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Hindu temple in Town 'n Country: Persecution is making us move

TOWN 'N COUNTRY

A spiritual alliance could be assumed when an organic farm and a Hindu temple share a boundary.

And it was so for the first three years, says Chris Chooyick, priest at Shree Mariamman Kali Temple, which sits just north of Hillsborough Avenue next to Sweetwater Organic Community Farm.

The curious on either side ventured across the property line. They welcomed each other and shared food.

But two years ago, complaints began to pile up against Chooyick, delivered by county code enforcers. Garbage and pennants and banners and loud drumming. Worship in unpermitted buildings. And every year, at a festival called Karagam Puja — a sacrificed goat.

Chooyick said people from the farm pelted the temple with beer cans and told him to go back to his country.

Rick Martinez, founder of the farm, said he never filed a complaint against the temple and he's not sure why Chooyick suspects him. Martinez is reluctant to talk about it. He doesn't want the dispute to escalate.

The problem, Martinez said, is between Chooyick and the county.

But Chooyick says his neighbors on both sides are ousting him from the spot. He calls it religious persecution. He isn't sure how he will hold his Friday night classes with the teens he is keeping off the streets, or where the dozens of Sunday worshipers will go.

But he's leaving as soon as he can.

• • •

It started two years ago, when a couple on their way to get organic vegetables passed by the small, unassuming house in front of the temple and saw a trail of blood on sidewalks leading behind.

They could see some kind of monument in the back yard.

"It was bizarre and disgusting," said Mark Nonnenberg. "I couldn't believe it."

Worried, he called the Hillsborough County code enforcement office and lodged the first complaint about the property at 6949 W Mohawk Ave.

The blood on the sidewalk was from a goat Chooyick killed as a sacrifice during an annual festival called Karagam Puja.

Chooyick, 37, is from Guyana and his religion is Madasi Hinduism, originating from southern India, he said.

His religion is not unlike others, he said. In some ways, it's like Buddhism. In Christianity, he said it is most like Catholicism. He worships the goddess Mariamman Kali, a version of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

He points to the Bible story of Abraham, who God asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and then substituted a lamb.

He explained his sacrifice to county officials.

Killing a goat as part of a religious ceremony does not violate any county codes, said Jim Blinck, operations manager for Hillsborough County code enforcement.

Still, Chooyick said he will not do it again. He will only kill for meat for his wife and three children.

• • •

And so the festival, held again last weekend at the temple, went without a sacrifice. Goat meat is typically blessed and used to break the fast. Before the festival, worshipers abstain from meat, fish, alcohol and sex for up to 30 days to purify themselves.

The religion teaches spiritual healing, karma and reincarnation, Chooyick said.

An "om" symbol is painted over the door to the temple, and inside 15 marble statues of deities sit on altars.

Worshipers sing, drum, dance, burn incense and offer food and money to the gods. On the first night of the festival, the men trekked to Sweetwater Creek, where they built pyramids of grass and flowers that young boys carried back on their heads to the gods. They invoked the gods to keep the "village" surrounding them safe.

Chooyick led the singing. Between songs, he complimented the crowd of 50 on their fine clothes, which were sure to impress the deity, he said.

He had been ready to close the temple a few days earlier, he said, until he could build a new one a block away on land he had bought. It would take many months to complete. He had not slept because of the pressure from the county. But he decided to continue having services at the temple.

"We have to protect our religion and karma," Chooyick said. "By the grace of God we will have our new temple. I promise you all that. Whatever it takes."

• • •

In the months after that first citation, more followed, each filed anonymously. Chooyick installed exit signs and a fire extinguisher in the temple. He moved his Dumpster inside the chain-link fence and took down the flags.

He couldn't fix others.

A church is permitted under any zoning in the county, but it requires 20,000 square feet of land. The temple sits on 13,000. And the structure used for the temple doesn't have a valid permit.

He could apply for a variance, said Blinck, from code enforcement. He could apply for a permit.

Blinck visited the temple last month during a service. Chooyick stopped praying and invited Blinck to see the gods dressed in bright colors, with fresh fruits stacked before them.

Blinck said the complaints of loud music "may have been exaggerated a bit."

The case stood out to him as unusual.

"Unusual because we couldn't bring it into compliance," Blinck said. "I look at it as we failed."

Blinck said Chooyick's biggest problem is that he doesn't own the property.

Arjune Mathura lives in Orlando and rents the property to Chooyick.

In September, the county started assessing fines against the property at more than $1,000 a day.

Mathura said he rented the property to Chooyick because he wanted to promote the religion. He said he has tried to comply with the county, but officials have not guided him.

Last week, Mathura got a letter from the county giving him 10 days to terminate the electricity to the temple or the county would have the utility company remove power to the structure.

He says he will wait to see what happens next. Without electricity, they cannot function, Mathura said.

Chooyick called an electrician to help him work with the county to keep the power on until he can finish the new temple.

But Chooyick has had many extensions, Blinck said.

"I can't give him any more time."

Chooyick says he just needs a safe place for his congregation to worship.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Hindu temple in Town 'n Country: Persecution is making us move 05/09/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 5:41pm]
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