Thursday, February 22, 2018

Mandir: a place of paramount peace

As a result of most of my freelance work drying up recently, I am balancing having extra time with not wanting to spend any money. I am also trying to live in the present, not think about what I did wrong in the past or worry about what the future will bring, but enjoy the here and now.

I woke up one lovely day and decided to visit BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir located twenty minutes away in Robbinsville, New Jersey.

As I walked up to the front door I saw the dreaded sign, No Photography. Cringe. I took my big camera back to the car. I still had my little camera and my cell phone with me, but not my favorite camera.

The sign really meant No Photography inside the Temple, which is nested inside this rose stone building. 

Got it.

My journey actually started a few months earlier when I was having dinner at Debbi and Mike's house. Debbi and her mom, Pat, visited the mandir earlier that day and raved about it. It is this quiet Hindu place of worship tucked inside an industrial park in Robbinsville that once the entire complex is completed in a couple of more years is slated to become a World Heritage Site and will be mobbed with tourists. Until then, we have the place to ourselves.

A Mandir is defined as a Hindu place of worship. This one has services several times a day. The temple is open from 9 am to 7:30 pm seven days a week. Inside the temple the sacred shrines are open at set times each day. I was there for the 11:30 am to noon time slot. I arrived as they were closing after the 9 am to 10:30 am opening. When the sacred shrines are not open, my guide said they are "sleeping." Um...she does know they are statues, right? The website has pictures of them. 

I arrived about the same time as Dora. Dora is a college student about my age. Mina, one of the volunteers, thought we were together and insisted on giving us a joint tour. Mind you, I thought I would walk in there, look around, and leave within an hour. I was there two and a half hours and the time flew. 

The temple itself was carved from marble quarried in Italian that was brought to India to be carved 90% of the way using the ancient techniques and then shipped in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle to New Jersey. 

Some cool stats (taken from their publicity material, and repeated by Mina):

  • 13,499 pieces of carved stone comprise this mandir
  • 21,500 -- number of miles each piece traveled
  • 98 pillars depicting Hindu sages and devotees
  • 91 uniquely carved elephants
  • 236 stone peacocks in the "Mayur Dwar" (entrance gate)
The temple was built to last 1,000 years, but is already showing some signs of trouble, namely human hands touching things that are not meant to be touched. One of the pillars in the middle of the temple was surrounded by Plexiglas. Dora and I commented to ourselves we were glad we came when we did -- before the other pillars are similarly covered, which will hide some of their luster.

Inside the mandir are large images depicting the history of Hinduism. The first few were transformed into mosaics with tiny pieces of marble. There was one that was just a painting. Perhaps by the next time I go visit, this, too will be covered in stones.

At 11:30 there is a tiny service. The men sit on the floor in the front of the room. The women sit behind their circle, also on the floor. It is very quiet. The doors are open and the sacred shrines are on view. The sacred shrines are statues of their most important people in their faith. Mina did a wonderful job of explaining the same things to us over and over again, but I did not write anything down, and the words were too new to me. In essence, they did not stick.

Three leaders went up to the shrine, which was behind three separate pairs of doors, and waved a small candelabra inside their section. This is when I was glad to be behind the men. One leader then took his candelabra to each worshiper and the person waved some of the smoke onto himself. Each one had a different technique. Then the candelabra was passed to Mina who did the same with the women. 

After the service Mina continued to explain some of the details in the room. Each elephant was different. I know I said that already in the above list, but it bears repeating. Each one was about the same size and shape, but has a different present in his trunk, or a different pose with his legs, or somehow looks completely different from the others.

Mustached men appearing in the carvings are "family men," not their clergy who are shaved bare of body hair. Each carving has a story.

This is only the third such temple in the world, and the only one not in India. The Swaminarayan Akshardham are in New Delhi and Gandhinagar. This is the only one that will be protected from the elements by the pink building, whose official name is a "red stone parikrama." Picture Notre Dame cathedral covered by a giant warehouse shaped building. That is the parikrama. It completely covers the mandir. It was designed this way because the weather in New Jersey is not kind to carved marble, but to me it caused a second sacred zone before the primary sacred zone. Basically once you enter the parikrama you have left the secular world of cars and other distractions behind and are a step closer to peace and tranquility. Once I entered the mandir an even deeper sense of peace enveloped me. The interior of the parikrama is painted plaster. It is vibrant and colorful, yet a hush still fills the air. The mandir is all white -- inside and out. Yes, there are colorful statues and mosaics, but the carved pillars and ceiling is all white, and most of the tiles on the floor are also white, or at least very pale in color. I felt my blood pressure drop as I walked into the temple. It was very relaxing.

Instead of leaving with a sense of how Hinduism is so vastly different from Christianity. I left with a sense of how similar it is. The marble pillars rival anything I have seen in St. Patrick's Cathedral or Chartres or Notre Dame. There are images of the leaders holding what look like rosary beads. It is patriarchal. They have rituals and symbols. They have a head leader, their "pope" is Mahant Swami Maharaj. He is the sixth spiritual successor of Bhagwam Swaminarayan. His predecessor, Pramukh Maharaj, had the vision to bring this to New Jersey and visited the site when he was in his 90s. He passed away in 2016.

If we could all sit back and see our similarities instead of our differences, maybe we could all learn to get along with each other instead of asserting we are the only ones who know what is right.

No comments:

Post a Comment