Sunday, April 09, 2006


Last weekend, Auracana was in Delhi for the weekend, and I mentioned to her that there was a newly christened, gigantic temple that offered Lordly animatronics, a larger-than-life movie portrayal of a child saint, and a 12-minute boat ride through 10,000 years of Indian culture. Oh, and a musical fountain. Needless to say, she was intrigued. So off we went to Akshardham.

Akshardham is a Hindu temple complex, one of several around the world built to honor Swaminarayan, a late 18th century saint. It gives an overview of the sect's history, teachings, and accomplishments. From the website: "Swaminarayan Akshardham in New Delhi epitomises 10,000 years of Indian culture in all its breathtaking grandeur, beauty, wisdom and bliss. It brilliantly showcases the essence of India’s ancient architecture, traditions and timeless spiritual messages. The Akshardham experience is an enlightening journey through India’s glorious art, values and contributions for the progress, happiness and harmony of mankind."

The temple complex is magnificent, and far too much to take in on one trip. It is apparently the largest handcrafted structure in the world, and was done by a group of stonemasons who have devoted their lives to this craft and pass the skill down from generation to generation. (We interviewed these folks for visas once and got to know more about their roles and craft. Very dedicated!)

The entire complex is a symbol of the purity and teachings of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who as far as I can tell is considered by his followers to be an avatar of Vishnu / Krishna. As such, he came to protect the world in a time of wickedness. As an 11-year old in 1792, he left his brahmin home to wander 8000 miles on foot over seven years, dispelling danger through his faith and wisdom. He practiced austerities in the mountains, and I assume either had or attained enlightenment at this time. He developed a significant following and preached intense devotion (bhakti) and disattachment to material things in order to fully be able to offer worship to God. Today, as Wikipedia notes, a follower of Swaminarayan "devoutly begins the day with puja and meditation, works or studies honestly and donates regular hours in serving others. He/she observes the five principal vows: No Stealing, No Adultery, No Alcohol, No Meat, No Impurity of body and mind. "

So that's the purpose of the temple and the group behind the temple. Auracana and I were pretty well stunned by all the intricate detail work in the stone, and the sheer massiveness of the complex. Just to give you an idea of the scale of the place, all around the outside of the temple is the Gajendra Pith. It is 1100-feet long and is a tribute to the role of elephants in creation! It weighs 3,000 tons and has 148 full-sized elephants, and is just one tiny part of the complex. And it's about elephants, which is always appreciated. (Click on the pictures for larger views.) We wandered around the elephants, and then went through the main temple and read about the life of the young Swaminarayan, which was portrayed in decidedly low-tech paintings.

This is where it became a little more interesting. In what I assume is an attempt to grab the attention of today's MTV generation, there is the wonderful trifecta of displays I mentioned earlier - the Hall of Values animatronics display, the giant movie, and the boat ride. The Hall of Values was my favorite. Here we were part of a crowd of perhaps 200 and were whisked through a series of exhibit rooms depicting the life of Swaminarayan. In each room a seminal moment from his life was portrayed. As the website says, "The exhibits portray the messages of ahimsa, endeavor, prayer, morality, vegetarianism, family harmony, etc. through fifteen 3-D dioramas and presentations from the life of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Exquisite settings and statues in each diorama are brought to life through robotics, fibre optics, light and sound effects, dialogues and music; transporting the audience to 18th century India."

Perfect! Well, really It all felt eerily like the Pirates of the Carribean ride at Disneyland, except here the figures were looking for moksha instead of gold and booty. The figures would move in place, gesturing with their arms, blinking their eyes, and moving their lips in time with the story. One of the bonuses of this whole experience was trying to correctly time when the crowd would all stand up and surge toward the exit to go to the next room. About 5-10 seconds before the story ended, you could feel the crowd getting antsy - noone wants a bad seat for animatronics! One of the last rooms we went through had no animatronics, but was filled with signs hung around lifesize sad-looking animals that basically chastized people for eating meat. Totally guilt-inducing.

After experiencing the magic of robotics, we were let out into the open air again. We took a breather, and then noticed that people were sprinting toward the next exhibit, the Giant Screen Film. Featuring a cast of thousands (45 thousand!), 108 locations, and a very game set of actors, "Mystic India" once again gives an overview of Swaminarayan's life. But this time, instead of robots, the hook is a six-story high screen. It was impressive, and the production quality was very high. I felt bad for the actors portraying Lord Swaminarayan, as they spent the whole time walking barefoot through snow and brush. I think my favorite part was when the 11-year old saint saved a town that was being terrorized by a vicious lion. Swaminarayan waited until nightfall to meet the beast, which was the oldest and most domesticated looking lion I've ever seen. He kind of smiled and wrinkled his nose at the lion, at which point it flopped down and asked for a cookie. The town was saved!

At this point, the movie ended, we were asked for the 4th time by our neighbors in the exhibits if we understood the Hindi (it was all in Hindi - we said "some" and smiled), and made for the exit. It was getting late, and we were tuckered out. So, unfortunately, we did not go to the boat ride of 10,000 years. How disappointing, it's true. Here's a picture from the ride (all pictures from the Akshardham website, as cameras are not allowed inside). From the pictures, it looks pretty similar to the animatronics in the Hall of Values. Still, 10,000 years of culture in 12 minutes seems like a pretty tall order, and something worth experiencing. I think I will go back for this, and for the musical fountains. More reports then!


At 10:05 PM, Blogger araucana said...

I echo all of this, it was an astounding experience. The corporate commercialization of Hinduism (specifically Swaminarayan) was fascinating. I'm told that this sect is well known for having a very large financial base, but to see it in person was really something. My only regret was missing the fabled 12 min boat ride. Maybe I'll be in town to come along.

At 3:48 AM, Anonymous shrinkwrap said...

I am awed...shock and awe without the shock. Somehow the odd poses (on one foot; bending over backwards) by people in the dioramas is a little off-putting. Like seeing at WDW the country bears in some meditative pose. "Ommm" says the big friendly bear with eyes closed, standing on one paw. Can't get myself into it somehow.

Also it makes me feel uninformed, poorly educated, wanting in knowledge of Indian and world history. Did I sleep thru this in class? It really is amazing.

Thanks for sharing this experience.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Alizarin said...

Hooray elephants! Those are some nice-looking elephants. But -- largest handcrafted structure in the world? Somehow I would've thought Saint Peter's Basilica would've edged it out. Maybe not ... it might just look bigger with all the other buildings around it, like the Sistene Chapel. Clearly the Vatican should've added elephants.

Regardless, it's pretty amazing. Both the deep culture around the religious sect, and the themepark portraying of it, are pretty fascinating. The combination of commercialization and mystic sincerity reminds me of Japan.

I hope you both get to see the boat ride! Wish I could see it with you.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger WA said...

Boat ride sounds interesting. Went to the Swami Narayan temple in London a while ago, very impressive temple but I was totally lost without all the chaos and noise of the South Indian temples

At 5:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I visited when I last went to Delhi - very impressive. From the trifecta I actually like the boat ride the best (I also thought the food was pretty good).

At 1:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed it very much. It was peaceful and interesting. I am not sure about the Lion. It looked much healthier than what I have seen in the zoo in india. Maybe I don't know Lions as much as the person who wrote the blog....
I felt peaceful at this place....


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