EPPING, N.H. — The only Hindu temple in New Hampshire was evicted on January 4 — along with several cows and inhabitants.
Saraswati Mandiram, which was located on approximately 100 acres in this rural town, was evicted after failing to pay back a $1.2 million loan to a Virginia-based lender Gourley and Gourley, LLC.
Priest Ramadheen Ramsamooj said police forced everyone out of the building into freezing temperatures without giving them the time to pack their belongings.
“The sheriff said •You have 10 minutes to put your shoes on and get out,” Ramsamooj said. “They were all armed [and] had bulletproof vests as if they thought they were going into the war zone.”
He said he did not have the time to take his books or puja materials. For one week, he wore only the clothes he had on his back and in his car, until police allowed former residents access to the temple to collect their belongings, he said.
But police disagreed with Ramsamooj’s characterization of the eviction. Captain Mark Pierce of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s department confirmed that nine people were forced to leave the property — a priest, and a family that included some small children and some “older people” — but he denied that they were given only 10 minutes to pack. He said police were at the location for close to two hours and everyone had the time to put on their coats, get their medications and gather their belongings.
And Pierce has his own grievances with the former temple inhabitants.
“Some of them started yelling at the deputies that they wouldn’t leave,” he said.
Another detail of the eviction was also disputed. Ramsamooj said he was concerned about the temple’s four cows, which were seized by animal control officers during the eviction. These cows, he said, do not give milk and one has arthritis and difficulty walking.
“I’m very worried they could be slaughtered, but I hope that will never happen,” he said.
But Pierce said that the police were aware that cows are sacred animals for Hindus and that the police “didn’t do anything to disgrace the animals.”
While both Gourley and Gourley and Saraswati Mandiram disagree with many details leading up to the eviction, they agree that the temple borrowed money from Gourley and Gourley to expand a school to accommodate more students. Its land was used as collateral on the loan.
After a fire four years ago forced the temple to halt further expansion plans, Ramsamooj said, Gourley and Gourley had agreed to allow time for Saraswati Mandiram to rebuild before making further payments on the loan. But he claims that the lender later ignored the agreement and started foreclosure proceedings. Gourley, however, contends that the temple has missed most payments on the loan and that is the reason for the foreclosure. The temple is trying to appeal the case in the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
“They’re dismantling my whole institution, while there is an appeal before the Supreme Court,” Ramsamooj said. “If we have to go back there, it will be a very expensive enterprise to get the place going.”
Attorney Joshua Gordon, who represents the Saraswati Mandiram temple, said it is “real unfair” that the eviction took place before the matter was resolved in the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
“It’s not fair they are not living there because the land might be theirs,” he said. If the temple wins the case in the state’s highest court, it is possible that the Hindu group will return to Epping, he said.
David Lamarre-Vincent, the executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches, said he has not heard of a church eviction in the state before.
“Unfortunately with a more and more secular society • religious institutions are treated no different than any other institutions, especially when large sums of money are at risk,” he said. “That is unfortunate.”
Pierce said that in his more than 20 years at the Sheriff’s office, he also doesn’t recall evicting a religious institution before, but, he said: “The only thing the Sheriff’s department does is enforces the law. We do our job professionally and compassionately.”
Demetris Voudouris, who represents Gourley and Gourley, said the lender was not targeting the temple.
“It’s not like our habit [is] to want to foreclose on religious institutions,” he said. “We’re lenders and we make loans and if people don’t make the [payments], we foreclose.”
Voudouris said religious borrowers should face the same repercussions as everyone else.
“If you say banks can’t foreclose on religious institutions, guess what: Banks won’t lend money to churches and you’re not going to be able to build new churches,” he said.
Temple may move to Boston
Ramsamooj and the other former inhabitants of the Saraswati Mandiram temple had until the end of January to remove their belongings from the building.
Since, most have been staying with friends and family in Massachusetts, and Ramsamooj has been taken in by a family in Lexington, although he said he’s been living “virtually on the road.”
Temple members are waiting for the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s decision, and — if all else fails — are considering moving the Saraswati Mandiram temple to Dorchester, Mass.
“Our priests will continue to conduct services at other institutions and private homes until this matter is resolved in the courts,” temple officials wrote in an e-mail to supporters three days after their eviction. “We need you to continue supporting this temple. This is a battle for Dharma and the preservation of our religion and culture.”
The Hindu deities — Ganesh, Shiva, Durga, Krishna and others — remain in the abandoned New Hampshire temple, but Ramsamooj said he has no plans to move them out.
“I will not have any entity force me into desecrating my own temple with my own hands,” he said.