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A moment of unity in a moonlit temple

September 2, 2016
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This is chapter 1 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. The journey begins here in New Delhi, India.


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Ashley Lombardo

 

Thousands of people travel the world to visit Akshardham. I was lucky enough to be one of them.

Akshardham is a Hindu temple dedicated to sharing the stories and accomplishments of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, a spiritual figure who spread goodness and compassion to India. The temple also acts as an introduction to Hinduism, the country’s most popular religion. Because the majority of international flights land in New Delhi, Akshardham is an essential first stop for any newcomer.

Ryan, Aom and I headed to Akshardham on May 17, my first day in India. The temperature surpassed 110°F, but we easily accessed the temple because it had its own stop on the metro. On the way, we bought a streetside coconut to refresh us. Unfortunately, the intense heat made it taste more like soup.

Because of a connection Ryan had made, we were offered a private tour of the temple. But before we entered, the clerk asked us to turn in our phones. We had to hand over all pieces of technology to preserve the sacredness of the space.

Though I’ll admit that it’s difficult to part from my iPhone, I wanted to become fully immersed in the experience. I left it behind.

 

Our private tour guide, a 21-year-old woman named Jinal (pronounced JEE-nuh), led us into the massive, hand-carved central structure. On the way, she pointed to hundreds of intricate embellishments. Because India is a country of animal lovers, the temple is decorated with sculptures of the elephant God Ganesha and the human-monkey hybrid Hanuman. There’s also a couple of peacocks, the national animal that represents peace and color, perched near the entrance.

The inner part of the temple is just as exquisite. Floors of soft, white marble rise to meet gold-trimmed statues of Swaminarayan. It took more than five years and 7,000 men to build the temple. Each detail is finely crafted and displayed alongside paintings that depict the different stages of Swaminarayan’s life. The central temple also houses some strange earthly things, like his teeth and footprints.

During the tour, I felt a little distracted because everyone stared at me... quite unapologetically. I wasn't used to being a spectacle, and I didn't know how to react.

“Don’t worry, they’re just excited to see you,” she said, taking notice of my discomfort.
“They’re happy you’ve come to India to learn about our heritage.”
 

In the next building, we were invited to participate in a devotional blessing. We were handed a small, metallic bowl filled with water and a bracelet the color of candy canes. The water would be used to bathe a golden statue of Swaminarayan, and the bracelet was meant to symbolize reception of his protection.

Jinal prepped us for our turn, encouraging us to whisper Swaminarayan three times and think of our greatest wish. She suggested that I wish for release from maya, or the material world, in my next reincarnation. I paused for a moment.

“Jinal, what will you wish for?” I asked.
“For many years, I wished to come to Akshardham to teach foreigners about the magic of Swaminarayan’s life,” she said. “Right now, as I’m teaching you, my wish is coming true.”

Jinal’s response prompted me to reflect on my own life. For four years, I dreamed of traveling to Asia. Every single day, I sat in a classroom at the University of Florida hoping for something more. I completed my work and engaged in my daily routine, hungering for new experiences.

Two weeks after graduation, I found myself in a massive spiritual complex learning about Hinduism from a woman who had studied to share her knowledge with me.

I poised my hand to pour, and as the cool water flowed over the golden Swaminarayan, I thought of my friends and family. I asked to extend protection to the people I love. I asked for them to stay safe and healthy. I asked for them to feel as free as I do, in this moment.

I’m a freelance writer with the ability to work anywhere in the world. My dream has already come true.

 

We moved through the complex, and I started to realize that Akshardham is a mixture of new and old world styles, melding ancient philosophies with modern systems. It features mechanical displays, like a robotic walk-through of Swaminarayan’s life, a film about Indian culture and a historical boat ride that resembles Magic Kingdom’s It’s A Small World. The film and exhibit tickets cost ₹125 rupees per person, which is less than $2.

One of my favorite parts about Akshardham is the not-so-subtle promotion of vegetarianism. Hinduism believes in a compassionate lifestyle free from killing. The exhibit on vegetarianism was filled with painted cows, chickens, ducks and pigs, each with a speech bubble representing their thoughts.

One slogan read, “Be strong. Go veg." Another said, “I don’t want my stomach to be a graveyard for animals.”

It’s no secret that vegetarianism isn’t the norm in America. As a vegetarian for nearly 10 years, seeing my beliefs displayed at Akshardham allowed me to feel a sense of pride and belonging that I don't always get in my home country.

 

After visiting all the exhibitions, we settled on the main steps to watch the highly recommended laser show. We found a seat among thousands of Indian women, men and children. At 9:30 p.m., four giggling kids skipped out from the temple doors, teasing projections of Hindu Gods who sent explosions of water and color into the sky.

Though the Akshardham exhibits promote a united, peaceful India, the most interesting part isn’t what you pay for. While you’re walking through the lush, winding campus, you’ll see thousands of smiling Indian faces. And not a single one looks the same.

During the show, no one stared at me. So I began to stare at them. People travel to Akshardham from all four corners of India, and visiting the temple allowed me to observe so many different skin colors, facial shapes and styles of Indian dress.

Though I couldn’t understand Hindi, the performance moved me. A soft glow radiated from above, illuminating their faces. The beauty of older Gujarati women, with their sun-drenched skin and deep purple saris, really struck me. They were engulfed in the performance, and I was captivated by their exotic beauty.

As the fountains danced and drifted, I directed my attention toward the stars and stared into the wholeness of the moon. I had looked at the same moon on countless nights in Gainesville, Florida, but in my core I knew that tonight was different.

Sitting under that magnificent moon and sharing a cultural experience with thousands of Indians, I realized I had finally made it to the other side of the world.

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After the show, I headed to the canteen for dinner. I’m never sure of what to order, so I looked at the photos and picked North Indian Thali. The serving of North Indian Thali was fit for a king. Cooks piled the round, metallic platter with mixtures of dal, paneer curry, pickle, bread, cracker and basmati rice.

When I started to chow down, a man I’d met in line approached our table with a small dish in hand. It was his own helping of a main course called chana masala. Though we only spoke a few words, he had no problem giving it up for me.

While some believe that Akshardham feels too much like an artificial theme park, I believe that it’s transformative. Akshardham has the power to bring people from different regions together to learn about India’s contribution to the world. It’s unification, in its simplest form.

There’s so much to see at Akshardham, and it’s better to take it in without the presence of technology. I'm glad I was forced to forget about my phone.

Traveling teaches you to truly live in the present. It's challenging, but it's worth it.

Ashley Lombardo
Ashley Lombardo
Ashley Lombardo is a freelance writer.

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