Until I arrived in India at the end of October 2011, I had never heard of Akshardham. When my cousins asked if I wanted to visit a new temple in Delhi, I unsuspectingly agreed. I really wanted to visit Rajghat and pay my respects to Gandhiji, I said, but I did not mind stopping by a new temple.
I am not religious but Indian temples evoke, for me, a powerful nostalgia. They contain the essence of my early childhood, spent in a dingy gulli, where every stone was covered with saffron-colored paint, where every woman carried oil to the temple of the goddess to protect her children from the scourge of smallpox, where every one woke up to the sound of a bhupali—morning devotional—and went to bed to the tune of a bhajan.
Alas, someone should have warned me that Akshardham lets you bring no food, drink, or anything else inside, not even water. Only in the parking lot did I discover this fact. So I reluctantly entered the temple complex with little more than the clothes on my back. The consequences of Akshardham’s draconian rules would haunt me for the rest of my trip.
The first impression upon entering the gigantic area is one of awe and splendor. There are the coral-colored gopurams (domes), carved with the most intricate of elephants, gods, and fairies. There are the surrounding grounds, displaying statues of pioneers of Indian history. There are the ponds, glittering with fountains. Erected out of sandstone in only five years, the temple uses no steel enforcements, it is said. As I inspected the layers of mortar between stone slabs, I wondered if the edifice would withstand centuries of ravages of earthquakes, pollution, and floods. The website claims that the temple has a tremor-proof, 20-foot-deep foundation, though.
“It has been carved by volunteer artists,” my cousin explained, “and uses traditional Hindu architectural principles.” Indeed the statues are elaborate, so detailed and numerous that after a while your eyes begin to glaze. Elephant after elephant. Apsara after apsara. Krishna after Krishna. Every episode in theMahabharatha and the Ramayana is depicted here, in tableaus made of stone. There are allegedly 330 million gods in the Hindu pantheon and I would be willing to bet that each one is present here. The inner sanctum is covered from top to bottom in gems and gold. The murtis are draped in stone garments so silk-like, their folds invite one’s touch.
Thousands of visitors come here to pay respects every day and are taken on an elaborate tour consisting of animatronic displays using robotics, even an IMAX-like giant screen movie commemorating the life of a guru named Swaminarayan, whom I had never heard of, but whom the temple commemorates. The movie, which stars a very photogenic young man in the role of the swami and uses all sorts of tricks out of Hollywood, is indeed breathtaking. There is even a boat ride, a la Pirates of the Carribean, in which life in Vedic times is recreated in lifelike dioramas. The Vedic era boasted of higher education in mathematics and science, we are told. Also that Vedic life was replete with cosmetic surgery, nuclear weapons, rockets, and much, much more—to the point where you begin to wish you had lived then rather than now. The tour terminates in a display of dancing fountains representing a Hindu yagna (holy fire).
“This is just like Vegas!” I exclaimed as I faced the splashing waters reminiscent of the Bellagio.
“In the era of video games and television, we have nothing left to show our children,” My cousin said, “So we bring our children here to teach them Hindu values.”
I could see her point.
Why was I so disturbed then? Why did this place seem like religion with a capital R? Why did this display smack of jingoism to me?
I did understand why this monument to Hinduism had been built on the banks of the Yamuna. After all, when all the historic edifices in the capital are monuments to our bygone Islamic rulers, is it not natural to want a memorial to India’s Hindu past? After all, Muslims have their Mecca, Christians have the Vatican, Sikhs have the Golden Temple. Why not us?
Still, I wished that such a monument had suffered from the defect of understatement rather than overstatement. For there is this “over the top” quality to this temple that the ancient caves of Ajanta and Ellora, which I visited for the first time only ten days later, do not suffer from. Nor do the medieval Hindu temples of Bali. Surrounded by lily ponds and colorful gardens, Bali’s temples do not rise above the landscape, but rather merge with it to create an aesthetic so pleasing, one wants to sit in their pagodas for hours and hours. The Meenakshi temple in Madurai, too, never jars the eye. There is a serene quality to these ancient architectures that the Akshardham temple lacks.
What the makers of Akshardham have forgotten is that sometimes less is more.
By the time we had eaten the bad food in the cafeteria—which might have been the cause of one of the worst stomach ailments I have suffered from in my entire life and which made this trip to India hellish for me—and entered the very modern gift shop, I began to wonder, was this really a monument to Hinduism or a money-making machine?
For there were the Swaminarayan dolls and Swaminarayan mugs. There must have been Swaminarayan t-shirts too, though I can’t remember.
I could sympathize with the security at the entrance, which is characteristic of Indian life today; you see it in shopping malls, metro trains, and planes. But what was the logic of not allowing even an apple or a granola bar inside unless it was to cream an extra rupee out of you?
Akshardham was the first inkling to me of a shift in India’s psyche. Days later, I would encounter a group of schoolchildren atop the Daulatabad Fort in Aurangabad, and learn of the rigorous Hindu curriculum in their traditional school. Later still, I would watch a television anchor signing off with a “Jai Hind” and wonder, have we really come this far from Gandhi’s India? And where does patriotism stop and parochialism begin? Where does pride end and egotism begin?
It is perhaps natural that a country threatened with terrorist attacks from its next door neighbors, a country which is still wounded by its colonial past, but which has come to depend on American companies for its livelihood, should search for strength in its ancient religion. I just hope that this turn toward Hindu nationalism does not lead to fanaticism and further schisms in a land with a diverse population.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com