I don’t know what BAPS stands for, but our visit to this site was definitely one of the most interesting and spiritual afternoons I’ve had in decades.
What I knew about it.
As is usually the case, I woke up that morning, blindfolded, aware of being in a moving car. It stops. The blindfold is removed. My eyes go blind from the transition.
“Happy birthday,” she whispers, thrusting a cylinder wrapped in Hanukkah decor into my hands. My eyes still adjusting and unsure of where I was, I unwrap it, puzzled by her choice of wrapping paper but stunned to find that it’s the 85mm lens I’d been wanting for over a year. I’m at a loss for words as I take in both her extravagant gift and the marble wonderland around me.
(You’re the best, baby.)
What I know about it.
Ok, so BAPS actually stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, and is the name of the organization that ties a lot of Hindu communities together. Kinda like how there’s a lot of Catholic churches but then you have the Vatican.
In order to visit, reservations must be made in advance.
Mandirs are Hindu places of worship, and the Shri Swaminarayan serves members of the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism. The entire mandir was hand-carved by artisans in India and shipped to the United States, where it was reassembled piece by piece.
Words cannot describe just how much attention to detail was paid in its construction. Every square inch of the mandir is covered in intricate patterns, statues, or carvings.
We wandered around the grounds for a little bit before admitting that high noon was probably not the best time to do so. We headed inside the mandir. Photography is not allowed inside the mandir, which is understandable, as its contents are sacred and photographs cheapen their significance.
Upon entry, you must remove your shoes. Cubbies are provided for storage. If your attire involves exposed shoulders or knees, you will be expected to cover up using a wrap that will be provided to you. Wear modest clothing beforehand and spare yourself the unspoken implication that you dress like the clientele of Cops.
Every detail seen thus far of the outside of the temple is three times more intricate on the inside. It was absolutely surreal– the interior is loosely divided into quadrant-like areas, the ceilings of which are all unique. There are some pictures of these ceilings on their official website. They’re impossible to describe otherwise.
I could appreciate the fact that despite the cost involved in building the mandir, its beauty and decor was not made off-limits. The columns partitioning the room were all painstakingly detailed by hand, easily broken, and less easily fixed. Yet the mandir trusts its visitors to treat it with respect and reverence, and as such you can get face-to-face with all the fine detail that went into each individual statue ringing the columns provided you don’t touch them. Americans can’t have nice things; if this were anywhere else, I’d expect every inch of the place to be shielded in plexiglass. Case in point– the next day I got shooed away from a concept car that was already cordoned off for daring to get too close a look.
Around the four center columns (the most highly-trafficked area) they did put up plexiglass barriers, but the reasons for such are obvious.
Around the perimeter of the main chamber, there are a series of sacred shrines. The keyword here is sacred, as they are kept hidden under lock and key most of the day. There is a set schedule for viewings, at which times the doors are opened but a steel gate remains, leaving anybody free to view the Hindu deities and offer prayers and monetary donations.
The Catholic church is often lambasted for the amount of money they have spent on artistic patronage throughout history, but I’ve always thought there was something missing from modern Christianity. As art became less relevant, the church itself has become a sterile experience, to the point where in recent decades even the Catholic church has issued a decree that their imagery was getting to be too much and removed a lot of it from display. Looking at the architecture alone, going to church has become just another day at the office– more and more megachurches are popping up in office parks.
I think this transition is a shame. There is something very moving in being seven years old, sitting in your first grade classroom, counting down the minutes until recess, but every time you look up at the clock you make eye contact with a three-foot statue of a wounded Christ, gravity stretching the bloody holes in his hands, held firmly in place by the nine inch nails driven into the stained crucifix. You divert your eyes, maybe to look out the window, only to find his agonized visage staring back at you there, too, mouth agape, one eye obscured by the crown of thorns sagging over his slumped head.
More than just being for pretentious pinky-drinkers and other people who wear turtlenecks to ogle over cocktails, there is power in art. I’m not advocating everybody should run out and subject their children to Catholicism (it’s become too corporate), but it is an incredibly spiritual experience to be face to face with the collective expression of true belief, and I feel that’s something modern Christianity has lost touch with.
There is not a flaw, not an imperfection, to be found in the hand-carved halls of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Whether or not the artists are believers of anything, it is the tireless devotion they exhibit in their craft that should inspire us to be so tirelessly devoted in our own beliefs.
That is, and has always been, the relevance of monastic life (as well as art) throughout religious history.
Around 4pm, the main service began. All in attendance were segregated by gender for the initial prayers, then all were allowed to mingle as the doors to the main deities opened up.
There is an associated community center on the premises but I don’t think its construction history or spiritual significance is quite as colorful as the mandir’s. Its doors are still impressive though.
All in all, a big thanks to the members of BAPS for maintaining such a beautiful facility and making it open to the public, and an even bigger thanks to my darling wife for one very impressive and unexpected adventure.