This is my sixth or seventh visit to Delhi and on all my other visits I managed to see many of the wonderful sites of Old Delhi. This time I was pretty sure that we would have a relaxing time, lazing at Ajay and Neeta's home, watching cricket and working on my journal. It was then that Ajay told us about a new temple that had been built on the banks of the Yamuna river. He heard that it was an amazing place, so we decided to wait until Neeta arrived home from teaching about 2:30 and after a quick lunch, we would head off to see it. It is quite a long way from their home, so we took warm clothing as we knew we would not be home until after dark and the temperature drops quite quickly here in December once the sun sets.
When we arrived at the temple site, we were surprised to learn that we were not allowed to take anything into the temple grounds whatsoever. For security reasons, no mobile phones, cameras, bags, purses, food packages, etc. could be taken past the entrance gates. We left everything in the car, but they even had counters where people could check their belongings if they came by taxi or bus. The security was as tight as any airport I've ever been through; the men and women were even separated into different lines and all were scanned with electronic devices and frisked by hand. I thought this was a little excessive, but then Anil told me that a similar temple in Ahmedabad had been attacked by terrorists three year ago. For this reason, they were not taking any chances.
As we entered the grounds, we became aware that we were in for something very special. We learned that in addition to visiting the temple itself and the grounds and gardens surrounding it, there were several shows that we could opt to visit that would explain the life of the Swaminarayan that had inspired the structure to be built. Information at the visitor's centre outlined some details of the Swami's life from the late 1700's till his death in 1830. A signboard stated that over three hundred million man hours by craftsmen and volunteers had gone into building the temple, completed just one year ago. I still can't believe that a structure of this size and complexity could be built in this day and age, especially without the slave labour that was available to the emperors in the past.
The shows remind me of ones that I have seen at Disneyland and Sea World in California. There is a show using robots that enact the main details of the Swami's life. This is done in a similar manner as the "America Sings" at Disneyland. There is a boat ride through the villages of India that is much like the "Pirates of the Carribean" and a fabulous IMAX-like film that uses actors to teach us about the Swamiji's travels throughout India starting at the tender age of eleven years. The final show is patterned after the dancing waters at Sea World, it is held outdoors just after sunset with the temple as a backdrop. Each and every one of the shows is first-rate. Anil and I were blown away that something of this magnitude and quality is being done in India. It goes to show, where there is a will, there is a way.
After the shows, we toured the temple itself. I was speechless at its grandeur and beauty. The entire temple rests on a platform with life-sized elephants on all four sides. Anil laughed and said that it was a good thing that they did not allow cameras in as I would have used up the entire card photographing each and every elephant. They were portrayed starting as wild beasts in the forests and depicted their growing interaction with humans. As I walked along the four sides of the platform, I saw the elephants gradually become am integral part of life in India. The last elephants were heavily decorated and adorned with elaborate jewellery and clothes for a holy procession. All the elephants were carved out of solid rock and were the natural colour of the stone. For an elephant lover like me, it was heaven.
We finished off our evening at the temple with a delicious meal at the food court. Somehow, this word doesn't do the place justice, as it was as beautifully decorated with wall paintings and carvings as the other buildings in the complex. There was a wide variety of foods from all over India - we found that many of the menu items were sold out as we were some of the last to eat there out of the many thousands who had been there that day. As we prepared to leave this amazing place, we realized that we had not seen all of the complex; there were beautiful gardens that time had not allowed us to view. I think the Akshar Dham Temple warrants another visit when we return to Delhi in the spring. It was very late and the large parking lot was almost empty when we arrived back at the car. We were glad that we had thought to bring along our warm clothing as it was almost 9:00 p.m. We had been at the temple since 4:30, the time had flown so quickly at such an amazing place.
I must close this entry by mentioning that the purpose of the temple is to honour the Swaninarayan and his message of peace, non-violence, love, harmony and respect for all life forms. There is a strong message promoting vegetarianism and encouraging all Indians to be proud of their heritage. Anil's comment as we left the temple was that after the Taj Mahal, this is one place that he would consider a "must-see".