Saturday, 14 January 2012

13. Wonder: Akshardham

(For the Akshardham preview, please click here.)

Aged 11, my preoccupations included computer games, comic strips, and a growing curiosity about girls' breasts. They didn't include the guidance and elevation of mankind. Therefore, had I been a pre-teen in northern India in 1792, it's unlikely I would have been kicking around with a fellow pre-teen ultimately to be known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan but then named just Ghanshyam. This precocious youth had been winning theological debates and having scholars acknowledge his divine glory, and in lieu of an 18th Century version of the Littlewoods catalogue bra section to divert him, young Ghanshyam changed his name to Neelkanth Varni (Neelkanth literally means "blue neck" and relates to the Hindu god Shiva drinking the world's poison to redeem it, Varni just means "holy man") and began a seven-year-long 12,000 kilometre trek across India. So while my teenage years were spent immersed in Football Manager and examining awkward new spots, Ghanshyam aka Neelkanth Varni aka Bhagwan Swaminarayan was on a spiritual adventure that ultimately led to the establishment of a new religion.

This new religion is given the common and somewhat unfortunate acronym of BAPS - I'm sure many a young lad has been disappointed when visiting BAPS stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha - I'll stick with the acronym, thanks - and purports to be a "global socio-spiritual organisation committed to the moral and spiritual uplift of mankind" and is based upon the teachings of child wanderer-turned-spiritual leader, Bhagwan Swaminarayan. ("Bhagwan" kind of means "Lord" and "Swaminarayan" is a mantra that when chanted is supposed to being the follower closer to god and redeemed of material desires). After his spiritual journey, Bhagwan amassed a number of followers, and began spreading the word about some new lessons for life, including not killing animals, opposing the Hindu caste system, and welfare for women. In conservative, traditional India, this was very enlightened thinking. Upon his death in 1830, a guru was appointed to continue his work, much in the way that the pope is the figurehead of Catholicism. At present, we're on the fifth guru. In 1907, the third guru formally established BAPS, and the 20th Century was all about spreading the word beyond India. In 2005, after just five years of work, the temple of Akshardham, the focal point of this new religion, was built.

Perhaps to call BAPS a religion is misleading, for nowhere in their literature to they call it such, preferring words like philosophy, code of conduct, and organisation. Hinduism is barely mentioned, and then only in the passing, though it is inferred throughout. But when you have god, believers, written teachings and codes, and temples, it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to call that a religion. Besides, isn't that just another word for "socio-spiritual organisation"?

But let's not play semantics. In simple terms, as I see it, BAPS is a modern and more focussed offshoot of Hinduism based on the teachings of the peace-and-equality preaching spiritual leader, Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Hinduism has a lot of gods and a lot of stuff going on and is somewhat of a sprawling confusion for the uninitiated, and so BAPS brings it into focus with a figurehead and clear message. And the large and ornate temple of Swaminarayan Akshardham, situated near the banks of the Yamuna river in New Delhi, represents this figurehead's eternal abode, as well as being a patriotic showcase of all that is glorious and mighty about India.

So it was here that I visited on my first morning in Delhi, shrouded in fog, and decidedly chilly. Conveniently, Akshardham is placed on an eponymous stop on Delhi's crowded-but-decent metro line, and can be seen very easily from the station. Well, except on days shrouded in fog, that is. I followed a metro sign for the temple which led me outside the station, to a crowd of rickshaw drivers baying for my blood, or 10 Rupees at any rate, but sensing the proximity of the temple based on their cheap opening price I asked a non-rickshaw driver the directions. Round the corner, and less than five minutes later, I was in the outer compound of Akshardham.

