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India visa temples attract devotees who want to go abroad

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CHENNAI, India (AP) – Arjun Viswanathan stood in the street, hands clasped, eyes fixed on the idol of the Hindu deity Ganesh.

On a humid morning, the information technology professional waited outside the temple, the size of a small closet – just enough room for the lone priest to stand and perform puja or rituals for the beloved elephant-headed deity, which is believed to be the remover of obstacles.

Viswanathan was among about a dozen visitors, most of them with the same purpose: to offer prayers that his US visa interviews would go smoothly and successfully. Viswanathan came the day before his interview to get a work visa.

“I came here to pray for my brother’s UK visa 10 years ago and my wife’s US visa two years ago,” he said. “Both were successful. So I have faith.”

The Sri Lakshmi Visa Ganapathy Temple is a few kilometers north of the airport in Chennai (formerly Madras), a bustling metropolis on the Coromandel coast of southeastern India – known for its iconic cuisine, ancient temples and churches, silk saris, music classical, dance and sculpture.

This “visa temple” has increased in popularity among US visa applicants over the past decade; they can be found in almost every Indian city with a US consulate. They typically gain a following through word of mouth or social media.

A mile away from the Ganesh temple is the Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Navaneetha Krishnan Temple, where an idol of Hanuman – a deity who has a human body and a monkey’s face – is believed to possess the power to obtain visas. Also known as “Anjaneya”, this god represents strength, wisdom and devotion. In this temple, he earned the nicknames of “America Anjaneya” and “Visa Anjaneya”.

The temple’s longtime secretary, GC Srinivasan, said that it wasn’t until 2016 that this temple became a “visa temple”.

“It was around this time that some people who prayed for a visa spread the word that they were successful, and that continued,” he said.

A month ago, Srinivasan said he met someone who received the news of his visa approval while circling the idol of Anjaneya – a common Hindu practice of walking around a sacred object or place.

On a recent Saturday night, devotees decorated the idol with wreaths made from betel leaves. S. Pradeep, who garlanded the deity, said he was not there to pray for a visa but believed in the god’s unique power.

“He is my favorite god,” he said. “If you pray genuinely – not just for the looks – it will come true.”

At the Ganesh temple, some devotees had success stories to share. Jyothi Bontha said that her visa interview at the US Consulate in Chennai went smoothly and that she came back to say thank you.

“They barely asked me a few questions,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

Bontha’s friend Phani Veeranki was nearby, nervously clutching an envelope containing her visa application and supporting documents. Bontha and Veeranki, both computer science students from neighboring Andhra Pradesh and childhood friends, are headed to Ohio.

Both learned about the visa temple on the social media platform Telegram.

Veeranki said she was anxious because she had a lot at stake in her upcoming visa interview.

“I am the first person in my family to go to the United States,” she said. “My mother is afraid to send me. But I am excited about the opportunities I will have in America.”

Veeranki then handed the envelope to the temple priest to place at the foot of the idol for a blessing.

“We’ve heard of rejected requests,” she said, her hands still clasped in prayer. “I really hope mine gets approved.”

If she and Bontha make it to Ohio, they want to take a trip to Niagara Falls.

“I’ve always wanted to see him,” Bontha said.

Mohanbabu Jagannathan and his wife, Sangeetha, run the temple, which Jagannathan’s grandfather built in 1987. Their home is on a dead-end street, which is considered bad luck in many Asian cultures. In Chennai, it is common to find a Ganesh temple outside cul-de-sacs due to the belief that the deity has the power to ward off evil. At first, only neighbors went to the temple, Jagannathan said.

“But over the years it started to gain a peculiar reputation,” he said. “Many visa applicants who came to the temple spread the news that they were successful after praying here.”

In 2009, his father Jagannathan Radhakrishnan rebuilt the temple and added the word “visa” to the name of the temple. Jagannathan said success stories are exciting; visitors sometimes stop by his home to thank the family for keeping the temple open.

“It never bothered me,” Jagannathan said. “We offer this as a service to the public. It is a joy to see how happy people are when they come back and tell us that they got their visa.”

His wife said she was moved by the story of a man who came from New Delhi to pray for a visa to see his grandson after eight years apart. She recalls another occasion when a woman called her in tears, saying her visa application was rejected.

“Of course, some don’t understand,” she said. “God only knows why.”

Padma Kannan has brought her daughter, Monisha, who is preparing to pursue a master’s degree in marketing analysis at Clark University. Kannan believes her daughter got her visa because of this powerful deity.

“I found this temple on Google,” she said. “I was so nervous for her, so I prayed here.”

Monisha Kannan said she is not so sure she got her visa because of this temple but she said she came to support her mother.

“I’m skeptical,” she said. “I’m just someone who goes with the flow.”

His mother has a more philosophical stance.

“We pray for our children and things happen easily for them,” she said. “I think when they themselves go through the rigors of life, they will begin to believe in the power of prayer.”

Viswanathan said he is not someone “who generally believes in these things”. When his brother got his British visa a decade ago after saying prayers here, Viswanathan put it down to coincidence. He became a believer when his wife got her US visa two years ago, he said.

The day after his visit to the temple this time, Viswanathan’s work visa was approved. He’s going to New Hampshire in a few months.

“It’s all a matter of faith,” he said. “If you believe it will happen, it will happen.”

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

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