Tuesday, August 23, 2005
The God of All Things
Visiting a temple has always been an 'outing' for the average Indian. Especially so for housewives.
Long before early morning walks in salwar kameez and Reeboks became socially acceptable, the only excuse bahus had to get some fresh air and 'darshan' of the outside world was to say,"Maaji, main zara mandir ho kar aa rahi hoon".
You could even dress up a bit for the occassion - and get away with it.
What's more, given the number of festivals and fasting days on the Hindu calendar, there was always some God or Godess who would need to be paid a personal visit.
These were the thoughts in my mind as I stepped into Akshardham. The grand Swaminarayan temple in Gandhinagar - now better known as the temple once held hostage by terrorists.
You can't really forget that - given the elaborate, airport-style security at the gate. If yor mobile phone has a camera, even that will have to be surrendered outside.
Kotler would be proud
However the trouble is worth it. It's truly an impressive complex. The gardens are immaculate and lush green. Not a piece of kachra to be seen anywhere. And the temple building itself is grand - by any standard.
Of course, once you are inside the temple you're slightly disoriented. There are no Ram-Sita/ Krishna/ Durga statues. Or the standard shiv-lingam. It is after all a 'Swaminarayan' temple, so you have a giant golden (or is it pure gold?) statue of Swaminarayan maharaj.
No explanation of any kind is given about him. To learn about his claim to sainthood there is of course the 'exhibition hall'. Here, there are giant tableaus of key scenes from the Ramayan, Mahabharat, Upanishads et al. Some of the exhibits are mechanised in "It's a Small World" style.
Welcome to Spiritual Disneyland.
The ultimate objective, of course, is to build the Swaminarayan brand. To associate this relatively new spiritual name with the old and established names in the religious supermarket.
So we're also given an education in the life and times of Swaminarayan. Now whether or not you leave the hall accepting the fact that Swaminarayan is an avatar of God is debatable. But the idea of planting the seed of that thought in this manner is quite brilliant.
Pet + Pooja
What's more, the Akdhardham complex is now a full-fledged 'entertainment' centre. There are amusement park style rides - including a water slide. And a very clean, cheap and cheerful food court offering everything from paranthas to "nuddles". (their spelling, not mine).
In an era of multiplexes and malls, Akshardham is also working hard to retain its place as destination families choose to go to on a Saturday evening. And I think in that objective it has certainly succeeded!