When I get a Sunday off from church I often worship with another local Lutheran congregation near our house on Saturday night so I can sleep in on Sunday morning. But last week, when our daughter Sandra suggested a family outing to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, New Jersey, I thought this would be a cool way to spend the Sabbath. My ignorance of Eastern religion is pretty expansive, and this seemed like an adventure to me.
The Mandir is located in the center of a huge compound off Route 130 in the middle of the Garden State. Once you turn off the main drag and enter the compound you’d swear you had left North American and arrived in the Indian subcontinent. The elegantly maintained grounds we experienced were filled with people who were either Indian or of Indian decent. Crowds of slender, cheerful people with beautiful coffee-colored complexions strolled towards the holy marble temple. Some wore Western-style attire, but many were dressed in traditional Indian costume—the men attired in knee-length, light-weight tunics and the women adorned in magnificent saris in dazzling yellows and purples and reds. Occasionally we got a glimpse of some of the holy men with shaved heads and saffron robes. Foreheads were decorated with the mysterious red dots. The crowds chatted in the language of the Old Country—Hindi or Malayalam or some other dialect. The number of Occidental folks could be counted on our fingers. It was, indeed, like being in a foreign land, and I confess to feeling slightly self-conscious at first.
My Anglophile sense of humor was tickled to notice vestiges of the old colonizers which still linger within this strange culture. As shoes are not permitted to be worn within the Mandir temple, separate rooms of shelves are supplied to deposit the footwear of “Ladies” and “Gents.” In the parking lot, a group of young lads were seen playing cricket—as unlikely a sight as one could ever expect to see in New Jersey. We were greeted by a middle-aged docent who possessed such refined, charming manners and impeccable speech one would almost think he had stepped out of the Indian version of Downton Abbey. I remembered that India is home to more native English speakers than any other country on earth, and a British influence still runs deep.
The Mandir itself—made of solid Italian marble—is one of only two such structures in the world. The other marble Mandir is in India. A video in the vestibule informs visitors of how the marble was selected for its strength and beauty, then shipped from Italy to India where it was carved by brilliant craftsmen. Brilliant, however, is too inadequate a word to describe the work on these stones. Every visible surface is elaborately decorated with delicate and intricate carvings. There are lotus flowers, elephants, peacocks, representations of deities, geometric shapes, and all manner of elegant designs woven together in the stately magnificence of the rock. The entire temple structure is enclosed in a superstructure which protects the marble from the New Jersey climate while still permitting adequate natural light to illuminate the luster of the carvings. The delightful sari-clad narrator on the video suggests that this outer building serves as a visual reminder that the true Mandir is “within.”
After familiarizing ourselves with the rules—chief of which is to observe silence—we entered the Mandir itself. Once within the marble structure I felt a splendid feeling of peace and tranquility. Indeed, rarely have I had such a feeling of the presence of the sacred as I had within this Indian holy place. The aroma of a fragrant and pleasing incense was apparent, but I could not locate its source. The sense of contentment was almost incongruous with the onslaught of images in the marble. Immediately one is overwhelmed by the vastness of the carvings. My eyes could not possibly take in the multitude of artwork; nevertheless, the sense of well-being overcame the sensory overload. In the presence of so much beauty, one is forced into stillness. I imagined the power this loveliness had was from the love of the men who had created it.
Since the multitude of carvings was too grand to properly experience, I decided that I’d just slowly stroll through the arches and under the beautiful domes and pick out one or two images to contemplate. The Mandir’s essence forces one into a slow, meditative mode. I had not come to people-watch, but I couldn’t help but observe the behavior of other visitors. Some seemed to approach the experience as tourists. Some were trying vainly to hush noisy children. Most, however, appeared to be religious pilgrims. A splendid lotus pattern dominated the marble floor of the temple directly below the central dome. Worshipers sat around the perimeter of the circle, legs crossed or kneeling, meditating or praying.
I made a tour of the various shrines and paintings which surrounded the room. Before some of the shrines were white collection boxes, oversized versions of the ones one might see on the candle rack of a Catholic church. Some pilgrims dropped in donations. A bouquet of flowers was offered on one of these boxes. Some people bowed reverently before the images in the shrines. Some stood in prayer, gently patting the palms of their hands together in devotion.
The colorful paintings depicting scenes of deities from the sacred texts of this culture had a curious effect on me. I loved the brilliant colors and the attention to detail, although the style of painting reminded me a bit of comic book art. It struck me that the gods represented in these artworks all appeared to be smiling. There was a sense of joy in these devotional works which I rarely—if ever—notice in Byzantine, medieval, or renaissance Christian art. I realized that the experience of being within the Mandir could be summed up for me in one word—happiness.
Before leaving the Mandir I took a moment to stand on the periphery of the lotus and admire the beautiful domed ceiling above it. Since I’d not been to church that morning, I figured this was as good a place as any to say a few prayers of my own.
Back in the vestibule I was reunited with my wife and daughter (and my shoes). We agreed that this had been a moving experience, and we were glad we had shared it. The British-mannered docent thanked us and reminded us that we were welcome to return at a less crowded time and he would give us a personal tour.
I truly value this time within the holy walls of a culture which seemed, on the surface, to be so different from my own. I felt it was a religious experience. There is, after all, only one God, and God may speak with many voices. I reflect that beautiful shrines, chanting, holy silence, floral offerings, and burning incense are not unheard of within my own faith. But, I am more than content to be a confessing, Trinitarian Christian in the Lutheran tradition, and have no desire to change my religious ways. I do lament, however, that the respect the visitors had shown for the Mandir is sadly lacking in my own congregation. I would that my flock would be a bit more considerate of the sacredness of our worship space.
Perhaps we should remove our shoes before we enter?
If you're interested in the Mandir, link to its website by clicking here.