//The Disney Touch at a Hindu Temple

The Disney Touch at a Hindu Temple


It barely needs stating that India already has a lot of Hindu temples, and so if you want to persuade people to slip their shoes off for a new one, you've got to be imaginative.To this end, the creators of the new Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex that towers over east Delhi thought to include several features not commonly found in Hindu architecture, including an indoor boat ride, a large-format movie screen, a musical fountain and a hall of animatronic characters that may well remind us that, really, it's a small world after all. There are even pink (sandstone) elephants on parade.

"There is no doubt about it — we have taken the concept from Disneyland," said Jyotindra Dave, the chief public relations officer for the organization that built the temple, which opened in November. "We visited five or six times. As tourists, I mean. And then we went away and worked out how they did everything."

The organization in question is Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (it calls itself BAPS), a Hindu sect-cum-registered charity with a global reach and a list of humanitarian activities as unwieldy as its name. The Delhi Akshardham is not BAPS's first such venture, but it is certainly the largest. (Another Akshardham temple in the nearby state of Gujarat was the site of a deadly terrorist attack in 2002; and in 1995 the organization opened the largest Hindu temple outside India in the London suburb of Neasden.)

Like all BAPS centers, the Akshardham is devoted to Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Followers believe that he was incarnated in 18th-century India as Ghanshyam Pande (later called Neelkanth Varni), who at age 11 embarked upon an epic spiritual journey across the subcontinent, preaching a message of peaceful compassion as he went. Or, as the tagline to the center's giant-screen biopic has it, with inspired concision: "12,000 km, 7 years, barefoot!" It is consoling to bear this in mind while mired in the 300-yard two-hour Sunday line to actually see the film.

The temple, carved by 7,000 sculptors out of pink sandstone and white marble, is beautiful in the way that all elaborately ornate things are beautiful. Visitors will probably be informed several times that it has been built entirely without the use of steel, like in the good old days.

Indeed, much of the building's impact comes from the pleasant shock of discovering that some people are still going to the very great trouble of building things that look like this. A kind of optical illusion is established: from a distance, the intricate carvings look, in some generic sense, old; close-up, all the hallmarks of the builders having recently been in are still visible — the odd join still needs grouting, and the raw, unweathered stone bears in many places a thin sheen of masonry dust. On a recent visit, a half-dozen sculptors were still plinking away with hammer and chisel, putting finishing touches to the exterior.

The appeal of this might at first be lost on visitors to India, who are usually coming to see the country's abundance of genuinely ancient buildings; Indians, who are surrounded by them, will generally grab any opportunity to escape from all that decrepitude for the afternoon, ideally to a place with musical fountains. The crowds here aren't pilgrims; they're day trippers.

But if one of the holy grails of the self-loathing tourist is shaking loose from his fanny-packing peers and finding a delightful restaurant patronized entirely by locals, then this, paradoxically, is the tourist attraction equivalent. The members of the crowd, around half of whom are dressed in their best saris, is almost entirely made up of multigenerational middle-class Indian families escaping the city, along with a small minority of posses of young men, escaping their families.

And so, although Western tourists are welcome, they can expect to receive the occasional look of benign giggly bemusement, the same kind a gentleman receives upon joining the line for the ladies' toilets. Over two visits, I encountered a Norwegian tour group, but otherwise sightings of Westerners were distant and unconfirmed. Signs are in both Hindi and English, but the English audio in the exhibition buildings will usually be switched on only for groups of at least 20 who phoned ahead.

Smaller groups should not worry; it's never too difficult to get the basic gist of the Hindi. A series of typically unnerving animatronic tableaux recount the life and philosophy of Bhagwan Swaminarayan; the boat ride is a mellow trip celebrating the scientific and cultural achievements of ancient India; and the film adaptation of the Bhagwan Swaminarayan's pilgrimage, with its lovely swooping shots of the Himalayas, is a far less gory take on Mel Gibson's blockbuster evangelism.

Hemmed in on four sides by impressive colonnades of red sandstone, the temple itself manages to transcend the kitsch of the nearby exhibition halls.

Wrapped around its base is a 1,070-foot-long carved pink sandstone frieze of near-enough-to-life-size elephants in inspirational poses. Many of them drill home the importance of family values and community spirit. Sometimes the allegorical power of elephants is overestimated, as in the tableau which, according to the caption, claims that: "One problem elephants never face is the generation gap."

The one that most strikes me is the creature shown "equipoised and nonchalant amidst barking dogs"; for the tourist sometimes overwhelmed by the colorful chaos of India, this could well be the most relevant elephant.

Inside the temple, stewards slumped in chairs forlornly hold up signs on sticks imploring visitors to keep silent, all of which are ignored by the cheery weekend crowds. Sometimes, when the din peaks, a steward will jump to his feet and rapidly — yet silently — waggle his sign toward the face of an especially loud visitor, temporarily stunning the crowd into a low murmur.

The noise should not be mistaken for irreverence. Everyone, without visible exception, will break from conversation in front of each of the temple's five icons to seal his hands in prayer. Some bow deeply, or perform a short sequence of crisscrossing movements in which they touch their earlobes with alternating hands. Small children do all this with particular relish.

At the center of the temple, near the large gold-plated icon of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, an ever-renewing scrum churns around a hidden nucleus. It's the donation box. Devotees leave a few rupees in a dish beside a single small candle, briefly hold a hand over the flame, wipe its warmth over their forehead, and then finally shove their way back out to the open.

Elbows are similarly employed in the chaotic self-service refreshment area. I bite my lip and try to think of my favorite elephant from the frieze. People cut in line and tread on my toes, which strike me as things Bhagwan Swaminarayan would not do. It seems the combined efforts of the Akshardham's robots, elephants and talking boats in relaying BAPS's essential message of humble compassion may still not have been enough.

As I leave the temple, a horde of rickshaw drivers surrounds me, loudly and physically hustling for my business. I again try to adopt the posture of the unflappable elephant. Then it occurs to me that that elephant must get ripped off all the time, and I argue furiously with the drivers until one of them relents and agrees to take me back to central Delhi on the meter.

New York Times ,  Published: June 8, 2006