Finding Faith in Delhi: Akshardham & the Life of Swaminarayan

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This post is part of an ongoing series on Foreign Loren on finding faith.  In addition to exploring my own, I plan to reflect on my experiences with other faiths and spiritual experiences throughout our journey.  Look for more posts on “Finding Faith” soon!

As mentioned in my last blog post, our first stop in India was New Delhi.  After arriving to our hotel in the early hours of the morning and crashing, we tried to sleep in (as much as one can with jet lag) and took our time getting ready to head out on our first day of explorations in the city.

A friend of a friend from India who lives in Delhi had recommended that we check out Akshardham as it was something that we couldn’t miss during our trip.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take cameras into Akshardham or really anything at all (including electronics, new paper, bags, wallets, books, etc., etc., etc.) so we don’t have any photos from our visit. The temple has lockers but those come with really long lines of waiting to put your things in them and then waiting to retrieve your items when you leave.  So, with just some money in our pockets, we made our way to the subway and onto our first adventure of the day – buying subway tokens or a card to just get to Akshardham.

After standing in several lines and talking to various people about what pass to buy, what line to be in, exiting the subway station to go to a supposed tourist office where we thought we could buy a subway pass but were then directed back to the subway station when they figured out that we really only wanted a pass and nothing else, we decided to get a Smart Card.  While it had a small fee involved, we figured it was worth our time to pay the 50 rupees each (or approximately 82 cents) to get the card so that we didn’t have to wait in long lines for tokens every time we wanted to use the subway.  (And, at the end of our time in Delhi, despite hesitations and many “no”s from a station worker, we were able to get 30 rupees of the 50 rupee fee refunded to return our cards.  No matter how many times they say that they can’t give you a refund, keep asking…eventually, you should get it!)

After a short, easy subway ride and a quick walk (no need to take a rickshaw…although, there are many waiting if you do want a ride), we arrived.

Akshardham is a Hindu temple complex, which was completed in 2005.  It highlights the life and teachings of Swaminarayan.  The temple itself is amazingly intricate.  The detail in the domes was particularly impressive.  It seemed that every nook and cranny of the complex included some type of beautiful carving.  Akshardham was amazingly built in 5 years by 11,000 artisans and volunteers.  It was definitely a site to see!  In addition to the primary temple, which is apparently the Guinness Record Holder for “World’s Largest Comprehensive Hindu Temple Complex,” there are several exhibits for visitors.  Entry to the temple and grounds are free, and there was a 170 rupee ($2.80) ticket for the exhibits.

After arriving and checking out the temple and eating lunch (where we had our first official India thali – delicious!), we decided to check out a few of the exhibits.  Lonely Planet described the complex as having a “Disney-esque” feel to some of the exhibits, and we found that to be very true! The first exhibit was the Hall of Values.  Using lifelike robotics and dioramas, the exhibit detailed the life of Swaminarayan and outlined the principles that he espoused during his life and that many of his Hindu followers adhere closely to today, such as peace, harmony, service to others, devotion to God, and vegetarianism.  Following the Hall of Values, we went into the IMAX theater for a film on what we thought was more about India and Hinduism in general but ended up being a telling of the life of Swaminarayan.  The movie was set all across India with thousands of people from all over the country participating in its filming.

As it was getting late in the day, we decided to walk through the Garden of India on the temple grounds and head back to our hotel for the evening.  We planned to just stop in our room and grab our bags and head out for dinner.  But, we never made it back out that night…totally exhausted and jet lagged from our first day of adventuring in India.

While Akshardham was not necessarily the first thing that guidebooks encourage you to visit in Delhi, I’m very glad that we decided to take in the temple on our first day of exploring.  It wasn’t difficult to get to and included a number of things to see and do, as well as good food, all in one place.  We visited the temple on a Sunday so it was full of Indian families and Indian tourists coming to worship at the temple or relax on the complex grounds.  During our visit, we saw few Westerners in the main temple or in the exhibits.  It was nice to feel that we were experiencing something authentic and part of local culture rather than just a tourist stop along the way.

Today, it seems that few religious buildings of this magnitude are built or are in regular use. However, completed just 9 years ago, Akshardham appears to have quickly taken on importance to both locals, as well as Indians traveling throughout their own country.  And, while some of the messages emphasized by the temple and exhibits are fairly unique to those following the teachings of Swaminarayan – service to others and dedication to God are more universal, regardless of your faith background.  (Although, there was a very hard sell for vegetarianism throughout the visit!)  No matter your faith, it was hard not to be moved by the beauty and the sense of reverence inspired by the temple and its grounds.

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