CHENNAI, India (AP) — Arjun Viswanathan stood in the street with his hands folded, eyes fixed on the idol of the Hindu deity Ganesh.
On a sweltering morning, the IT expert waited outside the temple, which was the size of a small closet – barely enough space for the lone priest to stand and perform puja or rituals for the beloved elephant-headed deity believed to be she the remover is obstacle.
Viswanathan was among about a dozen visitors, most of whom were there for the same reason: to offer prayers so that their US visa interviews would go smoothly and successfully. Viswanathan came the day before his interview for a work visa.
“I came here to pray for my brother’s UK visa ten 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 miles north of the airport in Chennai (formerly Madras), a bustling metropolis on the Coromandel Coast of south-east India – known for its iconic cuisine, ancient temples and churches, silk saris, classical music, dance and sculpture.
This “visa temple” has grown in popularity among US visa seekers over the past decade; They can be found in almost every Indian city with a US consulate. They usually gain a following through word of mouth or social media.
A mile 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 said to have the power to procure visas. Also known as “Anjaneya”, this god represents strength, wisdom and devotion. It was at this temple that he earned the nicknames “America Anjaneya” and “Visa Anjaneya”.
The temple’s longtime secretary, GC Srinivasan, said that this temple only became a “Visa temple” in 2016.
“Around that time, some people who were praying for a visa spread the word that they were successful, and it’s continuing,” he said.
A month ago, Srinivasan said he met someone who found out about his visa approval while walking around the Anjaneya idol – a common Hindu practice of walking around a sacred object or site.
On a Saturday evening, believers decorated the idol with garlands of 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’s my favorite god,” he said. “If you really pray – not just for a visa – it will come true.”
In the Ganesh Temple, some devotees had success stories to tell. Jyothi Bontha said her visa interview at the US Consulate in Chennai went smoothly and she returned to say thank you.
“They hardly ever asked me a few questions,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised.”
Bontha’s friend Phani Veeranki stood nearby, nervously holding an envelope containing her visa application and supporting documents. Bontha and Veeranki, both computer science students from the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh and childhood friends, travel to Ohio.
Both found out about the Visa Temple via the Telegram social media platform.
Veeranki said she was worried because she was busy with her upcoming visa interview.
“I’m the first person in my family to go to the United States,” she said. “My mother is afraid to send me. But I’m looking forward to the opportunities I’ll have in America.”
Veeranki then gave the envelope to the priest of the temple to place at the idol’s feet for blessing.
“We’ve heard of rejected applications,” she said, hands still clasped in prayer. “I really hope mine gets approved.”
If she and Bontha make it to Ohio, they plan to take a trip to Niagara Falls.
“I’ve always wanted to see it,” Bontha said.
Mohanbabu Jagannathan and his wife Sangeetha run the temple, which Jagannathan’s grandfather built in 1987. Her house is in a dead end street, which is considered bad luck in several Asian cultures. In Chennai, it is common to find a Ganesh temple outside of dead ends, as the deity is believed to have the power to ward off evil. At first only neighbors came to the temple, said Jagannathan.
“But over the years it’s started to earn a quirky reputation,” he said. “Many visa applicants who came to the temple spread the word that they had succeeded after praying here.”
In 2009, his father, Jagannathan Radhakrishnan, rebuilt the temple and added the word “visa” to the temple’s name. Jagannathan said the success stories are heartwarming; Visitors sometimes stop by his home to thank his family for opening the temple.
“That never bothered me,” Jagannathan said. “We offer this as a service to the public. It’s a pleasure to see how happy people are when they come back and tell us they got their visas.”
His wife said she was touched by the story of a man who came all the way from New Delhi to pray for a visa so he could see his grandchild after eight years. She recalls another time when a woman in tears called her and said her visa application had been rejected.
“Sure, some don’t get it,” she said. “God only knows why.”
Padma Kannan brought along her daughter, Monisha, who is preparing for 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 and that’s why I prayed here.”
Monisha Kannan said she wasn’t sure if she got her visa because of this temple, but said she came to support her mother.
“I’m skeptical,” she said. “I’m just someone who goes with the flow.”
Her mother takes a more philosophical stance.
“We pray for our children and they are doing well,” she said. “I think when you go through the hardships of life yourself, you will start to believe in the power of prayer.”
Viswanathan said he’s not someone “who usually believes in things like that.” When his brother received his British visa after praying here a decade ago, Viswanathan attributed it to coincidence. He became a believer when his wife got her US visa two years ago, he said.
The day after he visited the temple this time, Viswanathan’s work visa was approved. He’s going to New Hampshire in a few months.
“It’s all about faith,” he said. “If you believe it will happen, it will happen.”
The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.