Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Old Pictures: Akshardham

Meet Pramukh Swami Maharaj. He's the current guru of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, the impossible-to-say religious offshoot of Hinduism based upon the 18th and 19th Century teachings of a spiritual leader called Swaminarayan. Don't worry about these confusing names though, all we need to worry about for now is that this guru and this religion are behind one of my Wonders, Akshardham. It was only finished in 2005, after five years of work. Here's a little reminder.

The very venerable Pramukh Swami Mahara (aged 93 and still going strong) happens to be the perfect guide to take us through Akshardham's early photos. He oversaw the beginning to the end of construction. As the leader of a religion, he's a man constantly on the go, a man that likes to travel, and a man that his followers like to photograph. Starting in 1999 there is a comprehensive record of him and his travels, which cover all kinds of places, such as America, the UK, Kenya, Singapore, Bahrain, Kuwait, New Zealand, and more - and all across India of course. Happily, this record also captures the entire construction period of Akshardham, which he liked to visit regularly. So let us go on a journey...

It's May 2000, and the guru (I'm going to call him the guru from now on, as his full name is far too difficult to keep writing) arrives at the site of Akshardham, where the land has been prepared and is ready to go. Essentially we have the beginning of a building site.

Just one thing needs done - the land needs to be sanctified, which the guru does ceremonially with petals.

This includes the generator room, for some reason.

Later in November of the same year (after long trips to North America and Britain) he's back. This time the guru took a look at a pit for Akshardham's foundations, then sprinkled some flowers on some carved stones to be placed inside the pit. Still, we're not seeing much except for a building site in its early stages.

By June 2001 though, things have started to get going. We've got cranes and the beginning of the podium of the main monument. The first carved blocks are ready to be put in place. The guru has a wander and looks around, throws flowers, and blesses a crane. There appears to be a lot of flower-throwing and blessing when you're the guru.

Later in the month, he presides over the ceremony of the first carved stone being put in place.

Fast forward to February 2002 and the walls are going up. For the first time, you can begin to see the form Akshardham might take. The guru blesses a lot of people but is otherwise content to look around the site.

He's so impressed, he returns in March, this time to do some ceremonies.

For the rest of 2002, the guru is very busy. I'm not exaggerating - this guy is constantly on the move.He's a man in his 80s and he's jetting around the world, meeting people, blessing things, and presiding over countless ceremonies. By now he's spending some of his time in a wheelchair, that doesn't seem to stop him. Finally, he visits Delhi and Akshardham again, in February 2003. The progress is obvious.

By November 2003, Akshardham is still a building site, but it's quite a pretty one. This isn't one of these constructions that looks like nothing at all until the very last moment when suddenly its revealed, you know, like a Rolf Harris painting (am I still allowed to talk about Rolf Harris in the post-Savile era?). Akhardham isn't like that. Even from the early stages, its potential and form are clear. I reckon the guru agrees, for in November he takes another good look around and performs another ritual.

"Hey, I've spotted a mistake. Look!"

Apr 2004 - and the elephants have arrived. Many of the exquisite details that make Akshardham so fabulous are now in place, including the gorgeous ceilings. These are the best ceilings in the world, by the way, I've yet to see any better.

"Nice one, chaps," the guru says to all the workers, or words to that effect. "I can see things are in good hands. I'm off on a jolly, I'll see you later in the year." The guru leaves India now and goes off on a six-month trip around world, to the likes of North America, Europe, and Africa, eventually returning to Delhi in November. Not bad for an 82-year-old man. He's straight to Akshardham, which has progressed pleasingly, ans now resembles ancient Hindu ruins.

We're almost there though. By July 2005, the gardens are complete, and the main monument is likewise. The guru and a bunch of other people clamber onto the top to perform a ceremony before something called an amalsaro is placed on top of the dome.

He returns again in September. We're very close now. The main monument is virtually done and the debris of the building site is being cleared away.


Two months later and the temple is almost ready for opening. And look at this! Somebody has made an Akshardham cake! No evidence either way whether the guru gets to eat it or not.

And finally, later in the same month it's opening day. Akshardham is finished. I have no idea what's going on here, but it looks very ceremonial. I wonder if the guru ever gets tired of the endless ceremonies. I suppose not, that's why he's the guru. It would be like asking me if I ever get tired of thinking about Wonders of the World.


 Look, more cakes.

Notice, no Akshardham cake. I wonder who ate it.


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