On my last day in Delhi (and in India), we went to this much-hyped new temple (opened only October of this year) on the banks of the Yamuna, run by the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism and dedicated to the founder, Swaminarayan, an 18th century mystic. The temple is on a huge patch of land (around 100 acres) on the banks of the Yamuna. Prime real estate! A vast complex of red sandstone buildings and sculpture, testament to the ancient Hindu heritage of India. It is pretty impressive, especially in the central temple building itself, with its fast gold-plated idol of the deified mystic, and a visual fest of dancing figures and geometric designs all around the octagonal building. [The statues of the other gods in the temple, Radha-Krishna, Shiv-Parvati, Ram-Sita, however, have that saccharine plastic quality not that different from the kitschy Sacred Heart statues of Jesus one finds all over the place.]
In addition, there’s spacious gardens, a huge reflecting pool, an IMAX theater which screens a film on the adventures of Neelkanth Varni, an 18th century boy (and mystic) who traveled across India, it seems, and a boat-ride which supposedly takes one through dioramas illustrating the glories of ancient India.
The atmosphere, however, feels nothing like any other Hindu temple I’ve been to. For one, the first thing one encounters is a huge parking lot. Obviously, this temple was built after the booming economy took-off, and India’s middle-class started flexing its financial muscle. There is an extensive security check as one enters (there was a terrorist attack at another Swaminarayan temple in 2002. It is incredibly sad to see machine-gun toting police patrolling a religious establishment). The most striking thing is the cleanliness. No Indian temple is kept this spotlessly clean! Besides, other temples are in crowded parts of town, full of color and sound and smells, with hawkers peddling incense and flowers and coconuts, trying to draw custom by increasing the decibel-level. No one here tries to fleece you when you deposit your shoes on a rickety shelf manned by a suspicious looking fellow whose looks makes it clear than you won’t be seeing your footwear again unless your baksheesh is suitably generous. No, here the “boot-house” is, well, clean. And efficient. And free of charge. A huge gift shop for all your religious shopping needs as well. And the obligatory (fully vegetarian) food-court. [I’ve been to precious few temples in North America. However, it seemed that this edifice would fit right in, say, suburban Maryland.]
Then theres the megaphones. Throughout the grounds, a recorded voice repeats various instructions – about the free “boot-house,” special discounts on the IMAX showing and boat-ride, and so on – in that sanitized, Sanskritized, artificial form of Hindi that one encounters only in hyper-pious TV shows, that no one really speaks, and just grates on the nerves. Even the much derided Doordarshan newscasters don’t go this far to make Hindi sound “pure” (i.e. remove every trace of Urdu, Turkish and Persian that one can).
The atmosphere really is that of a theme-park. One stop weekend family spiritual entertainment.
Don’t get me wrong. Catholic shrines and places of pilgrimage are as full of kitsch and lucre as any other religious site. I think its just natural that where large numbers of people congregate, there will be the enterprising who will provided services (and cheat the gullible). The temple itself is quite impressive, the architecture stunning - and it's heartening to see such ancient arts still flourishing, and a livelihood provided to struggling artisans. What I reacted to most was this sense of artificiality, of being a theme-park. But then, I’m really an outsider.
I picked up a booklet on the story of this particular Akshardham, and how it came together. Full of self-congratulatory hyperbole. And yes, artifice in another sense. That revision of Indian history from the ideological perspective of Hindutva that conflates Hindu identity with Indian identity. A certain kind of “golden-ageism” in describing the ancient history of India that I find particularly irritating (I had no clue that the ancient “rishi-scientists” were also responsible for discovering plastic surgery and flight, in addition to the better known discovery of algebra and zero!). How else could they say that the site is dedicated to exhibiting the long course of Indian history, and at the same time say that there was a conscious decision to use architectural styles that pre-date the 12th century, “before the foreign influence began?” Islam has been a part of India for a thousand years. It is not a “foreign influence” and none of this ideologically motivated and bigoted revision of history can change that. Islam has made a huge impact on Indian culture, even in the South (supposedly “pure” and “unstained” – let’s not forget that Urdu shairi and ghazals, for instance, began really in the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan, while the north was still enamored of Persian), on art, architecture, dance, music, and, yes, most especially, language. And what about the other minorities? 2000 years of Christianity? The even longer presence of Zoroastrians? The unique contributions of the Sikhs, at that confluence of Hinduism and Sufi Islam? And how on earth can you claim to be representing the glories of Indian history and never, once, mention caste?
Gimme a friggin break.
Ultimately, my “pseudo-secularist” mindset (as, I’m sure, the Hindutva crowd would label these ruminations. Oh wait, I’m also a mleccha, now that I’ve left the purity of the Sanatana dharma [the Eternal Religion, as Hinduism is known in some quarters] to follow the religion of the colonial masters, right?) simply couldn’t bracket all this out, and my experience of Akshardham really cannot be dissociated from my instinctive dislike of anything to do with the BJP-VHP-RSS set.
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing in the morning was seeing the delight of my 3 year old nephew, as he raced across the vast open spaces of the temple-complex (he’s constantly moving. I’ve nicknamed him Brownian Motion), and, at the behest of his father, very sweetly and piously, doing “jai jai” (offering obeisance) to the deities in the temple.
And then he announces, in a tone that would brook no dissent, “I want to go to McDonalds.” So, guess where we went next?
Ah, globalism triumphs all. :)
[Sorry, no pictures. Didn't realize before we got there that one cannot take cameras inside. There was no good vantage point from the busy road to get a good shot of the temple once we left.]