Yesterday we went to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu Temple in Lilburn. Despite its proximity to us, we hadn’t heard about it until John’s brother suggested meeting there.
When we drove in, there was a small gatehouse. We stopped at the gate, and a man stuck his head out and asked, “What’s your name?” John told him his own name. Ben and I were silent. He opened the gate. So, already, things were a little surreal. Why would he ask the name? How did we know that only John’s name mattered, or were we wrong about that? Was he checking against some sort of list? Or just making a note of it? Why?
The Wikipedia description:
The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Atlanta is the sixth BAPS traditional Hindu stone temple built outside of India. It is also the largest Hindu temple of its kind outside of India. It is currently open to the public. The 32,000-square-foot (3,000 m2) temple, officially called the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, sits on 30 acres (120,000 m2). With hand-carved stone spires that tower 75 feet (23 m), it is the the tallest building in Lilburn, Georgia, dominating the intersection of Rockbridge Road and Lawrenceville Highway. More than 1,300 craftsmen and 900 volunteers dedicated their time in putting this 34,450-piece stone marvel together. More than 4,500 tons of Italian Carrara marble, 4,300 tons of Turkish limestone, and 3,500 tons of Indian pink sandstone was quarried and shipped to the craftsmen in India. Then, all of the nearly 35,000 pieces were shipped to the United States. It serves members of the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism, which originated in India more than 200 years ago. The traditional design features custom-carved stonework, a wraparound veranda and five prominent pinnacles reminiscent of the Himalayan hills.
The Lilburn location is the largest temple in North America for BAPS. Built at an estimated cost of $19 million, the temple complex is only the third of its kind in the country, surpassing BAPS temples in Houston and Chicago. A similar mandir was recently opened in Toronto as well. The temple’s sanctuary is open to all, as it is in Chicago, Houston, and Toronto.
The organization’s current spiritual guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, came to Lilburn in 2004 and blessed the first foundation stones. The guru, who celebrated his 86th birthday in 2006, returned to Lilburn in August 2007 to sanctify the completed temple. Upon completion, a keystone weighing more than 5 tons was twisted into place on the ceiling of the central dome inside.
It really was very beautiful, and I loved the recurring patterns everywhere. However… and I know I’m being a little snarky here, but there is something very postmodern – in the bad way – about standing between a reflecting pool and an ornate temple, then looking over to see a huge Publix supermarket across the street. That’s somehow so very wrong. It would be better in the middle of a crowded city, where it could be like a hidden jewel (like Buddhist temples in Taipei) or dominating the landscape on a hill (like Sacré-Coeur in Paris). Alternatively, it could have been given a little more elbow room a little further away from the stripmall road (like the La Salette shrine in my home town). Something about the spirit of the place reminded me of that awful replica of the White House near my house. For all it cost to build, I think they missed something essential – or maybe that was somehow the whole point?
I also felt a little let down because I had imagined it to be much larger than it was.
We took off our shoes in the entryway and placed them in little cubbyholes. There were women everywhere, cleaning all the bits of stone. A couple of men were making fine adjustments to the carvings on the central columns. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside, or I would have tried to capture the inner room.
What struck me most forcefully were the ceiling mandalas – very fractal and trippy and just beaming with great energy.
Everyone was silent – by decree of the signs – but that seemed wrong to me. There should have been chanting, bells, singing, dancing! Perhaps it was just because we were there on an off hour – I don’t know. I also missed the smells of incense and candles.
I just couldn’t shake the feeling that things were somehow slightly off – it was all too clean and pristine. There were plexiglass shields around the carved columns, when there should have been encouragement to touch them. What kind of temple is this, really? I don’t know much of anything about this particular flavor of Hinduism, but there should be a sense of age – and at least a little grime – in a temple.
There was a guestbook inside, and that was strange to me too. John had given his name at the gate, so I signed the guestbook with mine.
Our timing was off, and all the internal alter doors were closed and locked, so I’ll probably go back sometime soon to see them.
Still, the little lights against the stone inside made it seem like you were in some sort of sandcastle. There was a place-based zing-moment or two in the middle of all that, looking up at the ceiling mandalas, especially the one right near the (locked up) alter. It was also noted (no names) that some of the carvings boasted rather nice breasts (hey, not every religious tradition is closed off to sacred sexuality).
Just before we left, a man came inside, sat down on the rug on the floor – dead center of the mandala, and listened to his iPod, eyes closed. He looked like he was going to be there for some time. For some reason, it struck me as very funny. I wonder how long you can do that before someone taps you on the shoulder. I mean, you’re basically hogging the entire vertical ley line – or maybe that concept doesn’t apply here. I kept thinking of the whole process of creating, sustaining and destroying that is so inherent to the Hindu vision. This temple didn’t seem to be about flows and movement and process, but more about a museum-type static series. It’s an interesting, even fascinating, monument, but… well, again – we were seeing it at an “off” time. I’ll go back and see the differences when the alter doors are opened.
It was fun to visit the place. Despite my critical reaction, I will probably go back.
Patterns, though – patterns. I kept thinking luminous interconnections – the making and unmaking of Tibetan mandala sand paintings, zooming the Mandelbrot set, resonating synchronicities, crunchy neutrinos, birds and flutterbys, staring squirrels, dream voices, tingling toes, free-associations from a tarot card spread – or a painting that calls to you – or a book that you’ve got to pick up although you don’t really have much interest in it…
We came back to the house for a cup of coffee and some conversation, then went over to Houston’s for some mighty fine ribs and a couple of margueritas.
What really mattered yesterday wasn’t anything about a temple but just being together, relaxing, and enjoying one another’s company. It had been a while since we’d seen Tom and Pam, and it was a warm loving snuggly sort of get-together.
Next time, maybe I’ll bring a bell and we can make a “temple” wherever we are.