Akshardham does its very best to skim off any early favour you feel for it with its rigid security. Bags, cameras, phones, and even USB sticks are not allowed in the premises, so have to be given to a free cloakroom before entry. The lack of camera means that all the photos here are lifted from the internet (entirely without permission) and the above photo of myself was taken by an official Akshardham photographer and a large copy in a booklet sold to me for 150 Rupees (about £2). After depositing most of your possessions, a metal detector and a pretty thorough pat-down, including a very subtle "cupping", has to be undergone. Delhi has a lot of security checks but Akshardham was the most thorough I've experienced. On my second visit, Danielle was wearing a skirt that went down to her knees - this was deemed too short and there were no sarongs or back-up clothes for her. She would have been turned back, but fortunately she had a scarf that, when wrapped around her, went a centimetre lower than her skirt, thus just covering her knees. This was seemingly permissible and she was allowed to pass. Nonetheless, she was quietly indignant when various Indian women walked about freely with billowing sarongs that did nothing to cover their flabby bellies - "Why is that allowed when the sight of my knees aren't?" she complained. She wasn't the only one to feel hard done by - while taking notes, I was approached by a security guard explaining that this was forbidden. Note-taking? Taking an interest in the temple? Forbidden? The security guard indicated that the 5 Rupee leaflet was the only thing I should have, and I could see there was no point in arguing, so simply became more covert in my note-taking.

So some pedantic security doesn't do much to help Akshardham's case, but all that is forgiven after you've ventured through the visitors' centre, turn the corner, and look at the central monument to the complex, and in the tradition of all the very best Wonders, go "wow".

Akshardham Monument is an incredible structure. The whole complex is built from pink sandstone and is attractively carved but the Monument itself really is a masterpiece. Whatever criticisms might be levied at the overall complex - and they usually seem to focus on a slight whiff of tackiness (an excellent New York Times article describes it as having "The Disney Touch") or commercialism - there can be no doubt that the Monument is a beautiful and impressive structure very much in line with some of the better Wonders I've seen. It's big first of all, 43 metres high, 96 metres wide and 109 metres long, as though Angkor Wat had been shrunk in the wash, and sits on a platform. It looks good from all directions, but the approach is the very best, as a wide walkway and some steps means the Monument looms ahead and above. Again, I make comparisons with Angkor Wat (another Hindu temple, as it happens). Although the approach to Angkor Wat is longer, both are designed to instil a suitable amount of awe as the building grows closer with each step. It is effective. Akshardham is an attractive building from a distance, with a commanding presence, but its true star quality is in the details. Akshardham is all about the details.

Close-up, Akshardham truly is one of the most exquisite buildings I have ever seen in my life. Everywhere, all over, it is hand-carved - 20,000 figure sculptures are the quoted statistic, but this doesn't include the masses of decorative detail. The platform the Monument rests on, for a start, is surrounded by elephants, seemingly emerging in full three-dimensions from the stone. There are 148 of these elephants, all different and all startling in their detail. And then the Monument. The exterior wall of the Monument is known as the mandovar and is a huge mass of stone - no steel was used in construction, Akshardham is entirely stone, conforming to traditional techniques - with so many patterns, motifs, figures, and features that the eye simply doesn't know where to begin or end. There's too much to describe and I think I'd implode if I even tried; walking around the mandovar is a visual overload. My eyes darted from feature to feature, not really able to take it in unless I stopped and focussed. I'll at least mention what seemed to me the highlights: the handsome pillars, supporting the three entry porches, ornately carved; and the series of small, square decorative motifs, arranged grid-like, an acting as small windows to the interior. But really, all of it - wow.

And then inside. Let's get the slight misstep, at least to my eye, out of the way first. Upon entering is a large golden statue of Bhagwan Swaminarayan surrounded by his gurus. The sanctum that holds this scene is awash with bling, gold, gems, and marble, and is done to a very fine detail but is somewhat ostentatious. It's a little too much. A harsher critic than myself might call it gaudy. I understand that this is meant to be the focus of the whole complex, and an effort has been made to exceed even the magnificence of the mandovar, but in trying to exceed it has become excessive.

But I forgive everything for the ceilings. Oh, the ceilings! Nothing - not words, not photos, not even cats tied to fireworks exploding into the sky spelling words of praise - can do justice to how splendid the ceilings are. I fear Akshardham makes me fall into a world where only the words "magnificent", "ornate" and "detailed" exist, and all these and more apply to Akshardham Monument's ceilings, but they utterly captivated me. "Every ceiling mesmerizes, demonstrating the awesome power and dexterity of the human mind and hand", claims the promotional literature, and I can only agree.


