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The Akshardham mega-complex located in Robbinsville, New Jersey is the largest Hindu temple under construction in the western hemisphere. Akshardham North America was envisioned by my guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, in the year 1997- the same year I was born. From the first moments of stepping foot into the temple as a toddler, I learned to hail: “Akshardham Mahotsav ni Jay!” or Hail the Akshardham Inauguration Celebrations! The prayers of thousands over the span of two decades are finally coming to fruition.

Image: Akshardham: New Delhi, India

 

Project Phases for the Temple

As the project reaches its final year under construction, an opportunity for volunteers emerged. The love for the guru attracted many to serve on-site for weeks – or months – at a time. Devotees moved their families across the states to Robbinsville, New Jersey to be able to volunteer full-time all in the name and honor of spirituality, God, and the Guru. It also attracted youngsters from the age of 19 to learn an unfamiliar trade, working enthusiastically in the scorching heat of the summer through the numbing winters of the Northeast region just for the longing desire to fulfil the vision of their guru. Pramukh Swami once claimed, the devotees themselves will build this temple: a humanly impossible feat. On more than 200 acres of land, this mega-cultural complex serves as a modern-day example of the human and spiritual capability when “samp” or one-mindedness is achieved.

The term Akshardham (Ak-shaar-dm) means “the abode of God.” This complex is designed to preserve the Hindu religion, culture, values, and ethics for generations to come. It is more than a construction job; it is an opportunity to be a part of something larger than oneself. That is what I learned on my trip to Robbinsville, where I served for 2 weeks.

Image: Rendering of Mahamandir: New Jersey, USA 

Project Phases for the Temple

THE PROJECT PHASES

  1. Activity Center: cultural and spiritual programs with assembly halls
  2. The Mandir: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Hindu Temple, a traditionally stone carved place of worship
  3. Youth Activity Center: learning spaces & classrooms
  4. Welcome Center and Exhibition: visitor reception and informative exhibits about Hinduism
  5. Swaminarayan Akshardham Mahamandir: a monumental stone carved mandir designed to represent the divine abode of God.

Image: Site located in Robbinsville, New Jersey

Temple Site
Temple Site
Temple Interior Temple Design

THE DESIGN

The phase five Mahamandir (under construction till August 2023) is designed in the Nagara style of Indian architecture. It features shikhars (pinnacle towers) the tallest of which (the mahashikar) will soar 90 feet into the sky. Saamrans (lower towers) surround the mahashikar with nine in total as well as the first oval-shaped dome known as the Parabrahma Gumat.

Hindu places of worship are designed with harmony, symmetry, and balance to represent the universe. In the Hindu religion, the ancient scriptures provide insight on architectural design; these texts are called the Vaastu Shastra. The principles therein guide designers to create a building one with the universe- from building orientation to the geometries of the interior architectural elements. Each piece is a hand-crafted work of art assembled to tell a unique story. The building materials were chosen to withstand climatic conditions of the northeastern region of the US. The marble stone was chosen from quarries in Italy that had been tested for its durability against cold temperatures. After much testing the Carrara marble was chosen. 68,000 cubic feet of stone was then sent to Rajasthan, India where 2,700 artisans spent months hand carving pieces of marble stone: one month per stone carving. Each of the 33,000+ pieces were sequentially labeled and shipped to the US and assembled on site like a huge jigsaw puzzle. Unlike conventional building structures in the US, this temple uses no steel members for structural purposes. The load bearing stone is laid piece by piece via crane operation.

Images Source: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Media Gallery

Images : Phase 02 Mandir, completed 2014

Temple Interior Temple Design

PARIKRAMA

My team consisted of 19–26-year-olds. We were assigned the “Parikrama,” or the outdoor circumambulatory walkway that spans the perimeter of the cultural campus. It captures the entire site and wraps itself around the Mahamandir and connects into it. The successful construction of the parikrama requires ensuring that the first pieces of granite stone laid are measured accurately and are aligned, since these pieces of stone serve as the preliminary foundational pieces for all of the remaining stone pieces that are stacked atop each other through a hollow steel column. This method of stacking laterally reinforces the structure as each piece is maneuvered by the crane operator like a thread in a needle and set into place.

Image Source: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Media Gallery

Image: Phase 02 Parikrama, completed 2014

Mandir Temple Hallway
Mandir Temple Hallway
Mandir Details Hindu Temple Details

THE VOLUNTEER WORK

My tasks included infilling grout between these slabs with a product called geo fix. This cement-based product was designed for this application as a weather resistant mortar product that adheres to the raised concrete foundation for the walkway sequence. The grout was called “maal,” and this maal was used to “vatta,” or seal, the stone slabs against the concrete. As a designer, specifying continuous sealant, or insulation is one thing, but carrying this through in the field is no easy task – especially with no experience (even with expert guidance).

Despite all the obstacles faced due to the breadth of scope on this project, the temple is still able to move forward with success, with over 95% of the workers being volunteers, the majority having no previous construction experience. The weeklong, extensive training allows for such success.

As designers we must coordinate with MEP, Civil, and Structural to ensure a successful design and exceptional user experience. This project has extensive years of designing under its belt; however, designing the intricate temple is one endeavor. Taking a piece of rope and rigging the 100 lb piece of stone on wood slats in the heat to be carried up by the crane and placed into position is a whole other story. I learned to appreciate and value those out in the field who make the drawings a reality.

Images Source: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Media Gallery

Images: Phase 02 Mandir, completed 2014

Mandir Details Hindu Temple Details

SELFLESSNESS

As mentioned previously, many families left their jobs to volunteer until the completion of this project, working 8 hours for one mission whilst ridding themselves of their negative thoughts and vices, and letting go of their pride and egos. One such family is the Waghani family with whom my friend Prem and I were given accommodations. Punit Waghani and his wife, Mousami Waghani, provided a bed and breakfast accommodation as a volunteer service – free of charge. Their hospitality and own devotion volunteering full time for the temple was an eye opener. Punit Waghani is a volunteer by full-time serving in the financial department of the cultural complex.

Fun fact: All meals for volunteers were provided by the temple 4 times a day! The site had 600 volunteers – the kitchen volunteers were working in shifts as well to serve the site volunteers delicious meals on time. The logistics of the kitchen department made me wonder how this was even humanly possible. The answer – unity.

Image: The diya is an oil candle lit as a remover of all darkness, i.e., ego, jealousy, anger

Hindu Tradition
Hindu Tradition
Temple Memories

THE MEMORIES

On July 4th, the entire site crew of 600+ volunteers and site workers gathered on the pious main stairs of the Akshardam Mahamandir to enjoy a meal together unified as one team. The temple monks and monks-in-training served devotees pasta and smores creating joyous memories with all the volunteers.

Image Source: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Media Gallery

Image: Phase 02 Mandir, completed 2014

Temple Memories

This was no ordinary endeavor and the temple’s inauguration celebrations will attract thousands globally, just as they flocked in 2014 when phase 2 was completed and Pramukh Swami had vowed to visit. At the tender age of 94, he made his plan for a visit a reality, not caring about his physical restraints of health. He always led by example, persevered through hardships with faith, faced every challenge with an open heart, served selflessly, never carried an ego, and truly lived by his motto “in the joy of others lies our own,” which is why he was able to create reality from a mere vision.

To learn more about Pramukh Swami Maharaj visit pramukhswami.org.

TERMS:

Mandir: temple or place of worship

Akshardham: Divine abode of God

Swaminarayan: Hindu God

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