Thursday, July 4, 2013

Day 53 - Visiting a Hindu Temple

I have never been to a Hindu temple. When I was planning my “I have never...” year I made the decision to experience all of the major faiths in our world that I had never experienced by the end of my journey. As such, I started looking for the most authentic ways to experience Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism in ways that were feasible for me to experience during my 365 days of  “I have never...” After a little research, I was pleased to discover a Hindu Mandir and cultural center, the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, roughly two hours from Madison in Bartlett, Illinois. In turn, I started looking for a free day during which I did not already have an event planned. As it turns out, my July 4th “I have never...” plans fell through, which freed up a day of off work and made it possible to visit a Hindu temple for the first time (thanks, First Amendment!).

My journey to the temple began early this morning. Rachael and I woke early to get on the road in time to make the 11:15 am Hindu ceremony held in the temple. After convincing one of our friends, Allison, to accompany us on our visit, the three of us hit the road around 8:30 to give enough time to fight through traffic and road construction on our way to the temple. After a mostly smooth trip, we arrived around 10:45 and were stunned by the sight of temple before us. Pulling into the cultural center a sculpted, ornate white arch rose high into the air, framing the temple placed roughly 100 yards behind it. Fountains threw water into the air in the space between the arch and the bright white temple, and flowers sprang from every open space lining the walkways around the complex. The sight was so striking I could only look on with my mouth agape, taken back by the amazing beauty of the building before us. Although I like to think I am someone that is relatively good with words, in that moment I knew I would struggle to finds the words to describe the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. It is simply that awesome.

The temple entrance

Leading up to the Mandir

Fixed on the temple, I slowly drove the car toward the parking lot near the back of the Haveli, a building I would come to learn served a very important purpose in Indian and Hindu history. After parking the car, Allison, Rachael and I found our way to the front of the building. Upon approaching the doors we took note of the elaborate wood carvings the adorned the exterior of the Haveli. Passing through the buildings heavy wooden doors, we entered a lobby space littered with the same wood carvings, detailing scenes of deities, flowers, and animals on pillars and walls leading up to a massive chandelier in the center of the space. I was struck by the artistry before us as we moved toward a desk in a corner of the space. After checking in and removing our shoes, a man guided us to the center of the lobby and explained the space surrounding us was made of 40,000 hand carved wooden pieces fit together like a puzzle. He indicated the space in the Haveli was one of particular importance in Indian history, serving as a royal court of sorts for the kings of old.

After explaining the significance of the Haveli, the man proceeded to discuss the Mandir which sat just outside a set of glass doors on our left. He explained the building was made of handcrafted marble and limestone from various parts of the world, which fit together with no internal supports or attachments. Continuing, he explained the building was constructed over a period of 16 months with 2.5 million volunteer hours, including the help of 400 engineers and artists. Dumbfounded by the facts the man was providing, he wrapped up his introduction to the building and welcomed us to attend the ceremony in the Mandir. Happy to oblige, Allison, Rachael and I walked through the Haveli and down into a tunnel connected to the Mandir. We walked across the cool marble floor and up a flight of intricately carved stone stairs before we found the temple hall. Cast entirely in white stone, the temple opened to a wide square room lined with rows of pillars laden with carvings so detailed it was nearly unbelievable. These pillars, known as the pillars of wisdom, depicted scenes of higher virtues and culminated in domed surfaces carved in the forms of lilies and flowers. I stood stationary, my eyes wondered over the surface of the stonework before me, until a man came and silently directed me to sit on the floor near the front of the temple.

The temple interior - Photo credit:
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Taking my place on the floor next to another man, I took a brief moment to look over the crowd of people in the temple. As required by Hindu tradition, the men and women sat in separate locations in the temple, with everyone remaining completely silence as they waited for the ceremony to begin. Turning my eyes back to the front of the temple, I noticed three sets of carved wooden doors in front of me behind a narrow gated area. I continued absorbing the endless details of the craftsmanship ship all around me until an announcement broke the silence, stating the ceremony was about to begin. A few minutes later, the sets of wooden doors slowly opened, revealing beautiful porcelain representations of Hindu deities that stood roughly four feet tall. Once open, several Pujaris emerged from behind the doors and prepared to begin the ceremony. Suddenly, music rose in the temple space, prompting the men and women in the temple to sing and clap in show of faith. As the crowd sang, the Pujaris lit small candles held in small metal containers and waived them before the statues. As I watched on, I felt moved by the spirituality and devotion apparent in the people surrounding me. I was quickly getting lost in the moment, and I welcomed the feeling.

The doors open - Photo credit:
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Following the completion of the song the Pujaris continued on to a prayer, called out over a moving melody sung by the priests and the crowd alike. As the prayer carried through the air a tray with the small candles previously used by the Pujaris was carried through the crowd. As the candle came to the small group in which I sat we each cast our hands over the flames and draped the smoke over our heads in a form of blessing. With the prayer complete, we rose to our feet and greeted the Pujaris, nodding to maintain our silence and receiving a blessing as we passed. With the ceremony complete, the crowd circled through the temple observing statues of Hindu leaders and Ishvaras. I took time to observe men and women in prayer before the relics before making my way to the back of the temple. Ultimately crossing Allison and Rachael in their path, the three of us moved in silence as we worked our way back through the tunnel leading to the Haveli. Once we emerged back in the Haveli, the three of us recalled our experience, finding we all felt the same sense of moving spiritualism from the experience.

The front of the Mandir

After gathering our belongings in the Haveli, Allison, Rachael, and I moved back outside to walk the temple grounds and get a closer look at the Mandir’s exterior. Over the next hour we traversed the property, looking at the unbelievable stonework covering every inch of the structures we encountered. Although the exterior of the Mandir was receiving renovation work, we were staggered by the beauty of the building. As Rachael and Allison carried on to another part of the property, I hung back and watched some of the workers painstakingly working over the stone’s surface, using hammers, chisels, and fine sandpaper to rework and form the carved surface. After a brief period I  rejoined Allison and Rachael, prompting us to walk to the temple gates and fountains at the front of the property. Collectively trying to absorb the whole of our experience, we stood before the gates for some time, recalling the ceremony and discussing the finer features of the temple grounds. It was clear we were all astounded by our experience and happy we decided to make the trip to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.

Stonework up close

One of the fountains on the temple grounds

Eventually the three of us made our way back to the car and left the temple grounds. On our way out of town we stopped by one of the local Indian restaurants to round out our experience and enjoy some amazing food. As we made our trip back home I thought back on the day’s events and the feelings that lingered from my first experience at a Hindu temple. I realized then I took away some important things from the experience. I felt welcomed, I felt lifted up by the experience, and I saw the power in the faith. I gained a better understanding of the Hindu faith and the people that claim it as their own, and for that I feel better for it. After my first experience at the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir I can easily say I will visit the temple again. It’s worth it, even if it’s only for the fleeting moments of solace I felt in the presence of that amazing temple.

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