As well as a slightly gaudy central focus, and superb ceilings, the interior of the Monument also contains stories of Bhagwan Swaminarayan's life, as well as some of his relics - samples of his hair, nails, his footprint, and sandals are on offer. Descriptions of the gurus that succeeded him are on some of the walls. The interior is spacious and cool, based around the central sanctum, and enjoyable to meander around. The space reminds of a cathedral, as do some of the statues and inscriptions, although the lack of seating and overall layout is far more in line with the feel of a temple. Oddly, there isn't the sense of reverence associated with holy buildings: maybe Akshardham is still too new, or maybe the people there are largely just tourists rather than devotees. Filled with a hundred people silent in prayer rather than a hundred chattering to each other might give the space a more reverential feel.

In one sense, visiting Akshardham is a little like stepping back in time. It is like seeing Angkor Wat or some other now-ancient but glorious temple in its heyday. Most of the world's spectacular and renowned temples are pretty old, and as a result, pretty ruined. The details are faded, the carvings often faded, broken, vandalised, or simply vanished. But with Akshardham they are new, fresh, and vivid.

But in another sense, Akshardham is a very modern reflection: the giftshop, the food hall, the stringent security. I have no real complaint with these, as they all add something to the experience, whether it's simply not being hungry, or being able to appreciate the surroundings without the sound of mobile phones everywhere. I imagine many of the ancient temples, had they been built in this age, might have done the same. In addition to these, although I unfortunately didn't have the time to visit them, is an exhibition centre with three halls, with sound and light shows, animatronic models, cinema screens, and a boat ride, all dedicated to promoting Indian culture and history, as well as the BAPS back story. Akshardham may be built with traditional materials in a traditional style, but it is preaching a message using very modern methods.
It is this that has drawn the sly criticisms, for either being a bit tacky or commercial. I can see their point. Temples are usually associated with a kind of hushed reverence, not a food court and boat ride. But why not? If there's a message to get across, get it across the best way. As for the commercial aspect, well, the complex is entirely free to enter, the cloakrooms free to use, and only the exhibition centre and fountain show costing money, at a pretty nominal fee. Sure, there's a gift shop, but this is little different from the numerous stalls that usually line the path of religious monuments. You'll see the same kind of thing in major cathedrals around the world. `

Nonetheless, one of the key features of a Wonder is the sense of gravitas it commands, and it can be argued quite easily that gift shops and food courts detract from this sense of gravitas. It seems unfair, as commercialism is a large part of many Wonders these days, but usually the commercial aspects are recent additions onto ancient monuments (the Pyramids didn't originally have a Pizza Hut overlooking them and the temples of Angkor didn't originally come with single day, three-day, or one-week laminated passes). With Akshardham, the commercial aspects are built-in, giving it the theme park feel. The over-riding impression of visiting Akshardham should be the splendour of the central monument, but instead there is a lingering sense of the superficial. Religious monuments usually command a sense of spirituality, even for a cynical atheist such as myself. Whether the grand Istiglal Mosque in Jakarta reputedly capable of holding 120,000 people, or the humble St. James Church in central Sydney, a sense of peace and inner reflection is usually felt. Akshardham doesn't have this. As I've said, maybe it doesn't have enough followers, the majority of visitors being Indian tourists who meander around in groups and chatter. Or the problem is simply its newness - give it a thousand years to age and crumble and it will acquire a more heavyweight feel.

For all that, there is no question that the decoration of the Monument as well as the surrounding complex is simply awesome. Akshardham is still pretty unknown outside of Delhi, but it deserves a larger profile. "Wow" moments don't come that often and Akshardham offers several - a wow at first sight of the Monument, a sustained wow while walking around the astonishing mandovar, and a series of breathless wows at the world-class domed ceilings. I can ask no more of any Wonder on my list to make me stand with mouth agape. Akshardham may be flawed, but it still took my breath away.

Criteria then.

