When visiting Delhi for the first time, I was immediately impressed by the gleaming clean stone temple ahead. Ancient in style, but I was too tired to realise the obvious. It had been 48 degrees centigrade, and as the sun was setting, I asked the young ladies with us how old the structure was but they did not know.

After reading of a young guru who traversed India in the entrance, it suddenly hit me. The stones gleamed because they had no patina, they were new. The Swaminarayan Akshardham transformed barren land by the Yamuna river in only five years from laying of its first stone November 8, 2000 until the 6th of November 2005.

For someone who studies archaeology I laughed at my own stupidity (and exhaustion).

In pink sandstone and white marble, the monument is  the centre piece of a  40.5 hectare  cultural showcase of indian art, architecture, wisdom  and spirituality. It stands  43 metre high and  96 metre long  with 234 intricately carved pillars, nine magnificent domes 20 pinnacles and 20,000 sculpted figures. At its centre of the inner sanctum stands a serene 3.3 metre golden  murti of Bhagwan Swaminarayan.

The whole monument is surrounded by  a water body called the Narayan Sarovar and is garlanded by a 2.2 kilometre double story parikrama.

“Divinity has been glorified by the beautiful artistic carvings par excellence. It enriches the serenity of devotion and faith which is sublime. In addition, this is an artistic wonder with human imagination which gives a fantastic experience made melodious with water and music. My pranam to Swamiji and all the devotees” said the President of India Smt. Pratibha Patil in 2012.

“Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides” says the Rig Veda. The message of Unity in Diversity is  symbolised in the welcome pathway of ten gates each for the ten directions symbolizing freedom of thought in Sanatan Dharma. The Visitor Centre is built in a traditional design. Small shrines of bhakti lead to the ornate Bhakti Dwar or Gate of Devotion and two Bhakti Dwar (Peacock gates) pay tribute to India’s national bird.

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However, it is the sense natural harmony that I most enjoyed. The 100 metre Gajenda Peeth with its 148 stone elephants bedecked for a spiritual ceremony portray harmony of elephant, man, nature and God in harmony, faith, love and service.

Designed by architect Satish Gujural, it  was inspired by Pramukh Smanmi Maharaj to fulfil his gurus wish and is considered the eternal abode of Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830).

its 11,000 sadhus, volunteers and artisans took  300 million man hours to carve 300,000 stones and assemble the structure. The stones were quarried 400 km away at Bansipahadpur were carved at Pindvada (600 km), Sikandra (250 km), and other Rajasthan workshops then assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

SwaminarayanFilm, light and sound shows present the story of India’s cultural heritage within two exhibition halls, that include cultural gardens, ornate gate, a film theatre, musical fountain  and food court.

The Hall of Values presents the values taught by Bhagwan Swaminarayan: ahimsa, courage, endeavour, honesty, harmony, and faith.

In the second hall, a 14 minute boat ride shows 10,000 years of Indian culture. Past 800 statues, you visit an ancient Vedic village, the worlds first university, or Takshashila, and learn some of ancient India’s scientific discoveries.

The life of the 11 year old guru who traversed India from the Himalayas to south of the continent, is shown in a well presented 40 minute film on a 25 metre screen.  Shot in 108 locations across the continent, I  recommend buying the film.
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It is a delight to see a sacred site so beautifully presented in a garden setting. The whole complex is beautifully presented in a 22 acres of lawns and over 900,000 saplings. Sadly, many Indian temples are not well cared for or their heritage respected.

Yet, I must admit an initial disquiet. It reminded me of my first reaction to Bhopal’s Tribal Museum which at I first felt Disneyfied  the Tribal experience, then realised that this very modernity allowed  new generation to be educated. I came to appreciate that Indigenous art has never stood still and has always mediated with the present. The same is true of modern Hinduism.

Just as we should not expect Indigenous artists to strip down to their dhoti to be accepted as legitimate, why should I expect a temple to conform to my expectations? The Taj Mahal was once a modern architectural marvel, as was Khajuraho. Perhaps future generations will look back at the Akshardham similarly.

I remembered the concept of parampara, a nearly self -sufficient partial modality of human manifestation ruled by dharma (order).The word is often synonymous with tradition, but need not just imply a static set of ideas as the english word implies. Parampara is a dynamic flow with room for change, like a  majestic river – perennial, colourful and soul sustaining and forever in new forms, yet built from the past..

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I have also have a personal dislike for the commercialisation of religion. How ever, it is not forced on you by vendors, the boat ride and theatre are charged for those who want them, and a food court and souvenir shop have offerings. In honest reflection, all organisations have costs and religious commercialism is just more blatant elsewhere.

In a sense, the Swaminarayan Akshardham is a movie set. It does not pretend to be a 1000 year old temple, although built in the style of one.  In a setting that is peaceful and serene, were are reminded to reflect, and pray for a greater faith, discipline and service to humanity. It portrays for the world, the beauty of freedom believed be taught in the Vedas with a modern, theatrical experience.

It is an invitation to a view of how the world might be.