Hindus finding acceptance in Switzerland

Switzerland’s image of a neutral, friendly nation took a hit in 2009, after voters decided to ban the construction of minarets in the country; a move that drew some populist praise, and much international criticism.  Religious groups and government officials have since tried to embrace projects and initiatives more toward tolerance and inclusiveness outside of political campaigns.  One group seeing the fruit of that work has been the Hindu community, many of whom in the last decades have gone from polarizing asylum seekers to accepted community members—now with their first stand-alone temple, inaugurated this month. (MAY)  Tony Ganzer reports.

Horns and drums are used to purify the air in this newly inaugurated Hindu temple in Trimbach—about halfway between Zurich and Basel.  Dozens of the Hindu faithful have come to take part in celebrations that began about seven weeks ago.

Priests perform puja, or religious rituals to install shrines and venerate the gods in the first stand-alone Hindu temple in Switzerland.

“You see they are clothed by servants. They will be bathed with liquids, milk or oil or water, during the puja—the puja is the service,” says Andreas Tunger, a researcher in religious studies at the University of Lucerne. “People would come here, take a look at the goddess, pray quietly for themselves, turn around a small shrine, have another look and go to the next shrine.”

Nearby are fruits: “offerings for the gods,” Tunger says.

Hindu Temple

Much of Switzerland’s Hindu population is Tamil, a community which came here in the 80s and 90s seeking asylum from Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. 

At that time, tabloids played up stories of alleged drug rings involving Tamils, and the Tamil community’s relationship to the Swiss was difficult.

But a slow process of integration and acceptance began in the mid-90s.  Swiss businesses, especially restaurants and hospitals, began hiring more and more Tamil labor, which was often much cheaper than hiring native workers.

In this news report from the 1990s a Swiss restaurant worker praises how quickly the Tamils learn, and how eager to work they are—in just a few years the community became an integral part of the Swiss labor force.  They were happy to take jobs, even low-paying ones, to start the path to more acceptance.

“We also very happy of the Swiss people mentality.  Because in another land..I don’t like to say the other land, we can’t build any temple.  But here they respect our religion,” says Saseetharen Ramakrishna Sarma, a Hindu priest. 

He says in recent times there have been important milestones for Hindus in Switzerland. 

Late last year the city of Lucerne granted permission for Hindus to perform their own burial rites.  It means they can now scatter ashes at a particular spot in the Reuss River.

“That is very important, before we had many difficulties with the ash,” he says. “We had to take the ash to Sri Lanka, India, but now it is no problem, we can do that here.  And also we try to build another temple, but not with a tower.”

Sarma says Switzerland’s previous vote to ban minarets has made Hindus think twice about what they build or request, though it’s unclear if there would be any official objection. 

Still, the religious leaders here want to focus on their worship and not politics. 

“This is our way to bring all of the community..they are working in different areas, some in hospitals, or IT department.  And they bring their families.  We pray for everybody..all the creatures,” says Kalyanji Sundaram, a Hindu high-priest from London who helped inaugurate the Swiss temple.

Hindu leaders hope to build more temples in Switzerland should the funding and local permissions come through.  

Their experience in Switzerland has shown that religious progress can happen here, even if it takes decades.

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