BENTONVILLE — Standing in line to see a blockbuster film is not that unusual in Northwest Arkansas but for a growing population of Hindu residents, it’s a special treat.
For about four years, Malco theaters in Rogers (Town Center) and Springdale have offered Indian-language movies. Local investors rent out the theaters and provide the movies for the Indian population in the region.
“It’s a packed house each time,” said Srivathsan Krishnamurthy. From India, Krishnamurthy works at IBM and has lived in Bentonville for several years.
Krishnamurthy explained that there are movies from Bollywood, which are primarily in the Hindi language, and Kollywood movies are in the Tamil/Telugu languages. Most of the Indian movies in Northwest Arkansas are from Bollywood, he said. At first, the movies were scheduled at odd times but it’s become popular enough that they are scheduled are standard times.
“The best part is that I don’t have to drive to Dallas (to see a movie),” said Sampath Jagannathan, also from India. He works as a consultant for Cognizant and lives in Bentonville.
Jeff Kaufma, senior vice president of film and marketing for Malco Theaters, said that he’s glad the Indian-speaking population enjoys the movies offered at the theaters.
“It broadens the palette of the movies in the region and we’re happy to do it,” he said.
It used to be that people of the Indian culture and other people in the Hindu religion had to drive to bigger cities to find food, entertainment and other familiar aspects that reminded then of their native homeland.
As the supplier and Wal-Mart community has grown, so has the diversity within that community. There are now an estimated 2,500 Hindus living in Northwest Arkansas.
With the increased population has come other business ventures and opportunities. For example, there is a noticeable increase in the number of Indian restaurants and Indian grocery stores. It’s not just the Indian population that is attracted to these businesses, said Niru Raghavan.
“People start to appreciate the culture through the food (and they learn more),” she said.
Raghavan, also a consultant with Cognizant, was born in India but has lived all over the world with a large portion of it in the United States. There are a growing number of groups that involve various parts of the Indian and Hindu culture, including dance groups, music groups and organizations that meet the spiritual needs of the population.
The Hindu Association of Northwest Arkansas began about 12 years ago and Raghavan is now the president of the temple that opened it doors this summer.
“We met in people’s houses originally,” she said.
In 2002, the group had grown to the point that it wanted a centralized meeting place. so HANWA, which was born in 1999, purchased land in Gentry with the intent of constructing a permanent temple in that location. In the meantime, the group sanctified a barn that was already on the Gentry property for conducting poojas (religious ceremonies) and other events, such as festivals.
The group decided to designate Krishna as the primary deity and the other deities would be Ganesha, Durga, Shiva, Lakshmi and Venkateshwara. The group then turned its attention toward fundraising for a permanent structure.
As work progressed on the plans, it became clear that Gentry was not the best place for the temple’s permanent home. New land was found in Bentonville and that was determined to be a better fit, largely because it was more accessible geographically for the community.
The new temple was consecrated in 2009 and broke ground in 2011. The temple opened in July. There is a priest available to perform various ceremonies either at the temple or in an individual’s home.
Agama shastra is the science of building temples and it dictates the direction it faces, the shape of the building, among other features.
“We didn’t follow that,” Raghavan said. “We did what other small communities do.”
The 4,000 square-foot building was built to have some features that are similar to other temples, but is largely a simple, square building.
Raghavan said that with so many people serving Wal-Mart and the supplier community here, that means that a large number of people are living in the region thousands of miles from their loved ones and culture.
“This provides some religious support,” she said.
Krishnamurthy said that he started his job shortly before major layoffs started happening at Wal-Mart in 2009 and within the supplier community.
“I remember people at the Gentry temple praying for each other,” he said.
Having a strong support system is beneficial for the Hindu community and their employers, Raghavan said.
“People are more likely to be productive if they can be happy where they live and work,” she said.
It also makes it easier to recruit new people when they find out that there is already an established Hindu community in the area, but also for non-Hindus when they see how the Northwest Arkansas community at large embraces diversity. Having exposure to culture and religion is also important for families who are raising children born in the United States to parents from India.
Jagannathan said when he first moved to the area, he was apprehensive about what it would be like.
“There was only one small Indian store,” he said. “Things have changed drastically. Things are more open and diverse now.”
There is a lot of diversity within the Hindu population, including different beliefs and eating habits. When there are large gatherings, organizers tend to go with the strictest rules to best fit the needs of most people.
Raghavan said they provide a list of items that can’t be used in dishes, including meat, garlic and onions. Most Hindus are vegetarians and some do not eat any vegetable that was grown underground, she explained.
The growth of the Hindu population in the U.S. is not confined to Northwest Arkansas. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, estimates 0.4% of the population is Hindu with 32% of that demographic living in the Southeast part of the United States.
Some 58% of Hindus living in the U.S.are between the ages of 30 to 49 years old.