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A VERY UNUSUAL TEMPLE


New Delhi's Akshardham Complex
By Margaret Deefholts

"You must see the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple when you're in Delhi," a friend says to me. "It's fab! And different. Not like a traditional Hindu temple."

Curiosity whetted, I look up their website, which describes Akshardham as "the eternal, divine abode of the supreme God…where bhakti, (devotion) purity and peace forever pervades." As intriguing is a local newspaper headline that proclaims it to be: "One of the wonders of modern India!"

A volunteer guide, Rajeev (not his real name) looks like a clean-cut Indian version of Gene Kelly. When he learns that I'm an Indian-born Canadian, he flashes me a grin so wide that I expect him to burst into song, with "'S Wonderful!" Instead he wobbles his head and says earnestly, "Welcome! I am honoured to show you through the Akshardham complex!"

"The 100-acre Akshardham complex is owned and operated by BAPS, a world wide organization dedicated to socio-spiritual development." Rajeev says. According to him it is also a showcase "for India's glorious traditions of art, architecture, wisdom and spirituality."

Families-plump wives in colourful saris and husbands with toddlers in tow-throng the concourse on the approach to the Bhakti Dwar (Door of Devotion). Groups of saffron clad pilgrims stop to admire the Dwar-a building with Rajasthani style pierced stone windows, and cupolas that look like delicately crocheted toques.

The main attraction is the massive Akshardham monument. Constructed of blush-pink sandstone and marble, its domes and fluted arches glow in the smoggy Delhi sunshine. Rajeev says proudly, "It was built by 11,000 sculptors, artisans and volunteers in just five years! Come, come," he urges, "Look at the outside walls."

Curving around the exterior are a mind-boggling 200 sculptured stone figures of India's great teachers, holy men, seers and sages. I'm captivated by a frieze of 148 enormous stone elephants decorating the plinth, some cavorting with their babies, others playing cymbals or hobnobbing with other beasts of the jungle. "Cute!" I say. Rajeev winces. "Elephants in our Indian mythology are noble animals," he says, "They represent wisdom, bravery and strength."

Towering above us in the main sanctum is an 11-ft high gold statue, so dazzling that I'm tempted to don my sunglasses. This is Bhagwan Swaminarayan, and as Rajeev talks about him, I suddenly realize why his life story seems so familiar. "Is this Neelkanth, the boy saint in the IMAX movie, "Mystic India"? I ask.

Rajeev brightens. "Indeed, yes! Have you seen the film?" When I tell him that it drew appreciative audiences in Vancouver, he does a vigorous head wobble in approval.

Swaminarayan evidently inspired a social and spiritual renaissance in Gujerat in the late 1700s. Rajeev says: "Even back then he was a supporter of women's rights and opposed the rigid Hindu caste system." I move through the chambers surrounding the main hall and at the risk of cricking my neck permanently, I stare, astounded, at nine domed marble ceilings carved with such intricacy that they are like lace doilies, each one in a different pattern.

Akshardham is certainly unique among India's monuments-and despite Rajeev's eager pleasure in its spiritual overtones, I am reminded of an elaborate entertainment theme park which, while honouring ancient Vedic teachings and Hindu mythology, is also a mish-mash of Hollywood, Vegas and Disneyland show-biz.

At the Hall of Values, the group of school girls are enthralled by the animated figures and audio visual effects demonstrating Swaminarayan's ideals of courage, faith and love. A rapt audience watches the original footage of "Mystic India" which focuses on the life and teachings of the sage-in contrast to the Vancouver IMAX version, which incorporated travelogue-style footage of India's scenic splendours.

Next up, a canal tour on a boat that takes Rajeev and me on a 14- minute journey through a 10,000-year time capsule of Indian history and culture. Dioramas form the backdrop to animated figures in Vedic-era village bazaars, medieval street scenes, hard working weavers, potters and blacksmiths, meditating holy men, festively dressed dancers and musicians. I half expect to hear an Indian flute and tabla (drum) version of "It's A Small World" as we swing around each bend.

If the boat ride is Disney-esque, the ballet of shimmering musical fountains at dusk is pure Las Vegas! Under the benign gaze of a 27-foot high statue of Neelkanth, and accompanied by gasps of admiration from the audience thronging the tiers of seats, the waters leap and pirouette, swirl and shoot into the darkening sky under a play of glittering rainbow lights. Showtime indeed!

IF YOU GO:

Swaminarayan Akshardhan in New Delhi is open daily except on Mondays. Allow 4 to 5 hours to see the entire complex of temples, exhibition halls and the 22 acre landscaped gardens with larger-than-life-sized bronze statues of India's political icons. Vegetarian delicacies and snacks are available at the Food Court; the souvenir and book shop sells a range of gift items. Entrance fees are Rs. 125 ($3.15) for adults, and Rs. 75 ($1.80) for children between the ages of 4 and 12; children under 4 are free.

Bags and large purses, cameras and all electronic items including cell phones and tape recorders are strictly forbidden.

For more information visit their website: www.akshardham.com

For more information on the wide-ranging spiritual and cultural seminars, social welfare, educational, medical and environment initiatives undertaken by BAPS click on www.swaminarayan.org

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PHOTOS (Courtesy Akshardham Temple/BAPS)

1. Akshardham Main Temple 2. Elaborate marble ceiling (one of nine different designs) in the main temple 3. Elephant bas relief on sandstone plinth 4. Bhagwan Swaminarayan (Neelkanth in Mystic India) 5. Indian musicians - sandstone carving detail 6. Scene on the canal ride through India's religious and socio-cultural history 7. A old lady scoops water from a sacred pool, to bless h

 


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