Swaminarayan Akshardham is nearly 20 miles away and I was told it would take at least five hours to look at it. But that was the day Akshardham in New Delhi was being opened to public and any first day has it own charm—the walls still smell of paint, there’s not a speck of dust on the figurines, the volunteers are starched and eager to help, the brochures are still available, and there’s the joy of going back home and slipping into a session of storytelling and a bout of boasting. It is a wicked kind of joy, but when there are envious listeners around the mahogany dining table, that wickedness turns handsome. (Try it at home, it is such fun!)
There’s always that first-day bedlam too. Not many know that cameras and cell phones are strictly prohibited beyond the security check; the crowd at the cloakroom swells and gets impatient while waiting in line for tokens; my press
identity card is redundant, the cameras still would not be allowed. Thankfully, the parking lot is huge and you can park at will. I deposit my purse, cell phone, and camera in the cloakroom, pick up a token, and get into the separate line for women. I look at the snaking, unending line for men, and feel thankful about being a woman. Minutes tick by and at snail’s pace I reach the metal detector and get frisked. But the moment I step out of the glass door, I leave behind all ordinariness. I haven’t been there yet, but I assume that is what heavens would look like beyond the pearly gates.
Akshardham literally translates into the abode of the indestructible (a-kshar-dham). But what was built with thousands of tons of pink sandstone and marble procured from Pindwara and Sikandra in Rajasthan is not a temple, it is actually a monument dedicated to Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the founder of Swaminarayan Sampradaya, who was born in 1781 in Chhapaiya village near Ayodhya. He mastered the scriptures at age 7, and left home four years later on a spiritual pilgrimage. He scoured the country on foot for seven years and finally settled in Gujarat, spearheading a socio-spiritual revolution that gathered millions of people within its fold. Swaminarayan lived for 49 years and before breathing his last promised that he would forever live on this earth through the gurus who would succeed him. That is how he is akshar, the Indestructible.
Everywhere your eyes go, there’s pink sandstone and the expanse is so gigantic that it looks surreal. Who would believe that not too long ago the 100 acres was a barren, unlamented patch of land by river Yamuna and then as if one day the angels got generous, and walked down on earth to lend sanctity to it? I walk with the crowd and in the first courtyard see stone arches with water dripping like the strings of a harp—silently, peacefully, and eternally. You want to strum the flowing water and wait to hear the music flow.
The arches and the lush plants lead into a small pond with floating rose petals that has a large white marble replica of Swaminarayan’s feet. In the reception area, innumerable brass bells hang from the ceiling in concentric circles and even a slight breeze creates a concerto. Volunteers (men in black trousers and white shirt, women in white sari with red borders) are ready to help, retelling the story of their deity, enumerating the generosity of millions of devotees who poured Rs. 2 billion ($ 44 million) into the Sanstha coffers and the dedication of nearly 11,000 BAPS volunteers who chipped in to complete Akshardham in five years.
I am a little lost in the crowd and worried about packing things within the scheduled time. I ask around for help and information. Fortunately, this time the press card works; Rasik Vaghela and Brajesh Khatri are ready to take me around, but I have to wait in a closed room. The sanyasis keep away from women and I don’t want to intrude in their world. I stay behind closed doors till Vaghela and Khatri are ready with their kindness. There’s so much information that I have to pen … In the midst of names of deities and number of statues I suddenly realize that there’s no pen on my person. I have left it behind in the cloakroom. People ask for blessings and salvation and here I am asking for a pen. How mundane!
I try to keep pace with Vaghela and walk the two-kilometer long parikrama (colonnade) that sits like a necklace around the monument. The double-storied colonnade has 1,660 pillars, 145 windows, and 154 shikhars. Adding beauty is the Yagnapurush Kund, which is 300 feet by 300 feet, with 2,870 steps and 108 small shrines. Water from 151 different places has been poured into the kund and in its still waters grow lotus, beautiful and serene. I look around and throw in umpteen queries at Vaghela and quicker than I think, I am in front of Sahajanand Darshan, a hall which depicts the life of Swaminarayan with the help of a state-of-the-art multimedia program. In the section where a young Swaminarayan chides a fisherman for killing living beings, the fish seem so real that and the sky so blue that I have to pinch myself to confirm that it is technology and not a real mischievous fish in a gurgling stream.
If the Darshan is all about the life of Swaminarayan, the 12-minute boat ride of Sanskruti Vihar takes one through 10,000 years of Indian history and culture. As the boat with a golden veneer hurtles down steel rails embedded in an artificial stream, you can see clay sages gazing at the stars, dancers striking an elegant bharatanatyam pose, Patanjali writing Yoga Sutra, Charaka practicing rhinoplasty, and at the end are hundreds of modern men and women reaching out to the stars. It might seem impossible to capture a nation’s heritage in 12 minutes, but at Sanskruti Darshan you definitely get interesting details.
The main monument that houses the 11-foot gold-plated statue of Swaminarayan is 141 feet high, 316 feet wide, and 370 feet long. One would imagine that millions of sturdy iron rods alone could hold all the 234 ornate pillars together, but I am surprised to learn that not an inch of steel or iron was used in Akshardham, instead it was designed and carved entirely on the tenets of ancient Vedic sthapatya (architecture) shastras. The structure, replete with huge domes, Kangra paintings, and nearly 20,000 carved deities, figurines, statues, flowers, and arches rises on the shoulders of 148 gigantic elephants that depict 70 fables from the Puranas and Panchatantra. Don’t miss the rose garlands carved out of a single piece of stone and the paisleys on the caparisoned elephants.
When darkness sets in, Akshardham is lit lyrically and the musical fountain pirouettes deftly. After all this, if hunger sets in, you can walk into the restaurant and enjoy sumptuous vegetarian food. In the shop next door, you can also pick up herbal toiletries, honey, Swaminarayan mementoes, and books.
As I pull out my shoes from the white cloth bag of the shoe room, Vaghela and Khatri are still enumerating details about their deity. When I run down the steps of the monument, I look behind. The huge brown door is being closed, the lotuses are curling up, the fountains are falling silent, and the footfalls are fading away. I know I have a long drive back home; I thank Vaghela and Khatri for their benevolence, and return the borrowed pen. Like always, I forgot to ask the deity for something, but in the turmoil of a stretched evening the inner incandescence suddenly seems so tangible. I perhaps owe it to the deity. Perhaps he knew what I wanted.
Preeti Verma Lal has worked as a journalist in India and the United States. She now lives in New Delhi, freelances for several publications, and runs her website: www.deepblueink.com