According to Wikipedia, over 70% of tourists to Delhi will explore the grounds of the Akshardham Temple. We were given a guided tour, and I was very surprised to find out that the temple was first opened in 2005. Every inch of the temple, or mandir, inside and out, is adorned with ornate statuary depicting the Hindu gods, as well as artwork depicting Sahajanand Swami, the central figure of a sect of Hinduism called the Swaminarayan Faith. We were not allowed to bring cameras inside, so I’ve posted the best shot I could get from where our bus was parked outside the complex. A brisk walk around the perimeter of the parking lot brought us to the main entrance, where we waded through an airport-like security process. Upon entering, I noticed a plaque commemorating the acheivements of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, an Indian social worker and spiritual leader. In 2007 he was awarded the Guiness Book of World Records for overseeing the construction of 713 Hindu temples across five continents, and he is credited for commissioning the 7,000 artisans who realized the intricate designs of Akshardham. The overall effect is breathtaking, and I have to say I felt a certain degree of freedom in not having my camera. As I walked around the mandir, I could fully absorb the iconic artwork and the vibe of the crowd pushing closer to show their devotion before the sacred shrines.
One of the really eyebrow-raising parts of the Akshardham tour is the “Hall of Values” which features an animatronics show about the miraculous life of Sahajanand Swami. I asked one of my fellow participants who had recently returned from Florida whether Disney World could possibly compare to the displays we witnessed. In one scene, for example, the swami scolded some fisherman for taking fish from the river, and through his divine grace the basket that had been filled with the day’s catch was suddenly empty, the river replenished with fish. I fought to suppress a lighthearted chuckle or two, but despite my skepticism of the swami’s abilities I truly enjoyed every moment of the tour. Besides the robot show we saw a film on the founding and construction of Akshardham, as well as a fascinating boat ride that took us through India’s history, again with animatronics, again with Disneylike appeal. The only studying I’ve done on Hinduism in recent years, aside from my visit to the mandir in Irving, TX, has been through The Little Book of Hindu Deities (see my “Reading List” section). My visit to Akshardham really sparked a serious and renewed interest, not only in Hinduism but in religion in general.
More info: http://www.akshardham.com/
After a nice lunch in the temple cafe and a walk through the bookstore where I bought a wonderful morality book for children, we headed out to visit another NGO in Delhi and learn more about what is being done to make progress toward the UN Millennium Goals. For all the devotion shown at the temple, none of it could match the devotion I saw in the caretakers at the HOPE Foundation’s Asharan Orphanage in Delhi. ‘Asharan’ means “refuge of hope.” They provide protection and care for abandoned children in the city. We were giving an overview of the organization’s activities as well as a guided tour, and then we were able to spend much of the afternoon interacting with the kids. One of the activities we did was making bookmarks. A boy named Sahil was really eager to show me his drawing abilities. We drew some pictures together and in the end exchanged 3 or 4 bookmarks, which I’ve stowed among my Indian treasures. I don’t have too many pictures of the experience because during the all-too-brief visit I was fully absorbed in their world. What few pictures I have are posted below.
The depth of India’s problem got a lot less murky here. I was startled to learn about how children, especially girls, are abandoned by their families for various reasons, most notably due to financial burden. With girls, the burden is compounded because they are not seen as future “breadwinners” for the family, not to mention the cost of the dowry when a girl gets married is often quite excessive. My brain is still processing all of this, and I’m not sure what to think yet. The stories and scenarios presented about the abandoned children were shocking to all of us. I feel terrible for the children, and I feel terrible for the families who are forced to make the decision to abandon their children, which is something most of us cannot imagine doing personally, ever, under any circumstances. So we think… Being placed in a hopeless situation can cause people to take drastic measures, clearly. Touring the facilities and meeting the children at Asharan was a deeply moving experience for every one of us.
Please visit the site for more info, and look for a HOPE foundation in your area. Even an hour’s worth of your time will bring the children so much joy and lasting memories.