The Akshardham Temple in New Delhi is the religious architectural triumph of modern India. A temple of the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism, it was constructed at the turn of the millennium and is India’s most recent major temple. It is also, by some measures, the largest Hindu temple in the world. Despite the fact that it is barely a decade old, it has skyrocketed to the top list of India’s must see temples, and local tourism experts estimate that nearly three-quarters of all visitors to Delhi make a pilgrimage (either religious or secular) to the absolutely immense temple complex.
The history of the Akshardham Temple can be traced back to the late 18th century near the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. Around that time, a man named Sahajanand Swami, later better known as Swaminarayan, undertook a seven year pilgrimage journey that took him all over India. During his travels he became phenomenally knowledgable about the Hindu faith in its many practices and forms throughout the Subcontinent.
In 1799 he settled in Gujurat, where he pursued his studies further, eventually becoming the spiritual leader of a small Hindu community. A very popular leader, he became known for his concern for the less fortunate, as well as his ability to act conciliatorily with members of other religious groups as well as the British colonial government. He also established a number of major temples, some of the most important constructed in India during the 19th century.
By the time of his death in 1830, he was the most popular and famous Hindu leader in India, and he had over a million followers. The sect that he founded, the Swaminarayan Sampraday, continued to grow, and eventually became one of the most prominent Hindu sects in India. His followers have remained continually active since the time of his death.
The idea of a grand shrine, which would both serve as the main temple of the sect as well as a monument to its founder, began to develop in the 1960s. After much planning, work finally began in 2001. The scale of the project was beyond massive. During the first five years of the new millennium it was one of the largest construction projects on Earth. Thanks to the nearly ten thousand people who labored on it, it was completed in 2005. It may be argued that the Akshardham Temple is the most magnificent religious structure in the world built since the beginning of the 21st century.
The Akshardham Temple is immense, even by Indian standards. The huge complex not only includes the magnificent central temple, numerous other shrines, educational facilities, a museum with exhibits and dioramas, an IMAX theater which shows a film recounting Swaminarayan’s journeys, restaurants, gardens, and even a boat ride.
The centerpiece is the jawdropping Swaminarayan Akshardham, a temple and monument to Swaminarayan. Although a product of the 21st century, it is an architectural throwback to earlier times. Constructed almost entirely out of pink sandstone and Italian marble, almost every inch is covered in magnificent carved detail and scrollwork. Of particular interest is the amazing herd of life-sized carved elephants that surround the temple’s base.
The Akshardham Temple occupies a huge area east of the Yamuna River just opposite downtown New Delhi. It is unquestionably the city’s most popular tourist destination on the east bank of the river. It is open year round Tuesday-Sunday from 9:30am-6:30pm. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.akshardham.com (official website).
Because Delhi is not one of the major historic Hindu cities, there are surprisingly relatively few major Hindu shrines there, and most of those are relatively recent. Of particular interest is the Raj Ghat, where memorial site of Mohandas Gandhi’s cremation can be found. Also here is the Laxminarayan Temple which dates from the 1930s.