A brief history of the Akshardham Temple at Delhi:
The Akshardham Temple complex (also known as AT complex) was constructed by the Bochasanwari Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) in the year 2005. The BAPS is a subgroup of the Swaminarayan movement lead by Bhagwan Swaminarayan as a part of the Bhakti traditions. Swaminarayan, having born in a brahmin family in a small village near Ayodhya during the 18th Century, took to spiritual pilgrimage at a very young age. He spearheaded a socio-spiritual revolution and was even named ‘Neelkanth’. His travels had ended in Gujarat where he had succeeded Ramananda Swamy as the spiritual heir.
The BAPS has established several temples in many countries across the world and are said to have over a million followers from around the globe. Male celibates called the ‘swamys’ form the backbone of the organization. Only University graduates over the age of 21 are accepted into the organization. The Delhi AT complex is modeled based on another AT complex at Gandhinagar on a larger scale.
The Akshardham Temple Complex and its features:
Situated in the banks of river Yamuna, the construction of this temple had created a public controversy concerning the ecological sensitivity of the location. Eventually, the support for the ruling political parties and the Supreme Court’s decision of the Temple being legally constructed enabled the AT complex to be opened in November 2005. It is closely situated to Noida, an industrial development area that has now evolved as a part of Delhi suburb and jhuggi-jhopri slum, an area whose residents had been resettled for the purpose of beautification of the city.
High-security measures are taken in the AT complex such as usage of reflective security devices underneath vehicles, body frisking, inspection with metal detectors etc. The temple provides the ambiance of a five-star hotel through its luxurious hallways and massive car parking areas.
The temple is open throughout the year except on Mondays, when maintenance work, as well as meetings for swamys, are held. Many technologically advanced features have been made an integral part of the temple structure. Architecturally also, the temple is considered astounding as it has incorporated many geometric forms as a representation of Indians’ knowledge of mathematics and geometry.
The planning of the complex has been that of an international level with many ideas for exhibitions. One such exhibit plan is the boat ride which is longer than the one in Universal Studios. It takes the riders on a swan-shaped boat (depicting the ancient Hindu theme) through a series of tableaus that describe the expertise of Indians in the various fields such as astrology, democracy, medicine etc. This ride ends with a scenario of modern India with a notion to cherish ancient heritage for a better future.
Then is the ‘Hall of Values’ where a large back-lit monolith made of granite sits. This hall consists of 15 walk-in 3-Dimensional dioramas animated by robotics and fiber-optics that presents the life of the founder as well as a village tableau which idealizes a village with the help of bridges, waterfalls, and rainfall depicting scenes. There is also an IMAX show which charts the life of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s life from childhood to adulthood. The story is a travelogue that has later been re-titled ‘Mystic India’ and has been screened all over the world. The administration gives emphasis on crowd management and time management so as to maximize the volume of traffic.
Surplus and Moral Consumption at the AT Complex:
There are many processes within the AT Complex whose occurrence suggest surplus and moral consumption as well as the creation of a new urban space that is broader than the contemporary urban developments that relate middle class through certain practices of housing and residence. This temple is a part of the clean space within Delhi city, partly by the removal of unclean spaces such as JJ colony. This cleared area provides leisure and commercial activities as opposed to the unclean area’s encroached.
Visitors of AT Complex:
It can be safely said that most of the visitors are non-English speakers who emerge from the working-class communities. The parking area is filled with bus and taxis for groups, suggests that larger groups such as secondary and extended family predominate the audience rather than smaller nuclear families. There is also a substantial number of women among the crowd. It might perhaps be said that this temple creates a new middle class in a way that it brings together stands of new consumer culture, religiosity and discourses of clean and unclean urban spaces.
The social architecture of AT Complex:
Studies on shopping malls in the United States suggest that such buildings are designed such that it brings in a positivity to its visitors. Similarly, the AT complex has a unique configuration of urban spaces to nostalgia. The theme of the temple being Indian antiquity separates its space from the outside. However, the utilization of tableau of consumption through technological mastery creates a space of passage rather than a sharply differentiated inside-outside model which is an anthropological theory which studies fashion behaviors that undo such boundaries. The modern theories are focused on the process of globalization which focuses on the threshold spaces. This analysis of the temple is one such study.
The temple promotes surplus consumption due to its surplus consumption and its idea to bring in goods and experiences from different contexts to the contemporary setup. This represents the existing urban identities in several ways. For example, the entrance lobby is designed so as to resemble the luxury of a five-star hotel; the ambiance of the food hall is set up like that of a McDonald’s. There is also a shop that sells products from key chains, baseball caps to herbal and ayurvedic products.
The response to the attractions by the audience is also noteworthy to study. The crowd in order to gain the best seating options rushes from one show to another. This indicates that the audience gives due importance to the experience (as defined by contemporary market behavior) while attaining the spiritual enlightenment than the actual message.
In addition, tableaus of famous Indians are presented in lawns. This stresses the importance of cultural identities. Hence, the sustained and temporal relationship between the divine and the devotee is a surplus relationship. The middle-class audience here performs moral consumption as opposed to the westernized middle class who consume products of capitalism. This gives is a proof of the existence of different kinds of middle classes.
AT Complex and new urban life:
The surplus consumption represented here through the collapsing of leisure, religiosity, work-ethic, sacrifice, etc. is a manifestation of the socio-spatial transformations happening in Delhi. There are several such sites around the city that prove to be a unified ground for the new urban life.