The heavens opened three times during a 10-day prayer marathon for rain at Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, twice in brief but torrential downpours.

Shanmugam Sivachariar, one of 11 priests from India who led a rare Hindu ceremony at the temple last Sunday, refused to take credit for the rainfall.

"It's God's holiness that gives the rain or the sun," he said.

Sivachariar smiled, however, when asked if the long hours of chanting and the fiery oblations to Devi, the Mother Goddess, had brought at least minimal relief during the area's worst drought in three decades. "Maybe, maybe," he said.

With no end in sight to the dry weather, religious communities throughout the area have begun seeking divine help to end the crisis, reciting ancient liturgies or adding contemporary prayers during congregational gatherings. For the last two weeks, several local mosques have concluded their regular Friday services with the salat al istiqa', the Islamic drought prayer that says in part: "O God, give us rain and make us not of those who despair."

Roman Catholic parishes, especially in the hard-hit farm areas of Southern Maryland, pray for rain during the "weekly intention" at Sunday Mass. And other faith groups, including Baptists and Buddhists, ask for rain through prayer or meditation.

The Hindu ceremony in Lanham, the first of its kind ever held in the United States, is called Satha Chandi Homam, Chandi for short. The phrase means making 100 homam, or fire offerings, to Chandi, one of several names for Devi.

The ritual requires the services of at least 10 specially trained priests from India, who, according to temple president K.G. Venkatraman, chant for 10 days the 700 verses of the ancient Sanskrit text "Devi Mahatmyam." At the same time, the priests burn gifts to the goddess, who the priests and congregants believe resides in the fire and whose image, they also believe, appears in the flames.

Many of the verses praise Devi and her all-powerful influence on the universe, both good and evil aspects. But most emphasize the ultimate victory of good over evil, symbolized in a passage where a lion-riding, weapon-wielding Devi wipes out every demon she encounters. Congregants participate by circling the fire at the end of each day, adding personal gifts that might please the goddess and bring a blessing to their lives.

The ceremony usually is performed in times of great distress, such as famine, drought or violence, Venkatraman said. But its universal appeal for the supreme goddess's guidance and blessing led Sri Siva to begin organizing a Chandi months ago--long before the onset of the drought.

Temple leaders hoped that the high-powered ritual would give spiritual support for the growing Hindu population in the Washington area, now estimated at 40,000 to 50,000. It also would aid efforts to complete the construction of Sri Siva, which was dedicated in 1990 and was the first of a half-dozen local Hindu temples. But it lacks a rajagopuram--a tall, multitiered spire that completes a Hindu temple the way a steeple completes a church.

When the priests began arriving from India two months ago, they also saw a need to pray for rain in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast and for peace in a troubled nation, Venkatraman said. "It's God's choice to do it this way," he said.

Most of the ceremony took place in a large porch area off the temple's lower level, where visiting and local priests fed the fire with handwoven silk, chopped and whole fruits, herbs, flowers, jewelry and ghee, or clarified butter. A vent hood captured the smoke and carried it into the air to "seed" the clouds in the hope of bringing rain, Venkatraman said.

Last Sunday, the concluding day of the ceremony, jars filled with holy water were placed on an altar behind the fire and on a large table near the audience. At the end of the day's five-hour service, the priests and many of the 1,000 congregants put the jars on their heads and carried them upstairs to the sanctuary. There the priests poured the water over the images of various deities in individual shrines.

Sivachariar, 24, said the "energy" in the fire was transferred to the water, much as water conducts electricity. And the water, in turn, was poured over the images the temple's worshipers see every day.

In that way, the Satha Chandi Homam will stay with them, said Sivachariar, who came from Madras to assist his father and the Chandi's head priest, 75-year-old Sri Sambamurthi Sivachariar.

As the young priest spoke Sunday, the sun broke through a gray cloud cover, ending any chances of precipitation that day. Yet Sivachariar seemed unperturbed, confident that the overall impact of the Chandi and of Devi's grace on the local community and the nation would be felt for a long time to come.

There always will be days when the Mother Goddess is angry and human wishes go unfilled, he said. You have to keep praying "so she smiles again."