Friday, July 11, 2008

Akshardham World

This is the new Hindu temple that my brother’s Indian boss told me I should not miss when I was in Delhi; the same temple that Amar recommended I stop by on my way home from the office. All I know going into the place is that it’s huge and new—in fact they’re still finishing bits of the building.

Sonu finds this place with no trouble. We park and he tells me he’ll wait by the car. I take my purse and walk toward the sprawling complex, Indian music wafts out of a loudspeaker. I get near a gate and see a sign prohibiting cameras and cell phones and pens and notebooks inside the complex. Sadly, I find Sonu and ask him to put my stash of these items in the car until I return. My documentary skills will be severely inhibited on this venture, and it’s too bad, because there is much to document.

Safely past security, I begin walking toward a great hall. There looks to be miles of minutely carved buildings and carefully tended gardens ahead of me. Just then an old man in a long white tunic and pants flashes a toothless smile at me. “Helloooo,” he croons. “I am Lowden Singh. Where are you from?”

“USA,” I reply.

“Where in US?”

“Iowa,” I answer him, but he crunches up his eyebrows and shakes his head. “It’s by Chicago,” I clarify.

“Ah, Chicago. Have you ever heard of the great …” And I wish I could duplicate the string of consonants that danced from his lips but without having stopped to ask him to write the name in my notebook, I can’t. Suffice to say he was asking if I’d heard of some Hindu teacher.

“No,” I replied.

“No!” his eyebrows raised and his eyes widened as though this was somehow unimaginable. He asked me if I’d heard, then, of [insert lots of letters here].

“No,” I replied.

His jaw dropped and he gasped so I could again see the spaces in his teeth. “NO!”

“No. Who is he?”

Through garbled syntax I could only make out that the man with the long name had been in Chicago at some point.

“This temple very peace, very clean. Very clean,” he changed the subject. “You have husband?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Where is he?”

“Iowa,” I said.

“Why he no here?”

“Because he has to work,” I explained.

“Why he no here?” he repeated as though I’d not said a word.

I tried again, “Because he has to work. His job is in Iowa.”

“Bhwa, work,” he said. “Why you come here without him? Why?” he pleaded.

“For my job,” I said, a bit unnerved. I certainly didn’t reveal that I’d chosen to come here by myself, that I wasn’t forced into this “predicament” by circumstances—not that my new companion would have accepted that for an answer anyway.

Why had I come here all alone? Why was I always looking for something other than what I had in front of me? What was I hoping to find? To discover? What was I trying to prove?

“You no miss him?” my companion interrupted my fugue.

“I miss him very much,” I said, trying to avoid feeling the cleave.

“Then you should carry him here. Then he should be here,” he concluded, and motioned at a sign on the wall which explained some details about how the temple was built. “You come,” he said. “I show.”

I figured I could use a tour guide, even if he was a bit quirky. We walked out of the welcome hall and down a long stone sidewalk toward the main temple.

“You have children?” he asked.

Oh no. Here we go again. “No.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because we both went to school,” I explained. “We just finished school.”

“Time. It passes fast,” he warned. “When you have babies?”

This was maddening. “When I get home,” I wanted to say, but I didn’t think even that would be soon enough for Lowden Singh. “I don’t know,” I said.

“Why you don’t know? How you have inspiration in life if you have no babies?” he said. “Children are for inspiration. You no like children?”

“Yes, I like children,” I said thinking of my one-year-old niece. I keep a photo of her on my computer desktop and everyone who sees it inevitably asks if it’s a picture of my daughter. “I like them very much.”

“Then why you no have none? Why?”

Because I sometimes find it hard to take care of myself, let alone be completely responsible for a whole other human life? Because the thought has, until very recently, terrified me? There was no answering Lowden Singh, so I stopped trying.

We came to a shoe check before the temple and Lowden got a burlap sack and a check number for his shoes. “You put in,” he insisted, and I did without thinking too much about it, but this made me totally dependent on him to get my shoes back. If I lost Lowden in the temple, I lost my shoes.

“Very clean, very peace,” Lowden said as we walked toward the massive beige stone structure covered from top to bottom with intricate filigree and sculptures of elephants and Hindu gods. Inside, a giant, gold-gilded statue of the Hindu saint Bhagwan Swaminarayan occupied the central space.

“Is solid gold?” Lowden asked me.

He was supposed to be my tour guide. I said I had no idea.

“Look like solid gold,” he said.

