Searching for something new in New Delhi

Exciting, mysterious, and a sensory overload, India is both a challenging and rewarding travel destination.  The former Jewel in the Crown has featured in my fellow travelers’ destination wish lists and, much to my delight, is one of my most frequently-visited countries due to a work project taking place there.

Most recently, I have just returned from a brief stint in Delhi last week.  While this trip lasted a mere three days on the ground and much of the time was occupied with work stuff (hugely inconvenient), I managed to carve one free afternoon and was eager to find something new and different to experience.  Now, if I recall correctly, last week marked my fifth trip to the capital city.  My company is fortunate to work with a fantastic network of Indian colleagues and consultants who have very graciously acted as tour guide and host on all of our previous trips, so I have seen the requisite museums, Gandhi memorials, architectural beauties, local bazaars, and other typical tourist sites.  Consequently, on this particular afternoon, I was in the market for something different.

As any experienced and competent traveler might, I consulted a renowned travel guide for ideas.  After a quick consultation with the hotel concierge to double check my choice, I decided to check out the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple, dedicated to Lord Swaminarayan and built way back in 2005.

The main temple at Swaminarayan Akshardham

I was not only not disappointed, but very pleasantly surprised at how great the afternoon turned out.  I discovered once I arrived that the Akshardham actually holds the Guiness World Record for world’s largest Hindu temple.  One of the first things I noticed after entering the complex was that I was one of maybe 4 or 5 Western tourists visiting the temple, which gave me the impression I had discovered something not only new and different, but also a hidden secret.  I doubt that it is actually a secret, but it’s always nice to feel as though you are smarter than the average Taj Mahal-visiting, spice-buying, local attire-wearing tourist.

Admission is free, but the temple is an active Hindu worship site, so no cell phones, cameras, or food items are allowed inside.  It is well worth the trip over to the north side of town to the impressive complex near the site of the new Commonwealth Village, built in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

The main attraction is the temple itself, which boasts an impressive facade of carved stone and domed ceilings.  Inside, marble and gold-inlaid nooks hold idols for Lord Swaminarayan, relics from his life, and other religious and artistic showcases.  All around the outside, stone carvings tell the story of elephants and their importance to Hinduism and the Indian people.

Close-up of the elephant carvings

In addition to the temple proper, the complex includes beautiful gardens through which to take a stroll, as well as associated education and museum buildings.  For a nominal fee (about $3 US), visitors can purchase tickets to the three “exhibitions” – a film about the life of Lord Swaminarayan, a history of the Hindu sect dedicated to him, and a boat ride around the temple complex.  If you decide to visit on the cusp of summer/monsoon season as I did, I highly recommend experiencing at least the first two exhibitions, if for no other reason than the fact that they are shown in air-conditioned buildings.

As I exited the auditorium from the first film, one of the staff members that was manning the pamphlet/paraphernalia desk stopped me to ask “Which country is yours?”  After telling her I lived in DC, she proceeded to give me an insider’s lesson on the background of the building of the temple, the worldwide reach of the sect, and the meaning behind the complex’s various architectural and artistic features.  For example, the main temple is surrounded by a red brick portico through which you can view the temple from all different angles.  The kind staff member informed me that this portico symbolizes a red garland placed around the shoulders of the Swami.

After about two and a half hours it was time for me to return to the hotel, but on a future trip I would love to return to see the other exhibitions and for the nightly water and light show, which looks quite impressive.

India has provided countless delights and never fails to amaze, and my free afternoon last week showed me that there is always something new to see, do, or experience, even with limited time!

More to come on India in future posts…

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