You don’t expect to find one of the nation’s most astonishingly beautiful spiritual centers in tiny Robbinsville, New Jersey. However, on 247 acres a few miles from my home, a major center for Hindu religion, study, and celebration is quietly growing up. Only two parts of this multi-building complex are complete, and construction continues on the others—construction reportedly involving the largest building crane in North America.
This past week, with a group of friends I visited this complex, establish for the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism. Other major North America BAPS Swaminarayan centers are in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Toronto. Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who died in 1830, worked to assure the education of women and aid the poor. (Mahatma Gandhi criticized some of his teachings for doctrinal reasons I am not qualified to explain.) Differences of opinion about succession after Swaminarayan’s death led to several divisions among his followers, with BAPS one of those.
One of the first buildings to be completed was the Mandir, and I suspect I will never forget the profound awe this structure inspires (video tour here). The word Mandir means “a place where the mind becomes still and experiences inner peace.” It is a space for worship, constructed according to certain ancient rules and specifications, the Vastu Shastra. Much of this Mandir’s iconography is intended to convey a strong spirit of welcome and recognition of the divine spark within each person (the meaning of the word namaste).
Unusually, the Robbinsville Mandir has two equally sized domes—most have just one principal one—each thirty or thirty-five feet in diameter. Under these domes are floors of vari-colored stone beautifully inlaid in geometric patterns incorporating peacocks and elephants. The many carvings of the pillars, ceiling, and walls of course have religious significance, and it contains shrines to significant Hindu deities. If I understood the guide correctly, these deities’ garments are changed throughout the day to accord with various ceremonies.
Blocks of Italian marble—11.5 tons in all—traveled to India for initial carving, then to tiny Robbinsville for final carving and polishing by artisans and volunteers. Outside the Mandir proper, the builders have created a large box, made of more durable materials (Bulgarian limestone), to protect the sacred space within—making it a building within a building. The artistic photo at top doesn’t show this outer “box,” which also is decorated with elaborate carvings, including 236 stone peacocks on the entrance gate.
The mesmerizing video is great, but cannot convey how overwhelming it is to be inside! If Robbinsville is not on your travel itinerary, consider visiting one of the other major sites, each of which I suspect is spectacular in its own way. (Robbinsville is about 60 miles from New York and 45 miles from Philadelphia.) Visitors are encouraged, and check the website for visiting hours. At the bottom of the home page for the BAPS organization are links to its major centers around the world.