A Visit to the Mandir
I have been wanting to go visit the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir for quite some time. Of course, it was cold on Monday when I went there, so traversing up the smooth rock steps wasn’t an option because of ice, but it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful,serene campus.
As an Art student, I have studied a lot of Art history – and those texts always contain images of what was, pictures of ruins in Athens, in Rome, in China, amongst other places. And as a huge lover of Archaeology, this place was like stepping into an amazing part of history, except that it was real, it was now. I can only wonder what people might say about the Mandir in a thousand years.
There is nothing simple about it and yet the peacefulness you feel there, when you enter the inner sanctum, it’s hard to describe. I suppose awe is one word to describe it. There are no pictures of the inside of the Mandir to show you. Although I had my camera on and ready to go, photography isn’t allowed inside. Now, that hasn’t stopped me before, when I’ve visited the Cathedral in Washington, I may have snapped a few images from the crook of my arm like a criminal.
But here, it’s intimate, personal, soulful, and if one was ever looking for a place to find themselves, I believe that this might be the place. And it’s not just about the building, the art, the man power it took to construct and build this place – all these pieces hand carved and moved here from overseas. The people that worked endless hours to complete the mandir, and the people who still take care of this beautiful place – they have offered a splendid palace to their faith. It’s about this faith.
Which brings me to things I guess I didn’t truly understand about Hinduism, most especially that it is monotheistic. One God encompassing incarnations of God. And celestial beings called Devas, that I would equate to angels. I’m not overly religious, but every time I have ever done one of those quizzes about which religion speaks to you, I always end up with Hinduism. My belief of reincarnation, karma, and the never ending quest for the meaning of life, a belief that there can be unity in diversity, love, tolerance, and being humble are all commonalities (not to mention my weird affinity to sandalwood). There is so much more to learn about this faith, more than I realized.
When you enter the mandir, your shoes must come off – and the silence of footfall is evident as you move throughout the building. It’s hushed hallways inviting. Up the stairs leads you to two worshiping areas, the first – a statuette of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who left home at the age of eleven to inspire people to the spiritual path for over seven years. According to the book I brought home, the Abhishek is the ancient Hindu practice of pouring water over the sacred image of god to honor him and to attain his blessings and to ask for a soul to be cleansed. It is in this room that this can be done.
Up another set of stairs to the mandir, you reach the top and you stop, because you have to take in everything that your eyes are seeing. From the outside you see Mandovara (carvings), Rupchoki (front porch), Ghummat (domes), Shikhars (pinnacles), Kalashes (golden pots on top of the pinnacles), and Dhajas (flags). But for all the beauty that is outside, the inside is incredible. Each of the domes from the outside has a coordinating Chhat, intricately carved ceilings that to me look like huge mandalas, I cannot even begin to describe each of them. The Gavakshas, or windows, are beautiful and bring light into the shrine. The Sthambhas, or pillars, are so deeply carved, that you can see characteristics of faces, bodies, animals, and plants. In alcoves, the images of God and other divine personalities rest alongside spiritual Gurus, splendid with finery and detail. This is where Hindus practice Murti Puja, or worship, by looking past the symbolic physical representation and finding the connection to the divine spirit. It is illuminating to watch.
I will visit again in the later spring, when it’s warm and I can climb to the reflection pond and traverse the upper balconies and halls. For those of you looking for something to do, to get inspired, to have a calming moment. Until then, enjoy these photographs from my trip.