Size: The overall complex is on a 30 acre site and so there's plenty to walk around and explore. But the focus is on Akshardham Monument, and although this isn't in a super-giant category, it's still large and imposing at 43 metres high and around 100 metres wide.
Engineering: Built entirely in stone and marble, without the use of steel, in the space of five years. It may not have pushed the boundaries of technology, but it took a lot of hard work.
Artistry: Simply exquisite.
Age/Durability: Only six years old, Akshardham still feels very young, despite its traditional architecture. It seems very new and still to find its feet. But built entirely of stone and marble, it would appear built to last, although with its mass of fine details inevitably fading with time (some superficial damage is already apparent).
Fame/Iconicity: Not really known about outside of India. Guidebooks to India don't even give it much of a mention, and there are loads of other sights in Delhi alone that feature more prominently in visitors' itineraries.
Context: Its position in a drab, flat part of Delhi does nothing to enhance Akshardham, but once inside the complex the Monument is well-positioned.
Back Story: The centrepiece of a new religion, or at least a religious-esque organisation, Akshardham's back story ties in with the story of BAPS. The temple complex itself was built efficiently in five years, following a (self-fulfilling) prophecy in 1968 from the fourth guru that a temple would be built on the shores of the Yamuna River.
Originality: Although done in traditional Indian styles, Akshardham is not a copy, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. It takes traditional features and styles to compose the details and create something unique.

The July 2011 edition of the Readers' Digest featured a Seven Wonders for the 21st Century, i.e. built since 2000. Akshardham was listed fifth. Perhaps this is the beginning of some recognition for a so-far obscure gem. Because for all its shortcomings, Akshardham is a joy to behold. It is architecturally incredible. If it was discovered in the jungle (sans gift shop, boat rides, etc), lost for hundreds of years, it would be acclaimed as a masterpiece of art and engineering, and day-trippers would flock to take photos. Because it is brand new and in a suburb of Delhi, with the slight scent of theme park trailing it, it gets less acclaim. But don't be misled by its youthful flaws, Akshardham is magnificent, and one of my surprise hits of the tour itself. A true World Wonder? Maybe not, but it rises above most of what I've seen so far. So while lacking the gravitas and mystery of Borobudur, which I would place it well below, it has the edge on another modern masterpiece, the Petronas Towers. This obscure and unacclaimed temple punches well above its weight and deserves far greater recognition.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Angkor Wat
2. Sydney Opera House
3. Borobudur
4. Akshardham
5. Petronas Towers
6. The Golden Temple
7. Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Ayutthaya Historic Park


  1. Ok, So you need to be introduced to the History of Swaminarayan Sampraday. (Sampraday means "religious system" in Sanskrit and related languages.)

    Lord Swaminarayan was born in 1781 A.D. After his journey through India, he settled in the state of Gujarat in the ashram of Ramanand Swami. He became the successor of that ashram after Ramanand Swami. Then he set up a religious tradition called Swaminarayn Sampraday. He set up 2 centres for the management of the sampraday under 2 Acharyas, one in Vadtal and other in Ahemdabad.

    Now, BAPS is a path that separated from the Vadtal because of doctrinal differences, they believe in the teachings of Gunatitanand swami, consider him as a form of akshar, and successor of Lord Swaminarayan. Where as in Vadtal and other paths they do not believe that. (Similar to Shia and Sunni differences). So BAPS is name of the Akshar-purshottam path of Swaminarayan, but it is not name of the religion. The name of the religion is Swaminarayan Sampraday.

    Also note that Hinduism is a name which is given to a set of different religious traditions, with each tradition having one god as their supreme, some god-less traditions also exists (Mainly the ones which consider Ashtang Yoga as a path to enlightenment), and both types of paths are valid according to the scriptures. The rule is that to be considered a Hindu tradition, it has tohindu based on Vedic Philosophy, and Swaminarayan Sampraday have their roots in Vedic Philosophy. Hence it is very much a form of Hindu religion. You must have notices idols of Radha-Krishna, Sita-Ram, Nar-Narayan, Parvati-Shiva in the main building of the temple along with the idol of Lord Swaminarayan. This is only because Swaminarayan path is a Hindu tradition, and hence you have to respect all the gods of Hinduism.

    Hope this helps. :)


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