On the outside wall of the temple were a series of paintings depicting the life and works of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. On either side of the paintings were plaques explaining the content: one in Hindi, one in English. Lowden visited the Hindi side; I visited the English side and tried not to lose my only ticket back to my shoes as we moved from painting to painting and he made little effort to make sure I was anywhere near him.

Between paintings he saw me and pointed upwards, “God is up there, and we are down here. All we are down here,” he said.

This wasn’t the tour guide I was hoping for. We came to another plaque and I asked what Moksha meant. Lowden looked at me puzzled, then a woman in a bright blue sari explained that Moksha is like enlightenment; it is the final beatific state you obtain in order to escape the cycle of reincarnation.

We came to a statue of Lakshmi and some other god—I didn’t recognize his name and I was confused because I thought Lakshmi was Vishnu’s mate. “That’s Vishnu,” the woman explained, “it’s just another name we have for him.” I looked up and saw that Lowden had moved on without me. I hurried to catch up with him.

We had finally made our way around the monument and, to my relief, walked back to the shoe check. We retrieved our shoes and made our way toward the exit.

“You carry your husband here with you,” he reminded me. I said okay. “You want to do boat ride,” he asked. I had no idea what the boat ride entailed but thought it might be fun.

“Maybe,” I said.

“Then we say goodbye. Boat ride costs and I no it pay. If God wants efficiency, we meet again, if not, we don’t.”

I didn’t quite understand, but nodded and parted ways with Lowden. As I walked toward the “boat ride,” I noticed one of my sandals sticking to the ground. I looked at it and it had a giant wad of pink gum stuck to the bottom. “Very clean, very peace my behind,” I thought. I’d felt nothing but stressed the whole time I’d been there.

I went to pay for the exhibition. It cost about six dollars and consisted of three parts: The Hall of Values, The Giant Screen Theatre and the Boat Ride. I was ushered through a Walt Disney style maze and into a cool theatre with walls that made it look like a cave and a ceiling that made it look like the night sky. I sat down with a group of people and a smooth bass voice came over a loudspeaker.

“Welcome to the exhibition. The exhibition welcomes you. It took 7,000 artisans over five years to carve this monument. But how many people does it take to carve a human life? One!” A big rock at the front of the theatre then spun around to reveal a man carving himself out of the stone.

“You are in control of your destiny and you are the only one who can seek for spontaneous happiness.” Coincidentally, just before that statement, I found myself chuckling as silently as I could at the absurdity of an amusement park-style “ride” at a temple.

After this brief presentation, the doors to the right of us flew open and we were ushered into a room full of animatronics. Talking robots at a Hindu temple: who would have thought! These robots told the story of how Bhagwan Swaminarayan brought some fish back to life at the age of seven with his tears of compassion and converted the fishermen into vegetarians who respected all life.

Then, the doors to our right flew open and we saw another scene, and another, and another.

The sequence ended with a lobby that had little displays for each value that Bhagwan Swaminarayan embodied and taught. The first value was vegetarianism. This display was full of painted wood cutouts of animals with quotes around or on them. There was a rhinoceros with all red capital letters on its back that read, “Veg Power.” Then there was an elephant holding a sign in the same red capital letters, “Be strong. Be veg.” Then there were some ducklings with a speech bubble above their heads that read, “Mum, why do humans eat us? We never eat their babies.”

When I was done with this exhibit, I emerged feeling like I’d spent a lot of time at Akshardham Temple and I had better get going. There were some dark clouds on the horizon and I didn’t want to get caught in a torrential downpour. And, after all, Sonu was waiting for me. I made for the exit, but a Hindu guard stopped me.

“No ma’am,” he said and pointed to the two remaining tickets in my hand.

“I have to go home,” I said, and he nodded as though he understood, then he took my arm and started walking me back toward the exhibit halls. I looked at the boat ride ticket, labeled “3.” It said the ride only took ten minutes (as opposed to the fifty minutes that the previous exhibition had taken). I gave up trying to argue and thought, “What harm can ten minutes do?”

As I waited in line, two more guards approached me. “Madam, you must see. You must see when you are done. Spiritual movie. Fine spiritual movie.”

To make a long story short, I went on the boat ride showcasing thousands of years of Indian history and culture wherein I learned that Indians invented, I think, everything from rocket ships to plastic surgery to the game of chess. Then I saw the movie that again reiterated the life story of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, only I had to wear a headset so I could hear the narration in English.

That night, back at the Ahuja Residency, I ran into the owner. “What did you do today,” he asked.

I told him I went to the Akshardham Temple.

“That place is like Disney World,” he said, and I agreed.

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