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Jains flock to Queens to consecrate temple

An Elmhurst temple was the site of one of the most holy rituals in the Jain religion and thousands of worshipers from around the world gathered there to take part in the ceremony.

The Jain Center of America Inc. New York, at 43-11 Ithaca St., held a Shri Ashtapadji Pratishtha Mahotsav ceremony inside its four-story temple that was converted into a replica of the Astapad Tirth, a Jain temple that was lost in the Himalayas centuries ago. The event marks the consecration of the religion’s 24 Tirthankars, or statues of gods, and will enable Jain members in the New York City area to pray to them any time they want.

Ninten Ajmera, who works at the temple, said 2,000 worshipers from parts as far away as Australia visited the center to take part in the weeklong ceremony.

“The event is very holy. Standing here will give you such good vibes,” he said.

The center was converted to replicate the Ashtapad temple which has been revered by Jains for centuries since it was one of the earliest temples of the religion and has been lost deep in the Himalayas. It was there that the original 24 idols were placed, according to Ajmera.

During the Queens celebration, worshipers walked their way up the mountain, or in this case the temple’s four stories, clearing their souls of imperfection as they prayed to each of the gods.

Each floor represented a different event associated in the life of the Tirthankar, Garbh (conception), Janma (birth), Tapa (austerities), Gyan (omniscience) and Moksha (liberation).

“Having a Astapad is a sense of pride here,” Ajmera said.

The idols were carved with special gemstones imported from India, using specifications according to their scriptures. The head of the temple then recited a special prayer over the idols for it to be fully consecrated.

Adit Shah, 15, of Sunnyside, said he was amazed by the number of people who came to see the Tirthankars and felt a strong sense of spirituality by seeing them installed in the temple.

“It’s one of the closest replicas of the original idols,” he said.

The Jain religion is one of the oldest forms of worship in the world, going back to the sixth century B.C., according to Ajmera. Worshipers are taught to be respectful of all life on the planet, including insects, and are strict vegetarians.

Some Jain monks even wear masks and sweep the ground to avoid harming insects.

Although it is most popular in southeast Asia, the religion is practiced by nearly 10 million people around the world, he said.

In Queens, Ajmera said there are approximately 7,000 Jains in Rego Park and Flushing.

Pusha Mehta, 80, of Connecticut, who came to the ceremony with her family, said the Pratishtha is a rare event since there are not many Jain temples in the United States.

“I’m speechless,” the Indian immigrant said. “It’s such a beautiful temple.”

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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