Monday, 25 July 2011

Preview: Akshardham

Take a look at this.

That's Akshardham, the largest Hindu temple complex in the world, in Delhi. Pretty nice, isn't it? Would you care to take a guess at its age? 500 years? 100 years? No, much lower: 6 years.

Akshardham - named after the supreme abode of God in the Hindu belief system - was officially opened on November 6th, 2005, after an impressively quick five years of construction. Built on the banks on the Yamuna river - the same river that, 200km away, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort sit by - it was inspired by an initial idea in 1968 by Yogiji Maharaj, who at the time was the head of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha which is a major organization within the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism, which itself is a modern tradition in the Vaishnava denomination of Hinduism, which is a tradition of Hinduism, distinguished from other schools by its worship of Vishnu or his associated Avatars. Got that?

It's ok, I've not either. I must admit that the world of Hinduism baffles me, not least due to the impenetrably convoluted names that leave me gasping for air mid-way through each sentence. I've no doubt it would be the same for an Indian absolutely uninitiated in Christianity trying to make sense of the various sects and practices that seem to endlessly rabbit warren the moment you try and delve into the world. In trying to find the meaning to something, I just open a door to a whole new set of questions... hey, that's religion!

So let's just accept for now that Akshardham is a Hindu temple in Delhi, of the Swaminarayan sect. Built from Rajasthani pink sandstone and white Italian Carrera marble (that's the same marble used to build the Pantheon in Rome and Michelangelo's statue of David), it was constructed entirely without steel or concrete support by over 10,000 workers, 3000 of which were volunteers. At 43 metres high, 96 metres wide and 110 metres long, it is the same size as eight White Houses sitting four across and two deep, all sitting on top of another eight White Houses. It was built according to traditional Hindu systems of design and architecture, hence its quite appealing "ancient" look, rather than some sleek modern beast of chrome and glass.

However, modernity is very much the name of the game with the Akshardham complex. This is not an austere temple of spartan simplicity and whispered silence, it's a vast thriving arcade of entertainment in celebration of traditional Indian and Hindu culture and religion. Within are contained such delights as a musical fountain, a theatre boasting an IMAX cinema screen of 26 by 20 metres, a 12-minute boat ride through Indian history, a food hall (because you're not allowed to bring in your own food), lots of lovely gardens, and the centrepiece, the "Sahajanand Pradarshan " or "The Hall of Values", which displays lessons and moments from Swaminarayan's life and includes, ahem, the world's smallest animatronic robot in the form of Ghanshyam Maharaj, who is the child form of Swaminarayan.

I promise to make sense of that upon visiting, and hopefully making inroads into exactly what Hinduism is on about, and am sure I'll be inspired by what I expect to be a tiny robot child (I'm hoping for cornflake-size or less). And hopefully then I'll have managed to form an opinion of Akshardham that doesn't sound like it's copied direct from the tourist brochure. Because that's pretty much the only good information I can get right now. Most of the above is from the only decent source I can find about the temple complex, Wikipedia, or the sources it references within, many of which seem to be barely-concealed promotional articles, if not direct from the Akshardham website itself. That's not to say they are not informative, for they are full of wholesome details, but I kind of feel like a broadly-smiling Indian man is taking my hand and carefully guiding me only to where the sun is shining.

That Akshardham has a secret darkness is not something I'm seriously suggesting, because it seems to have been with only good intentions and for good if slightly "let's give a big shout out to all the Indians in the house!" reasons. The only real controversy associated with it seems to be not properly applying for environmental clearance from the government and its claim for being the largest Hindu temple complex (that is, the temple and the surroundings grounds) in the world, as verified by none other than the Guinness Book of Records. Several other Hindu temple complexes in India claim, with justification, to be bigger, but I don't think Guinness is listening.

In fact, maybe the most revealing information is from the TripAdvisor website, in which reviews can be added by anyone. In amongst the many gushing reviews, saying it's an "EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD" and "better than the Taj Mahal!" are a couple of dissenting voices. While giving it just a single star out of five, one says that "the 'temple', if you can call it that, is more of an amusement park of the most kitschy kind" and another, in rating it three stars, says "this temple seems to have been built purely with tourism in mind" but also is in genuine admiration for the architecture and craftsmanship.

I have no issue with Akshardham being a tourist trap, for all the best structures in the world inevitably are. It looks fantastic in photos, and by all descriptions seems on the scale and craft that a Wonder should be. Sure it's new, and sure it appears to have a bit of a commercial agenda, but in the end it will boil down to the essence that underpins all candidate Wonders: impact. If it is grand, austere and monumental, then it will surely have this; if it is a giant tacky giftshop then it won't. It's fair to say that Akshardham is a bit of a dark horse in this whole World Wonder mission.

I'll be visiting Akshardham temple complex in January, and will give a fuller account of whether it has substance or just sheen, as well as my own impressions.

Reviewed 6th February 2012.


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