees.
A statue of Lord Muruga, the Hindu god of war, son of Shiva and brother of Ganesha, sits in the middle of a meditation space under a banyan tree at the monastery. | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

Trees Grow From Seedlings to Over 100 Feet

Over the last 50 years, Palaniswami, who knows every sector of the 382-acre grounds, has carved out tranquil spaces conducive to meditation and reflection. The monk wears flowing saffron robes and a fluffy silver beard. His hair is gathered in a bun atop his head, adorned with a red hibiscus bloom. Streaks of sacred ash mark his forehead, accentuated with a vermilion dot in the middle.

On most days, Palaniswami, who also runs the order’s website and publications department, drives a golf cart along the winding pathways tending to the flora—plumeria, orchids, hibiscus, passion fruit, redwood, lotuses and herbs.

Along with his guru, he planted 108 Rudraksha trees, which are native to Nepal and rarely seen in the West. The word “Rudraksha” in Sanskrit means “the tear of Shiva.” The trees bear cerulean fruit, and their seeds are used for prayer, meditation and protection.

A man with a white beard in an orange robe sits in front of tall trees.
Paramacharya Sadasivanatha Palaniswami stands at the base of a Rudraksha tree, which produces a bright blue fruit. | Source: Jessie Wardarski/Associated Press

“Shiva was in heaven and looked down on the earth, and when he saw the plight of humans, it so moved him that he wept a tear that rolled off his cheek and fell to the earth,” Palaniswami said. “From that tear grew the first Rudraksha tree.”

The trees started as 3-inch seedlings about 45 years ago, and now tower over 100 feet with thick roots. The monks pressure-wash the seeds, stringing them into meditation malas, worn as a reminder of Shiva’s compassion, said Palaniswami, who plans to build a public meditation room.

For Veylanswami, the order’s leader, his favorite campus meditation spot is where a gentle waterfall meets the gushing Wailua River, which is sacred to some Native Hawaiians.

There, he says, he feels a transformative power, especially when he chants Shiva’s name.

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with the Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.