The Home of God on Earth

Akshardham means “God’s House” in Hindi. On the west bank of the Yamuna, I visited a massive new Hindu temple called Swaminarayan Akshardham. It just opened in 2005. It was very easy to get to because it has its own Metro stop on the Delhi underground. The 100 acre complex of temples and gardens is situated next to the 2010 Commonwealth Games Athletes’ Village. It is surrounded by a high wall topped with razor wire. It reminded me of a prison camp. Security was tight.

Of course, Delhi is on perpetual alert against a terrorist attack. It is almost five years to the day that a bomb blast killed 19 people and  injured 76 others outside the High Court in Delhi.

In September 2002, another Akshardham Temple in Gandhinagar (Gujerat) was attacked by two heavily-armed extremists who killed 31 people*.

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I walked through a road block, and into the outskirts of the Temple Complex, where there was a bag check. The authorities were strict about what could not be brought into the Temple: no mobile phones, cameras, electronic devices, food, bags, alcohol and tobacco, etc. I had to check in my camera and mobile phone, then went through a scanner. The metal baggage check set it off, so a policeman had to perform a full body search.

The route to the main temple passes through the a circle with Ten Gates of Directions. I suppose the geometry of Ancient India divided 360 degrees into ten sections, rather than the twelve sections we use in the west. The gates were intricately carved rosy pink sandstone from Rajasthan.

Next, there was a building with two facades: the gate of devotion, with 208 sacred sculptures set in the walls and the peacock gate, with 869 images of peacocks. Somehow, I managed to miss the footprints of the Bhagwan Swaminarayan, which were continuously flushed with water from sacred conch shells. There are signs on the soles of the feet which indicate his divinity, such as a swastika on his heel.

The pink sandstone theme continued with a colonnade, a two tier cloister running around the perimeter of the main temple, its moat and water gardens. I bought a triple ticket for an exhibition of mechatronic models and an IMAX movie of the Bhagwan’s life (with 40,000 extras) with a grand finale of a cultural boat ride through more dioramas covering 10,000 years of Indian history.

I joined an English language group of visitors, most of whom were from South India. I exchanged business cards with the Professor of Botany at Calicut University, who has the largest collection of ginger plant varieties in the world. The dioramas explained the Young Bhagwan’s moral values of vegetarianism and non-violence. The film in the IMAX theatre was rather boring, and I nodded off for a few minutes. The highlight was the boat trip (Sanskruti Vihar). It reminded me of “It’s a Small World” at Disney World, without the annoying music. I learned that India had the first university, the first surgeons, the first pharmacists and most surprising of all, Indians had designed space ships two thousand years ago.

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The main temple, the Mandir, is pink sandstone, with Italian marble interior. I wandered around with a crick in my neck looking up at the details on the nine, intricately-carved domes. There are hundreds of statues of Gods and Goddesses in alcoves in the temple walls. The building contains no metal at all, a fact which is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records. My favourite part of the temple was the base which has a long stone frieze of life sized elephants, doing elephant stuff, such as having picnics, playing in the river, shifting logs, fighting battles and carrying kings.

It was time for lunch. On site, there is a gigantic cafeteria which only features vegetarian food. I chose a thali – two curries, lentils, rice, five chapatis and a dessert of some grey stodge oozing sugar syrup. In addition, there was a mystery item – some yellow, spongey bread, scattered with mustard seeds and when I squeezed it, some sour/sweet liquid dripped out. It didn’t taste of anything. I found out later that it is a Gujerati speciality. I had a drink of lassi to wash it all down.

After lunch I went to a small devotional area called the Nilkanth Abhishek. Devotees can pour water over a golden statue of Shri Neelkanth Varni while praying to have their wishes come true. A volunteer came over to offer me assistance. He was an old man, dressed in white, and he spoke excellent English. When he found out I was from Leicester, he was delighted. “Are you a football fan?” I asked. “No, there is a Akshardham temple there, in Gipsy Lane.” Strangely enough, I remember the publicity when this temple opened five years ago. I poured some water over the statue and wished for Leicester to beat Liverpool. “Your wish will come through very rapidly,” he told me. A few hours later, Liverpool thrashed Leicester City  4-1.

He gave me a special card to show when I visited the temple back in Leicester. Inside, there was a pledge for me to sign, promising to pray daily, serve my country, lead a corruption-free and addiction-free life, eat only vegetarian food, read the scriptures daily and have a good family life. Children have an additional two tasks – to bow down to parents daily and study hard, regularly revise schoolwork and complete homework.

I spent almost five hours in the temple complex. I didn’t have the energy to stay on until 7pm to see the musical-fountains-fire-laser-light-show, but I’m reliably informed it is marvellous. Next time, then.

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* Wikipedia says “In the middle of the night, the terrorists jumped down from the parikrama and entered a nearby bathroom. The National Security Guards planned to pass the night until daybreak before attempted to flush out the terrorists.”

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